GOWANUS Summer 2002
by Viktor Car
Saramago, in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis informs us that,
after his death, the writer Fernando Pessoa regularly visited Ricardo Reis.
Maybe it was because Ricardo Reis was part of Fernando Pessoa himself.
Reis was a doctor and a poet, and he died in a confusion of love. Pessoa
“Time! Time past! Something – a voice, a song, a chance fragrance – lifts in my soul the cloth from the mouth of my memories… That which I was and will never again be! The Dead! The dead that loved me in my childhood. Evoking them sends a chill across my soul and makes me feel exiled from hearts, alone in the night of myself, weeping like a beggar before the close silence of all doors.”
Years have passed since I died in Claire’s heart. I can’t shake off the moist spray of that cool morgue. The substitute love of passersby doesn’t heal.
I live alone in a small apartment in Toronto. I earn a good living without much effort. The owner of the firm is sympathetic, looks favorably on my frequent excursions. More than my death in Claire’s heart hurts the love that does not issue from me. I may appear lonely to someone who peeks through my window and sees me at this table for the third day in a row, not saying a word, not hearing anything but Preisner’s music. Zbignew Preisner must have loved Krzyszt of Kieslowski, I conclude as I listen to his Requiem for My Friend. Without longing for love Michel Houellebecq could never write The Elementary Particles. Jose Saramago must have craved love, otherwise he could never so subtly and precisely portray Lydia’s love for Ricardo Reis. Lydia is also a symbol of Reis’s muse; he was blessed with talent as well as love. Not recognizing this love, he insulted his talent as well. Fernando Pessoa must have had some answers that I need. I am forty years old and I live far away from Croatia and my mother; it is as if I have abandoned them.
“I don’t remember my mother. She died when I was one year old. My callous and scattered sensibility comes from the lack of that warmth and from my useless longing after kisses I don’t remember. I am spurious. It was always against strange breasts that I woke up, fraudulently lulled.
"Ah, it’s my longing for whom I might have been that scatters and staggers me! Who would I have been if given the affection that comes from the womb and is in the kisses planted on an infant’s face?"
I too am often fraudulently lulled against strange breasts. When I wake up, at first I feel like crying; but despair dissipates with the light. Once, I was held against my mother’s heart, but unlike Pessoa, I feared definition. By choice, not by destiny, I have abandoned my mother. Or is it my Mother-land?
I travel and I write. Pessoa knows why: “To create, I’ve destroyed myself; I’ve so externalized myself on the inside that I don’t exist on the inside except externally. I am the living stage where various actors act out various plays.” Destiny deprived him of identity; fear made me strip mine away. I understand Pessoa well, and obviously he understood me. He died in 1935. Saramago wrote convincingly about the dead Pessoa meeting one of his own heteronyms, Ricardo Reis.
I read, pace about my apartment, read
some more. By Sunday evening, after not talking since Friday, I can hear
That is why I believe I shall meet Fernando Pessoa.
The other day I started seriously thinking about hiring a nanny–I even wrote down a list of tasks she’d have to do: read to me in Portuguese; have coffee with me in the morning; drive me to work, maybe; turn off the light when I fall asleep (and stop the agony welding through my eyelids); have meals with me; fold laundry, do dishes, open rejection letters and throw them away. After I made a list in bullet form I realized I was not being rational. I am very proud of being rational; after all, I am an engineer. I thought some more about the idea of the nanny and gave my head a shake. Idiot and fool, how could I ever have conceived such a ridiculous idea. The logical answer is not a nanny, of course. Clearly, I must go immediately to Lisbon and see Fernando Pessoa.
I rent again the Double Life of Veronique, and Preisner’s music drills itself straight into my bone marrow. It begins to seem perfectly logical that twined souls do not necessarily have to exist in the same time-frame. Reassured that I will find Pessoa in Lisbon, I phone Alena, my travel agent. I tell her get me to Lisbon as soon as possible. You're sure it's not Paris this time? Very sure, Alena, Lisbon. I have a meeting there. I could hear her typing, and she chuckles. She is young, Czech, models on the side, and sometimes we flirt and then don’t talk for months. As she types she says, So, who will you meet there? Fernando Pessoa. Maybe Ricardo Reis, I tell her, but they are really not very different, and she says, Oh, I see. I add, Zbignew Preisner assured me I will see them, and we both giggle at this absurd exchange. She found me a ticket for $399 to Lisbon for that Thursday. To be picked up at the airport. She already has my Mastercard number, so I'm all set.
It takes some phoning to book a hotel -- it finally is the Albergaria Pax on Rua Jose Estevao. Ten thousand escudos a night is not cheap for Estefania, but I comfort myself with the thought that Graca and Alfama are not far away. I inform the boys in my office that I will be away for couple days.
