The Lisbon of Ricardo Reis

The pleasures of reading a book that’s set in the place you happen to be are both obvious and subtle. On the one hand, you easily identify landscapes and landmarks mentioned in the text and see how they match the author’s descriptions, even if the book’s time period resides in the distant past. But there are other forces at work, “the inaudible friction of thoughts” as José Saramago calls them. Moods and shifts in perspective within the sentences seep into you while you’re reading and looking up from the pages at the surrounding areas. You’re not really looking at anything in those moments but allowing the meaning and setting to meld.

Unconsciously, the present sounds and smells contribute extra character, with the story of the novel becoming your story as you exist in the same city, town or locale as the novel. The transference of your desires and doubts onto the protagonist’s becomes complete, the strongest it’s ever been. So it was with me as I read Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis while in Lisbon. 

Reading at the Santa Catarina overlook, a terrace that figures prominently in the novel. After an hour or so at this scenic spot, I looked up and a pigeon was perched before me, most likely looking for food, but maybe intellectual sustenance too? This quote from an earlier passage in the novel came to mind: “Who can tell who is reading us as we sit reading, oblivious of ourselves?”
The statue of fellow Portuguese writer Eça de Queiroz, mentioned by the protagonist Ricardo Reis as he takes one of his many strolls around the city. As did I.
I didn’t stay at The Pessoa Guesthouse while in Lisbon but passed in front of it when looking for a restaurant one day. The famed writer Fernando Pessoa plays a central part in the story, even though he is already dead as the book begins in late 1935.
One night, I came across this drawing of a man set in an architectural niche of an old building. The desolate image made me think of a line from the book: “Vague, foolish sorrow stops at the door of my soul, stares at me awhile, and moves on.”
As a respite from the city, I took a few-days trip to nearby Estoril for some beach time. In a continuance of my travels mysteriously mirroring or unintentionally mimicking those places and states of mind written about in the book, I happened to walk in front of Estoril’s Church of Saint Anthony a day or so before it’s referred to near the end of the book.
After finishing the novel, I visited the José Saramago Foundation housed in the unique Casa dos Bicos. You can read more about the building and its fascinating history in this Atlas Obscura piece for which I wrote the text.
The manuscript for The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis as seen at the José Saramago Foundation. With its melancholy story of a man who wanders around Lisbon trying to find purpose, the novel affected me deeply, so much so that viewing the original text was akin to a religious experience.

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