Friday, June 25, 2010
Where we meet
Among the many thrills of travelling, is the quiet pleasure of reading a story set in the place you're visiting.
A couple of years ago, for instance, my partner took one of Ian Rankin's marvellous crime novels along when we went to the Edinburgh Festival. We saw great theatre pieces and striking art exhibitions, but what made our stay really memorable, was drinking a pint or two in Inspector Rebus's favourite pubs, following his trail through the ancient streets, seeing the squares and the statues of the Scottish city through the eyes of a beloved fictional character - and the author who created him, of course.
Last year a friend visited Turkey with Orhan Pamuk's evocative masterpiece, Istanbul: Memories and the city, as her most important item of luggage. In fact, the desire to see Istanbul had sprung directly from reading the Nobel Prize winner's description of his home town, and she loved rereading the book while exploring the city. Another friend found that a first visit to Barcelona was vastly enhanced by Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind, in which the Catalan capital is vividly depicted. And how can any reader discover the Egyptian city of Alexandria without being constantly reminded of Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet?
There are endless examples of this very particular reading pleasure, which I also experienced again recently during a short visit to Lisbon. Until then, my main literary reference for the Portugese capital was the inimitable Fernando Pessoa, whose lonely statue can be admired among the outdoor tables of one of the most popular eating, meeting and drinking establishments in the centre of town. But as my Lisbon guide happened to be a writer, I was taken to quite a few bookshops, some even selling English books. And this is where I met John Berger's Here Is Where we Meet.
Here Is Where we Meet is a collection of inter-related autobiographical 'stories' set in various European cities, starting with a strange encounter in Lisbon and ending with a memory of this encounter. The fact that I've visited all the other cities in the book too, obviously added to my enjoyment, but that wasn't essential. What was - essential - was that I started reading about Lisbon while I was still in Lisbon, recognising the names of streets and parks; sometimes even reading about a certain square while sitting in a cafe on the same square. Or reading about Lisbon's beautiful yellow trams while actually travelling in one of them...
'It's not any place, John, it's a meeting place. There aren't many cities left with trams, are there?'
This remark comes from the author's mother, whom he unexpectantly meets in Lisbon - truly unexpectantly, since she's been dead for 15 years and has never been to Lisbon while still alive. The remarkable conversation between living son and long-dead mother sets the tone for the rest of the book, an enchanting melange of magic and realism, short story and essay, novel and autobiograhy, a unique blend of genres that John Berger has long ago made his own.
Of course Berger has always been much more than just another storyteller. In 1972 he won the Booker Prize for the novel G, but his most influential work is probably still Ways of Seeing, a long essay published in the same year which has forever changed the way we look at art and its relationship to time, place, politics and life in general.
During the course of Here Is Where we Meet the author meets other people - some alive, some dead, all fascinating characters - in other places. About two thirds through the book, a single sentence is printed in the middle of an empty page: 'The number of lives that enter our own is incalculable.' This simple phrase somehow sums up the mystery of the book; this and a sentence found on the back cover: 'No one appreciates the detail of being alive more than the dead.'
And please note, you don't have to be religious, you don't have to believe in ghosts, angels or aliens, to appreciate the sensual details and the serious intelligence of Berger's writing. The penultimate piece, The Szum and the Ching, is a breath-takingly beautiful and life-affirming story of exile and homecoming set in London, Paris and the Polish countryside. But the first piece, Lisboa, remains my favourite, part of my memories of Lisbon and its yellow trams and its Fado bars and its Santa Junta lift - in which the dead descend to earth, according to the author's dead mother.
Apart from all these reasons for loving Lisboa - the city and the story - the book also provided me with a totally convincing explanation for the existence of Fado:
'Lisboetas often talk of a feeling, a mood, which they call saudade, usually translated as nostalgia, which is incorrect. Nostalgia implies a comfort, even an indolence such as Lisboa has never enjoyed. Vienna is the capital of nostalgia. This city is still, and has always been, buffeted by too many winds to be nostalgic. Saudade, I decided... was the feeling of fury at having to hear the words too late pronounced too calmly. And Fado is its unforgettable music. Perhaps Lisboa is a special stopover for the dead, perhaps here the dead show themselves off more than in any other city.'
Remember that, next time you're in Lisbon, and don't say you weren't warned.