At the airport, waiting in the bar for my flight, I read more Pessoa:
“Ah, let those who don’t exist travel! For someone who is nothing, like a river, movement is no doubt life. But to those who think and feel and are alert, the horrendous hysteria of trains, automobiles and ships makes it impossible to sleep or to wake up. From any trip, even a short one, I return as from a slumber full of dreams – in a torpid confusion, with one sensation stuck to another, feeling drunk from what I saw. I can’t rest for lack of health in my soul; it’s not movement I’ve been denied, but the very desire to move.”
I murmur, Of course I don’t exist,
I died in her heart, and ever since I have never stopped traveling. You
are some brother, Fernando.
You’ll hear from me, Fernando, I can’t wait to meet you.
I order a beer, and then another. There are some Portuguese sitting beside me, also waiting for the plane. I haven’t been home for sixteen years, one of them tells me. Why not? Oh, I forgot who I was, but time has reminded me. And you? I am going to meet a friend. In Porto? No, Lisbon. Beside my interlocutor sits a middle-aged woman. She smiles, talks, orders rounds of drinks, asks like a little girl “Are we there yet?” and we all smile, continue to talk about Portuguese food and the gentle ocean air. There is the subtle excitement of home-coming, seeing loved ones again. When our flight is finally announced we all start moving in the same direction together, and I feel included.
Up in the sky, through the darkness over the Atlantic, we travel very fast back to where Vasco da Gama started off so slowly. I read, study the city map, memorize a couple of Portuguese words. In my hand luggage I have a notebook to write in, Pessoa’s The Book of Disquietude, a map of Lisbon, a tour guide of Portugal, a little camera, passport, plane ticket, hotel confirmation, some money. I am well organized – in the side pockets of my little backpack I have my cholesterol drug, aspirins, a spray to clean my eyeglasses, tissues, two pens and a highlighter, a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, two rolls of film. I didn’t even forget a bottle of water. I read about Portugal and the dream co-ops even the street names (Only the dream truly sees when it looks), the various quarters of the city, the ancient kings. Dom Sebastiao is dead and they still wait for him, it is a sorrowful thing that he is not back from Morocco, well, already six hundred years. Ines de Costa was murdered. Still, the prince who loved her, once he took power, posthumously married her and she became a queen. Fernando Pessoa visited Ricardo Reis many times. Being dead is not a major hurdle in Portugal, I assure myself, and it should be even easier for two people to meet if they are both already dead, I consider. As I am falling asleep the thought crosses my mind, Zbignew Preisner must frequently be meeting the dead Kieslowski in Warsaw.
Sliding down the seat beside me, my well-organized backpack falls to the floor. Dreams and reality mix like broken glass and soil. My last thoughts before falling asleep are like careless feet walking through broken glass--there is the vague awareness that it is better to step around it, but my legs have a mind of their own; they continue down the dangerous path, somehow landing between the shards in a soft red soil. Maybe it is my own Croatian soil; but whose are these tiny, barefoot legs? Maybe I am a child; maybe a dead grown-up reverts to childhood. That would entitle me to a nanny and small feet. I should remember to ask Fernando Pessoa.
The plane's motion is sedative. The simple joy of a child exploring a friendly forest, the broken glass, are gone. Now the tiny feet step across thick moss covering massive roots. I am still aware of the plane's buzzing, my motion in the present, no memory involved, no future. Sliding down in my seat I probably snore, my jaw falls open and saliva drips on my sleeve.
A new dream. Not a child any longer. A plaster corpse standing on the southeast corner of Bloor and Bay Street in Toronto observes the faces of passersby. The corpse hopes to rekindle itself back to life if a spark can be caught from those passing eyes. From a distance I realize that I am the corpse. People come and go but do not notice. Failing to attract their attention, I see detail: cheap shoes, pudgy faces. I hate how they look, but I also neglect my own appearance. I pity their unhealthy obesity; but I am fat too.
Then, as only happens in dreams, I am suddenly in a pub. I despise the miserable divorces with urine stains on their crotches. Yet, as I leave the washroom a couple of drops of un-drained urine drip onto my pants. I pull my shirt out to cover it, then notice the dirty toes in my worn-out sandals. Only the dream truly sees when it looks.
Everyone looks away. Not a single pair of human eyes look at me. Hence, the casuistic loop is closed: the corpse remains a frozen corpse, and it is its own fault.
The noise of airplane fractures the dream, inserts flashes of reality and bits of the previous dream. There is understanding in the thoughts of the half-sleeper: the corpse might meld into a child through warm sleepy eyes. Fernando is omnipresent in Lisbon. He’ll spot me. I will walk on thick moss again.
