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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Siamese Cats in Brocade Jackets
Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel
I’m in Lisbon. I arrive a day before the others, after the miraculous feats of bravery I had to pull off in Bulgaria to get here. The hotel is gradually filling up with lots of writers I don’t know. We’re about to take off on a two-month train trip around Europe in an attempt to start seeing ourselves as united.
I miss the sign-up for the organized tours of the city, which have been booked up by all the Westerners.
From the first instant I know that I’ve lived here at some time. I know everything. I want to see two things: Fernando Pessoa’s café and the ocean.
I stumble across the first immediately. Accidentally. A dark, long café, with heavy mirrors in Baroque frames. I imagine how Pessoa loved sitting in the very back under the clock, eaten up by anxiety. Now in that spot a tiny old man is asleep, pen in hand.
The city is soft, light, perched on seven hills, with little streets, Moorish white houses with green windows and blue doors and lattices, which slice through pale female faces, their gazes fixed on the street outside.
In front of the doors, there are Siamese cats dressed in little yellow jackets edged with brocade, tied up in front of the entrances like dogs.
As a prank, someone has turned all the buildings with their bathrooms inside out. The walls with their cheerful tiles perfectly weather the rain and the tourist’s caress—cold, glazed with an Oriental cleanliness that pushes me toward the ocean stretched out in the valley below. It turns out to be the Tagus River.
Pessoa’s café is on the peak of one of the seven hills, more modest than the rest. It is sufficiently steep, tormenting one little streetcar, which, once it has finally clambered up, immediately flips its backside into the air and disappears toward downtown. Like all idiot tourists, I take my picture in a poetic pose in front of the bronze Fernando, who has sat down once and for all on his favorite square.
It isn’t mine, though. I set out to look for it. At the last moment I hurl myself onto the streetcar and we flip up our backsides on the way down.
God, how it judders along, coming a hair’s breadth from the corners of the buildings, constantly sideswiping some dark magenta bushes, while inside I feel like I’m at a wedding—flowers go flying, snug little aunties in black chatter away and dangle their short, fat little feet shod in neat black shoes.They examine the day as if it were a bride, trading impressions. On the Lisbonites’ faces, you can discover traces of all the world’s cultures—here an Indian peeks out, there an Arab; the Caucasian has imposed itself on the face, yet the body possesses the grace of an African. At one point the streetcar stops. Some car is parked on the tracks. We wait. We check out the groom. A conversation starts up. The group is cheerful.
A weekday. Around 11:30. They’re laughing. The driver sits calmly up front. Now and again he, too, adds something to the party in the car. How funny could it be? We’ve already been sitting here half an hour. Behind us other likewise out-of-breath streetcars have lined up, other cars, too. Outside, policemen pass by. Nobody notices anything out of the ordinary.
At a certain point, a frightened Indian jumps out of a store across the way with a huge beach umbrella in his hand, tosses his new acquisition in the car, and frees up the tracks. Applause bursts out, the aunties are worked up, their eyes are glittering, the ceremony is in full swing. As we set off, one policeman carefully grasps the Indian by the elbow and presents him with a ticket.
The streetcar shakes me off on the highest hill with the fortress precisely on the spot I will return to over the two remaining days, because. Because this turns out to be my hill.
How should a city be explored? Where should you begin? Maps, guidebooks. Yes, that’s the way. They prescribe museums. But since I’m already way outside any type of itinerary, I sit down by a green wooden kiosk at the foot of a gigantic cypress, get myself a beer and a sandwich, and turn the delicate stool in the direction of the river above all those pale pink rooftops. The wind in Lisbon is broad and generous like the overflowing river-ocean. Now here in this place, that refrain about l’insoutenable legerete de l’etre floats up again, such lightness, and a place for fado opens. Music about sorrow and the unbearable beauty of being. Then Jeremy Irons appears from around the corner. Tall, lean, drawn, with two thin brackets between which lips are stretched, outlined with the thinnest moustache in the world. The singer on my hill. They’re working for me in this city, I say to myself, and am all ears, because fado is sung softly.
