Sometimes a holiday is more than just a getting away; it can also be a getting back, in every sense. Last year, in South Africa, above and around the uncomplicated joy of visiting a new place and loving the stimulus and excitement it offered, I had my own baggage to deal with, commitment-related baggage from years before. I felt that I was up against an historic anger and sense of injustice, something I hadn’t felt, viscerally, for decades, and that I was going to be forced to reconsider, an anger I’d somehow, shamefully, side-lined so much I had no idea even when apartheid rule had ended. I went, white liberal cap in hand, uneasily prepared to be despised, reviled, misunderstood. I must have been mad. Unsurprisingly, South Africa turned out not to be all about me. I realised within hours of my arrival that I wasn’t in the least important, which I’d already known but needed to be reminded of, and, during the subsequent two weeks, that radical change could be made without radical annihilation, which is something that’s worth being reminded of, now and always.
This year, though, in Portugal, I had a sense of being taken back to a more personal version of myself, that meant nothing to anyone else, and perhaps – as events seemed to show – not even to me. Those of you who’ve read The Slave House or, for that matter, this blog in the past few months will know that I spent six months in Setubal, an hour south of Lisbon, in the late seventies, not long after the Carnation revolution. You’ll also know, or have rightly assumed, that I had an unhappy time there, for reasons made clear in the novella that I won’t repeat here. And you may wonder what possessed me to go back to the country this summer. I wondered myself.
A friend of mine, commenting on The Slave House, remarked that the main character’s failure to change as a result of his experience had surprised her. It’s a tenet of creative writing orthodoxy that protagonists move from one emotional place to another, although not one I’ve felt the need to respect, but it’s certainly true that Simon, my hero and alter ego, doesn’t cover much ground in the course of the story. His learning curve is, bluntly, flat. He doesn’t grow; he’s as aimless and self-deceiving (or self-serving) at the end of the novella as he is at the beginning, his unexamined ego remaining unexamined, despite the contribution of Tarot cards and the I Ching, his id as impellent and mysterious to him as ever. He doesn’t know what he’s doing there, and neither did I. So when friends suggested that what drew me back was nostalgia, I was quick to deny it. Nostalgia assumes a fondness for the other place I knew I didn’t feel. Whatever I did feel for Portugal, and I wasn’t sure what that was, I was pretty sure it wasn’t fondness. I told myself, and others, that it just seemed like a good time to visit a city, Lisbon, of which I had almost no memory, after a more than thirty year absence.
Well, Lisbon is wonderful. It’s vibrant, varied, welcoming, well-organised (something I particularly appreciate after years of living in its richer and theoretically more advanced southern European big sister). It’s relaxed about eating times, and has excellent coffee. It has colour, and the substantial presence of water, and a castle on a hill, and sufficient oddness to keep one’s curiosity alive. It has the most delicious cakes I’ve ever eaten (pasteis de nata) and one of the most splendidly bizarre architectural styles (Manueline) I’ve ever seen, the two of them within a few hundred yards of each other (although the best pasteis I found were actually in a dedicated shop in Rua da Prata). It has both seediness and charm in abundance. As far as the former goes, one memorable lunch stands out. At the foot of the Alfama, fifty yards away from a gigantic poster of Saramago; an overcooked bitoque with the customary rice and chips and scrap of lettuce. As added garnish, an insistent octogenarian dealer with a bag of what looked like excellent grass, a pair of copulating pigeons and a young man hawking something terminal from his lungs. And flies. And more flies. A tsunami of flies.
But this was more than outweighed by the perfect Dover sole (twice, at La Floresta de Belem) and the ginjinha in its little paper cup and the almost empty Museum of Tiles in the old Madre de Deus convent. And tee-shirts in every gift shop with two lines from Pessoa on them: Tudo vale a pena/Se a alma não é pequena (“Everything is worthwhile/if the soul is not small”.) And the piri piri chicken, cheap and hot and juicy. And the lights of Lisbon from the other side of the river. And the sunset behind the bridge that once bore the name of Salazar and now bears the date of the revolution, which is also the anniversary of the day Giuseppe and I met. And so the personal intrudes.
Because we didn’t just stay in Lisbon. We went back to Setubal, leaving the capital from the same bare, unimposing square I must first have caught the bus from when I arrived in 1978, with the Gulbenkian Foundation on the far side of the square, less a square than an empty place criss-crossed by curving dual carriageways and surrounded, now, by multi-storey banks and hotels, standing back from the square in a wary sort of way, as though the shabbiness of the small rough market along one side of it might be contagious. Was the market there, I wonder, when I was? I can’t be sure. And that’s the theme of the day we spent in Setubal. I can’t be sure.
Some people remember everything, others almost nothing. On a cline from everything to nothing, I’m near perfect. The copy editor of my first novel remarked on how obsessively I repeat the verb ‘look’. I can recall every detail of a day I spent in, say, Cuneo, during the winter of 1976-77, the walk from the station through the centre, the snow, the restaurant in a sort of cellar, the brasato, the grappa. I can remember where I shopped in Milan a year earlier, and what I bought, and where I shoplifted in Dublin in 1975, and what I stole. (And what Charlie stole.) I can remember the pubs I drank in with a series of Irish publishers, none of whom had a job for me, all of whom paid for my drinks and were charming. I have a memory for places I’ve been to, and drunk in, and lived in. Details, visual details.
But not Setubal. After the bus station, the familiarity of which gave me a sense of false hope that I might be returning to a place I would know, there was nothing. We arrived in time for lunch and walked down to the estuary, and all the time I was walking there was this constant interrogation, Do you recognise this place? This shop? This bar? This face? Have you been here before? And the deep, intuitive answer was always the same. No. This is new to me. We walked through the main square of the town, and smaller squares, each beautiful in its way, which I hadn’t expected. I hadn’t expected beauty. We walked along the river front, and I was wide open to what I knew, was convinced, would come sooner or later, that epiphany of recognition. Except that it didn’t. I looked at the cathedral façade, two lovely solid towers, a central portico. Nothing. It was built in the 16th century, for fuck’s sake, it must have been here when I was here. So why don’t I remember it? Where was I? More to the point, who was I?
It took me half a day to accept that the place I had lived in for half a year was strange to me. Not entirely; I remembered the building I’d lived in and, to my surprised amusement, the place I’d transgressed in with Sabrina (see The Slave House for details). I managed to persuade myself that I half-remembered the park near the school, and the bar I’d drunk in, that I half-remembered the supermarket where people had queued for milk while I stayed in my classroom, that I half-remembered a bridge, a turning that led to my girlfriend’s flat…
I think what I must have done when I was there is batten down all my hatches in the most literal (i.e. metaphorical) way. I needed a certain amount of sensory input to live, some basic minimum, and everything beyond that was filtered out. It must have been a ruthless process, like dumping one’s friends from the basket of the balloon to lighten the load. I can’t imagine how it happened. I can’t imagine how I must have walked around these streets and simultaneously closed them off, because to let them into me, to let them become a part of me, would bind me to them. I’ve never believed in the notion that someone could wilfully (if that’s the word) remove a bad experience from one’s memory. No one, I always thought, could forget they’d been held in an isolation cell, or locked into a space between the stairs for days on end. Victims of torture don’t forget. But I, in my smaller way, seem to have done just that. And then I find a line from Pessoa, appropriately enough from the Book of Disquiet, that goes like this:
“To know nothing about yourself is to live. To know yourself badly is to think.”