It is still dark. I see dreamy tired yellow street lamps, regular loops and lines, the lights of ships in the ocean. Or is it the Tagus? I am not sure. The plane drops closer to the ground, and I can see the odd car moving slowly. It is about 6 a.m.; we land softly. The dawn is dawning as I walk through the airport, wait for my luggage, light a first cigarette, draw some 15,000 escudos from the bank machine and realize that is much more than I really need; pass passport control. The sunlight is now at full blast, people are moving in different directions. I join a line and after a much shorter wait than in much shorter Canadian lines I get my strong, aromatic, double espresso, and I sip it slowly.
I smoke, like everyone else. No rush, it is only 7:30 a.m. For a while I speak with a clerk at the tourist information booth. Her English is excellent; she is bubbly, not in a rush, we take our time. She warns me that espresso is stronger than American coffee. Oh, I know, I am from Croatia, I am familiar with the beverage. She shows me the city map, and with lots of charm and smiles talks about the Lisboa Pass that will get me, if I buy it, on public transportation and into churches and museums.
I wonder if Fernando Pessoa ever visits such places, maybe to make fun of the tourists. The girl stops me from buying a three-day Pass, recommends I take only a two-day because on Sunday everything is free anyway. I thank her for being so considerate of my budget; if only I were so considerate of it myself. We talk a little longer, about the weather, my Portuguese friends over in Toronto by name of Araujo. Oh, she knows some Araujos, but, I smile, Let's not get into the gossip yet, I have just arrived and I have screwed up enough already where I live; allow me a fresh start. We both laugh. She teaches me to pronounce a couple Portuguese words. I look into her vivid, playful, dark eyes; her teeth could use some work. I am ashamed of myself again; God knows what kind of shape Fernando Pessoa is in after more than sixty years in the same soggy suit. I look straight into her eyes and she doesn’t look away, no, she smiles back at me, You seem to be looking for someone in me. I quickly turn my eyes away. I murmur, Forgive me. You are as pale as if you saw a ghost. I hope, I hope to find him. Oh, it is him. Yes, I need to find him. Don't worry, we look for our ghosts or they haunt us; with ghosts it is easy, there are no missed appointments. She smiles again. I thank her and, afraid I'll faint, walk out of the airport building. She manages to call after me, Careful with those espressos! The sun is bright and there are palm trees; the morning air is soft, I smell the ocean in it. Just outside I stand for awhile with closed eyes, ochre and orange light piercing the lids.
As a proud owner of Lisboa Pass I walk to the bus station to wait for the number sixteen, as she told me, the bus that will take me to Alfonso Enriques, the metro to Anjos and the walk to Rua Estevao. I repeat these simple directions, but as the number sixteen doesn’t show I walk back to the taxi station. There is a long line there, and while I am standing on it the number sixteen passes by, stops where I had been waiting and goes on its way.
My taxi glides through the light morning traffic. My driver is in his fifties; he is small, has a belly but is not fat; broad features, tanned, slightly furrowed face. His eyes are relaxed, he is not nervous because we can’t converse; he knows all he needs to know about where to take me. And yet I manage to get a few words out of him: How is Figo playing this season in Barcelona? So-so. Who is leading the league? Ashamed to admit, but Porto. How are Benfica and Sporting doing? Well, they’ll play this coming Sunday. Here in Lisbon? Yes, at Benfica’s. Really? Really.
At the hotel I pay him 2000 escudos (about $15); I also give him a tip; not much, but enough for the warm smile and a nod. He taps my shoulder and drives away. At the hotel, of course, my room is not ready, No, I don’t need to go in right away, let me just leave my luggage here at the desk. No problem, says the older man, pudgy, hair gray but thick. Now, don’t tell me later this afternoon that you never saw me in your life; I like this bag. He laughs heartily, waves to me as I leave. It is not eight a.m. yet and I am out, carrying my small, well-organized backpack.
The air carries the aromas of the city--the ripe linden canopies that arch over Rua Passos Manuel; fresh pastries and bread, that bread that no other city in the world can produce, soft but not puffy; crispy, glazed crust. As I walk toward Avenida Amirante Reis my feet feel springy on the empedrados, the sidewalk mosaics that invite you to discover their intricate patterns. The day is now warm, but with a breeze. I pass by Rossio and, taking Gold Street, pass under the arch, and at Praca do Commercio I am blinded with light. I sit by Dom Jose’s horse and politely greet them both. But suddenly I need some shade. I find it in a nearby bar, where I drink a double espresso and order a shot of grappa. They give me a very generous shot; it is as tasty as Croatian grappa. I scribble some nonsense in my notebook, and the waiter brings me a couple of freshly fried balls of bakalaus – a mixture of potato and cod. He smiles, says, Try it, it will do you good, and pours me another generous shot of grappa. I nod, say, I like it a lot, and light a cigarette. The waiter is discrete, brings me more bakalaus. I am exhaling cigarette smoke as if I am letting it go after having held my breath for a long time, too long. In the corner, by the bar, sits a tall good-looking woman in business attire. She eats a small pastry without hurry, sips her cappuccino, then in a slow elegant walk, leaves. The waiter smiles, he saw me observing her, and with another discrete nod says, Lots of ministries around here, good government jobs, no rush. I am slightly tipsy and start to feel the loss sleep.
