An elegant paean to love—and to “the least known of all European capital cities,” Lisbon.
By Portuguese novelist Gersão’s account, speaking through her many-flawed hero, Paulo Vaz, “for millions of perfectly well-informed people across the globe, Portugal barely existed: at most, it was a narrow strip of land tacked onto the side of Spain.” She does much here to make the country and the city come into a life of specific detail: how the sunlight glints, how spring arrives to the soft green trees on the Avenida da Liberdade, how a crumpled-up T-shirt bearing the slogan “Lisbon is for lovers” looks when covered with “salt and boat oil.” Gersão’s central theme, though, is the impermanence of love. Though a sensitive artist, so sensitive that he bears his supportive mother’s last name and not his indifferent father’s, Paulo is a bit of a noodge: “Don’t expect too much from me, Cecília,” he says, in an internal monologue addressed to a long-departed lover. “I’m a free-spirit, or unreliable, if you prefer.” Cecília, African born, is a colonial come back to help remake Portugal after the fall of the dictators 40-odd years ago; also an artist, she is the always present object of the dejected Paulo’s obsession: “Having gone in search of Lisbon with you,” he laments, “I must now go in search of us, look at us. From very close quarters.” Like an unfunny refraction of Woody Allen’s Manhattan, with Paulo as Isaac, Gersão’s novel is a celebration of setting; the story, a touch tiresome owing to Paulo’s nonstop mope, gives way to the loveliness of place. The quiet echoes of moments from The Odyssey, as when Paulo casts Cecília in the role of Nausicaa, are just right, too.
Readers planning a trip to Portugal will find this a fine, revealing complement to their guidebook—and on the evidence of this book, Gersão deserves a wider audience in English.