Aug 28 2012
We’d overstayed our welcome at Prazeres Cemetery. As my companion and I began walking back toward the gates, a guard came hurrying down the path, gesturing toward his wrist with the universal “we’re closing” sign. The guard directed us to go wait at the gates for him, then hurried on his rounds. We found our way back to some very tall, black iron gates, with a very thick chain locked around them. I tried not to think of what would have happened to us if the guard had not found us. The graves at Prazeres (which, strangely, means “pleasures,” in Portuguese) are, for the most part, above ground, sepulchers hold the coffins and urns of the dead. We had just been peering in on the poet Fernando Pessoa and his family, who seemed closer than was comfortable. I was relieved when the guard reappeared to let us out; I had to suppress the impulse to sprint through the opened gates.
“At least we found Pessoa,” I said to my companion as we left. It hadn’t been easy. We’d gotten the address at his house museum–that’s right, the graves have addresses. In fact, walking through Prazeres Cemetery was like walking through a miniature city. Almost all the bodies were housed in impressive mausoleums adorned with weeping statues.
Outside the cemetery we boarded the old yellow 28 tram to take us back to the city center. Our legs could not sustain anymore of Lisbon’s hills–seven to be exact, Pessoa himself tells us in the opening sentence of a guidebook the poet wrote of his city: “Over seven hills, which are as many points of observation whence the most magnificent panoramas may be enjoyed, the vast irregular and many-colored mass of houses that constitute Lisbon is scattered.”
Pessoa wrote more than a guidebook, and reading his works will give you a better sense of the city than any travel guide could. Pessoa lived in Lisbon, but wrote under more than 72 names. These weren’t just pen names; Pessoa called them heteronymns and gave each a life of their own. The most famous of these were Alvaro de Campos, Alberto Caeiro, and Ricardo Reis. While Pessoa’s name simply means “person” in Portuguese, he gave voice to many.
We had begun our pilgrimage that morning by perusing a bookstore Pessoa himself used to frequent, Livraria Bertrand, the oldest bookstore in Lisbon. The store is located on Rua Garrett in the neighborhood of Chiado, as is another of Pessoa’s old haunts, Cafe a Brasileira, a hot spot for writers in the 1920′s. The cafe was crammed with tourists, but we were able to snag a table next to Pessoa–that is, next to his statue, and enjoyed a few drinks as we read his poetry.
We discovered another statue of Pessoa just a block away, standing in front of his birthplace across from Teatro Sao Carlos, a book for a head. After paying our respects to the other literary folk preserved in stone around the neighborhood–including then poet Luis Camoes, his character from The Lusiads, Adamastor, and Eça de Queiroz, whose oedipal Tragedy of the Street Flowers begins at Teatro Sao Carlos and whose statue is bent over a half naked muse–we began our trek out to the neighborhood of Estrella, to the Fernando Pessoa house, where Pessoa resided for the last 15 years of his life.
The outside of the Fernando Pessoa house was covered with his words. Inside we discovered a replica of the writer’s room, artifacts from his life–including his typewriter–and a small but impressive library, where I read some of Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. In addition, the museum was filled with artwork inspired by Pessoa or his work, including a few masterpieces done by school children. My favorite was a child’s depiction of Fernando Pessoa’s “imaginary friends.” My companion, desiring to be counted among them, , took his place between Ricardo Reis and Alvaro de Campos and posed for a photo.
We took a break at a local pub where, unlike the more tourist infested neighborhoods, no one spoke English. The friendly waitress kept suggesting things we might eat, and I kept saying yes, though I had only a vague sense of what we were ordering, and an even lesser sense of the quantity of food. When our order arrived, it kept arriving: a platter of bread and cheese, a platter of pork, a platter of fries, a salad. We polished it off and left satisfied, heading for Prazeres Cemetery and our hunt for Pessoa’s grave.
Later, when we had returned by tram from our adventures in Prazeres, I recalled a scene in Jose Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, in which Ricardo Reis returns to Lisbon from Brazil upon the death of Fernando Pessoa. The premise of Saramago’s book is that characters live 9 months after their author’s death. Reis, too, felt compelled to search for the elusive writer’s grave. As I read Saramago’s description of the pilgrimage, I realized that someone had been to Prazeres before us:
“He starts to descend the road lined with poplars, in search of the grave numbered four thousand three hundred and seventy-one…The road slopes gently downward…On either side, the chapels of the family tombs are locked, the windows are covered with curtains …Eternal regret, Sad remembrance, Here lies in loving memory of, we would see the same inscriptions if we looked on the other side, angels with drooping wings, lachrymose statues, fingers entwined, folds carefully arranged, drapes neatly gathered, broken columns…Below at the height of the door’s lower hinge, another name and nothing more, that of Fernando Pessoa, with the dates of his birth and death, and the gilded outline of a funeral urn that says ‘I am here.’”