Walking up the hill I see freshly roasted piglet and just-baked bread in a shop window. I buy a sandwich. It is good; the taste of warm pork reminds me of Croatia, especially Christmases there. As I chew I walk amongst tram cars up steep streets and eventually find myself at the church that looks like a fort: Se Patriarcal. In front there is a small area with benches and couple of trees. Sitting on a bench on Largo da Se I eat my sandwich, observe passing tourists and tram cars, but I am seeing winter in Croatia, a piglet roasting on the spit, then cooling off in the cold storage alongside hams and home-made salamis and rings of garlic and a small oak barrel filled with our own burgundy. There is also a barrel with sauerkraut, the planks on top held down by a big granite stone covered with white cloth. Every time I entered the cold storage to bring more wine or another salami or plate of roast pork (because the feast would continue whenever guests dropped by, morning, noon or night) I couldn’t resist removing the cloth, as if it hid some mystery. I’d look at the stone, touch it and restore the cloth and the mystery.
The crenellations at the top of the church towers, in contrast, conceal no mystery. Faith is a battle, church a fortress. I go inside just to briefly greet, as I always do, the Princess in Stone. She lies there reading, perfectly straight and comfortable, on her simple marble slab. Two stone pillows firmly support her head. I feel maybe I should fluff them up for her, it has been so many years since I last saw her. I touch her face and realize how warm my own palms are. The princess is anonymous, but for some reason I have call her Ines. She lies there reading, a book supported in her gentle hands, her fragile wrists slightly bent. Her robe is folded at her stony feet. As I put my feverish palm on her cold forehead, an older man who has been standing silently behind me says in low, gentle voice:
“Do you come here often?”
Without actually turning around, seeing him more or less out of the corner of my eye, I reply, "Every time I am in the city."
“So you are a tourist too. Do you have family here?”
Now I turn around. His face is laced with almost invisible creases, not entirely unlike those in the stone I have just been touching. His skin is a pale yellow, like old marble in the sunset.
“No, I have no family," I say as, looking down, I wonder where he could have picked up those traces of loam on his shoes.
“Me neither. I came here for the first time after the funeral of my wife. She really loved me, you know."
“It is better when we die in their hearts, I think.”
“Frankly, I don’t know. I felt a kind of sweet relief when she died, as if I had been relieved of the obligation to love her back. It can be a burden.”
“Are you not nostalgic?”
“Well, you see, I am a writer. And, when you think about it, nostalgia is a literary sentiment. We remember external things, we remember love through images. But maybe that was some other woman? Or our childhood, we remember it through images of a child, presumably ourselves. But it could be some other child, maybe this very stone princess, running through cold dew on a misty morning. So, what is our nostalgia but a longing for such scenes? Why should these scenes necessarily contain our selves? After all, someone else’s childhood can move me as much as my own does; both are purely visual phenomena from the past. They move me, yes, but because I see them, not because I remember them. For instance, I can clearly see this stone princess’s childhood, I am moved by it, and I come to visit her every day. Usually I place my palm on her forehead, but today you did so instead.”
“In my own case, I died in her heart and I will also disappear from her nostalgia. To live is to have sentiments. I have them if I live in the memory of others.”
“We are but passersby of everything, our own souls included. We belong to nothing, desire nothing, are nothing – abstract centers of impersonal sensations. And, by the way, can those ‘others’ whose memory you need to inhabit be unknown to you?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Write, then. But do not bother publishing. Someone will read you, probably after you die. The truly noble writer does not publish.”
“How do you know I am a writer?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. How do I know about the princess’s childhood?”
“What is noble about not publishing? Why write at all, then?”
“Because you wouldn’t be a writer if you didn’t write, would you? Not exposing to others what you write is a spiritual dispensation. To write is to objectify dreams. The act of objectifying this interior world is in the nature of creators. To publish is to give this world to others. But to what purpose if the outer world common to us and to them is the ‘real’ outer world, the one made of visible and tangible matter? What do others have to do with the universe that comes from inside us?”
“But I am sure your own books are published.”
“True, but I am dead.”
“Who are you?”
“You know me.”
He smiled. “You must excuse me now,” and put his palm on the princess’s forehead. Then he touched her breast, smiled again and said:
“If you fell out of a stone heart
you may not be dead yet, you know.”
(Viktor Car currently resides in
Vichy; France, closer to his native Croatia than where he used to live,
in Canada. One of his short stories has been accepted by Queens
Quarterly,a leading Canadian magazine. Other stories have