The next day at the same time. He is singing again. I hold him with my gaze, he’s a little pale, he points at his throat, explaining with a gesture that his voice isn’t in great shape today.
The next morning I’m sick, too. Everything is plugged up. My head aches. My nose is running. My throat—a wound. Fuck!
Should I just stay in bed today? But I’ve signed up for an excursion to Cascais—the summer residence of the Portuguese kings. The ocean is there! I set out. On the way, I guzzle whiskey from the poet George Borisov’s hip flask and gargle my wound. I endure it. Yet another stone in the garden of masochism.
They thrust us into some museum, where the mayor of the town, amidst formalities, suddenly launches into an apology to Fernando Pessoa, who several times had written letters requesting a position as librarian in one of the local castles. But alas, his requests were denied. Here it is expected that we, sitting amphitheatrically in this municipal hall, will lift a hand and forgive these sins of generations past, but the only thing we lift are our asses, hauling them over to Pessoa’s dream castle.
The waves from the rising tide are already lapping at its foundations. We are met by a wealth of crab, white wine, fish pie, salads, and fruit. Gradually the walls of one of the halls disappear, surrounded on all sides by water, and the concert begins. A Chinese woman, a Russian, a Pole, and a Japanese man are playing Tchaikovsky. The ocean is holding down the drone. My God, what a cozy little castle—peacocks call from its inner courtyard!
A Portuguese nobleman built it for the woman he loved. Here, everything is amorous. One of the organizers explains to me, “We were great conquerors, we were very wealthy—but you’ll rarely see huge castles. We conquered lands, but the local populations weren’t massacred. We simply mixed and the cultures patiently seeped into one another.”
Perhaps that’s the source of the softness that floats through the air in Lisbon, especially at dusk, when the sky is blue long after the stars have been put in place.
This is my favorite castle. I would submit a request to be librarian here, too. I look at Pessoa’s three applications for that job, under glass. Rejected.
In the meantime, the heat has been rising and I look around for a way to slip away and fall into the returning ocean. But since it’s not clear exactly what will happen, I want to enlist the others as well. I conspire, they agree, amazingly easily, and we bombard the organizers with our desire to go swimming. The structure strains, but they can’t resist us and soon we are strewn across the central beach like a group of Young Communist Pioneers. Most of us minus swimsuits, including me. George gives me his T-shirt. An army of nude Slavs, we bravely hurl ourselves in. Hooray! We’re alive! What joy. Water! Icy! It simply takes your breath away. In any case, I’m hardly breathing with this sore throat. But oh, wonder of wonders—it’s as if something tears and the barrier that had been separating me from myself falls away. In that instant, the Journey begins. When I get out of the water, I am completely healthy. I snatch the initiative! For the first time, we put a wrinkle in the itinerary.
In the evening, a reading at the Cyber Café in Lisbon and fado. Computers and people jammed into a glassed-in veranda—the regulars, plus the writers. We listen to fado but the stuff on the street is more real. I make an old dream come true—sitting in a bar with people drinking all around, there’s music playing and I’m writing. I sit in front of the computer’s glowing screen and string together a love mail. I press the keys gently in the dark, because fado is sung softly.
Lisbon is fantastic at night. At night, too, I’m certain—I’ve lived here at some point. Guarded by a Siamese watch-cat dressed in a tiny turquoise vest. I’ve dropped love notes through lattice windows to the street singer.
I’ll come back, that’s what I keep telling myself the next morning as well, as the winds along the Tagus River undress me.
In my hand, I’m clutching a small cardboard ticket with a hole—the ticket for this journey, which begins from Lisbon—a magnificent place for shoving off toward new worlds.
Virginia Zaharieva was born in Sofia in 1959. She is a writer, psychotherapist, feminist, and mother. Her novel 9 Rabbits is among the most celebrated Bulgarian books to appear over the past two decades and the first of Zaharieva’s work made available in North America.