Reading Saramago in Portugal

Literature is a great way of getting to know a city and discovering new places

On a blindingly sunny morning in Lisbon. I walked into the memorial house of Portugal’s Nobel Prize-winning writer Jose Saramago. Though I have only heard about and never read Saramago’s widely acclaimed works, I always try to familiarise myself with the works of authors of the country I travel to.

Besides, Saramago is unmissable presence in the last surviving book stores across Lisbon that prominently display the English translation of his books. (One is a fascinating retelling of Jesus’ life called The Gospel According to Jesus Christ.) Inside the memorial, at the book store, it didn’t take me long to finalise what I’d buy — his tome of travels across Portugal called Journey to Portugal.

Sometimes these purchases are not more than just a cliché, but it’s an affordable work of art that lets me in on the secrets of a city or country. I have bought Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City in San Francisco. At the pulsating heart of Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, Nepal, I bought a book about Nepal’s child goddesses called The Living Goddess. Clichés, didn’t I tell you?

In Mongolia, due to the lack of availability of English translations, I bought American journalist Michael Kohn’s account of living in the country called Dateline Mongolia, and devoured it inside the confines of a grubby Soviet-era train compartment, as the train chugged along, across the country.

Places and people

One also wants to be let in on the spaces and people once populated by the writer’s imagination. The fascination to travel into the writer’s mind has also taken me to unknown places close to home and far, far away. Sometimes, one looks for surviving hints of the writer’s imagination as fictional spaces in the novel seamlessly transcend into tangible reality. I went looking for Orwell’s ghost in northern Myanmar’s Katha that opened for tourism barely two years ago and found a village that has perhaps changed little since Orwell’s time. Closer home, I made a pilgrimage through the imagined spaces of OV Vijayan’s The Legends of Khasak (Khasakkinte Itihasam in Malayalam), set in the village of Thasarak near Palakkad. Among the rain-soaked paddy fields was the granary where Vijayan’s protagonist Ravi lived and taught in the nearby school, the classroom of which overlooked a pond rich with water birds and pink lotuses. Try as I might, I couldn’t imagine another fulfilling travel experience.

At the same time, the horrors of mass tourism that the popularity of a book or a movie can bring along can be hard to mend. An Italian I met in Lisbon told me she hailed from Cinque Terre— a cluster of five villages along the Italian coastline. It has been romanticised in the collective imagination of readers across the world because it is the setting of a richly imagined romance between an unassuming local and a Hollywood movie star. “Oh my god, that book has brought so many Americans to my town,” she squealed, shaking her head not entirely in delight when I told her I wanted to visit.

Flipping through the initial few pages of Saramago’s book, I stumble upon a passage and take a moment to let the meaning of it all sink in. “…the traveller continues sharpening his powers of observation so that nothing may get lost and everything prove to be of benefit…” Come to think of it, most of us (me included) are doing that now on Instagram.

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2020 5:50:08 PM |

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