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Literature is Portugal’s new tourist lure

Fernando Pessoa
Fernando Pessoa
Written by editor

One of the amazing things about Portugal is its unparalleled depth and richness of literature, all from a nation about the size of Indiana.

One of the amazing things about Portugal is its unparalleled depth and richness of literature, all from a nation about the size of Indiana. From 13th century kings who were also poets, to a very recent Nobel Prize for literature, Portugal’s culture is found in the pages of its writers. Why this country?

First, Portugal was the first European nation to adopt its native tongue as its official language. Latin was used by the royal courts and the courts of law during the Middle Ages, but Portugal’s sixth king–Dom Dinis (1261-1325) — decreed the language of the people and made it the language of the government.

Secondly, Portugal was never a feudal nation–towns and cities had rights and privileges granted by the king and a merchant class (the middle class) flourished easily, with education and literacy growing. Third, Portugal set out to explore and to prosper, just when other nations were still recovering from The Black Death and from The Hundred Years War. Turbulent centuries followed–all of which contributed to a nation with a story to tell.

Here are just some of the people and places that served to make today’s Portugal rich in literature.

Recently the New York Times offered a brilliant article on the meaning of the poet Pessoa (1888-1935) today. This quiet, observant poet was able to capture the Portuguese soul in a way that eluded everyone else who had tried–including other Portuguese. His statue sits, as did he, at a table in the19th century A Brasileira Café in the Chiado section of downtown Lisbon. He still watches the city around him. A house where he lived late in life is a museum today. Pessoa wrote under many different heteronyms–characters he created. At least 72 of them are known and the most common is Alberto Caeiro, a shepherd; Ricardo Reis, a man of letters; and Álvaro de Campos, a free spirit.

Portugal’s national Pantheon in Lisbon contains a magnificent tomb to the man considered to be the poet of the Portuguese expression. The name of Luís Vaz de Camões (1525-1580) is gilded on the tomb, but the inside is empty. Down river at the magnificent Jerónimos Monastery, built to celebrate the return of Vasco da Gama in 1498 from having discovered the sea route to Asia, is another Gothic and imposing tomb. It is next to the tomb of the great argonaut–Da Gama himself ˆ and it is to Camões, who was a cousin of Da Gama’s. It is also empty. Camões’ 10-Canto epic poem, Os Lusíadas, combines the god of mythology, the voyage of Vasco da Gama, and the poet’s own life in a moving human drama that transcends naturalism and speaks to all humanity. Where he is actually buried is unknown.

Born in 1525, Camões died in obscurity in 1580. The day he died is Portugal’s national day. But many facts of his life are missing. He was born to a noble family either in Lisbon or Coimbra in 1524. His father was a sea captain, killed in a shipwreck. He certainly spent time in and studied at Coimbra The university is mentioned fondly in his poems. His uncle was a monk at the Monastery of Santa Cruz. Camões knew that 12th century church well, as the resting place of Portugal’s first two kings. But Camões was part of the Portuguese seaborne empire-building–from North Africa to India to China–and he lost an eye and an arm in service to his king. Camões got a small pension and lived in poverty. A statue to Camões rises above the square named for him in Lisbon’s Chiado neighborhood. Recently restored, it was paid for by popular subscription. In it the god-like image of Camões is twice the size of the other poets and writers on the base ˆ giving him a height he never had in life.

Os Lusíadas was in essence a letter to the King Dom Sebastião, a plea to restore Portugal to the decency and glory of da Gama’s day. It is told that the poet read his poem to the king at the Royal Palace at Sintra in 1572. The king called his poem “adequate,” and continued his plans to invade North Africa. Six years later, Sebastião led a massive army to Alcazarquivir in Morocco and was crushed. Two years later, as Camões lay on his deathbed, a Spanish Army invaded and Portugal was occupied. The last known words of this poet, soldier, and dreamer were written a few days before his death, as the Spanish approached Lisbon. “All will see that so dear to me was my country that I was content to die not only in it but with it.” He died June 10, 1580, as did the nation’s independence.

José Saramago (1922-) was the first Portuguese recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1998, and he has introduced Portuguese writing to readers across the world. He blends fact and fiction to create surrealistic reflections on life. His 1982 Memorial do Convento or “Baltasar and Blimunda”, is set in 18th century Portugal when the great palace monastery of Mafra rises amid the Inquisition, an outbreak of the plague, and the riches of Brazil. Baltasar, a soldier just home from the wars, and Blimunda, a clairvoyant who can actually see inside people, meet up with the renegade priest, Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão, to build a flying machine. Bartolomeu actually existed, as does the great palace. Today, the Mafra National Palace is Portugal’s most important baroque monument. It is world famous for its 2 carillons and 6 organs, and its library is considered to be the most beautiful in Portugal, with more than 38,000 volumes. This palace was the official summer residence of the Portuguese royal family until 1910, when Portugal was proclaimed a republic.

Alexandre Herculano, (1810-1877) introduced the historic novel to Portugal His remains lie in a majestic tomb in the Jerónimos Monastery at Belém, near Lisbon. Herculano told many an inspiring and powerful tale about his nation, but the most moving may have been the story of a father, a son, and a castle. Few Portuguese school children escape without reading Herculano’s “Tale of Honor,” which takes place at Faria Castle. In the 14th century, Castilians outnumbered the commander of the castle, Gonçalo Nunes, and also held his father, Nuno Gonçalves, captive. They threatened to kill Nuno if his son did not surrender. Nuno tells his son to fight to the last.

The Castilian commander was not amused and killed Dom Nuno on the spot. But the Portuguese resisted and after a terrible siege, the Castilians were defeated.

Today, in nearby Barcelos, a statue of the father and son stands in the center of the town, united in an embrace, their swords still ready to meet the enemy.

This is the 400th anniversary of the birth of the Jesuit poet, António Vieira (1608-1697). Vieira is credited for taking the myth of a dead king and giving it new life. He wrote of a new millennium in which Portugal’s lost king would return to the world. For that, he was condemned by the Portuguese Inquisition, forbidden to preach, and kept a prisoner for three years.

The Legend of Dom Sebastião is a prominent theme in Portuguese culture and literature. As we said above, Sebastião was the young king that many hoped would restore the nation. But Sebastião wanted to lead a crusade, not a commercial empire. He invaded Moroccan territory and was totally defeated. He never returned, though no one ever saw the king fall in battle. Back in Portugal, hope rose that he would return and save Portugal from what became 60 years of domination by Spain. The legend grew–the king would return on a foggy morning and reclaim his throne. Over the years, many came to shore claiming to be him. The king–as a youth and as an old man–is a powerful image in Portugal to this day.

At Lisbon’s Museum of Ancient Art, you can see a painting of the lost king with your own eyes. In it, the king, not long before his final battle, looks too young, and awkward in his gilded armor. His left hand clutches a sword; a dog licks his other hand. His red hair, empty eye, and puckered mouth make him look insane.

Source: Portuguese National Tourism Office