Jim O’Brien: In search of the truth among the hills, barrios and bookstores of Lisbon


Sometimes the truth of your life can be like an unwanted legacy. This was the situation for many a reluctant farmer. Stuck at home and treated worse than a hired hand, on the day of the will he found himself the owner of a poor lot, a stale garden and a damp house – essentially a place that had a past and no future.

Common wisdom told him he had few choices. Family expectations, ancestral spirits, and a fear of the unknown made selling and moving on a decision of nuclear proportions. His own truth was parked as his life drifted into lonely oblivion.

Maybe it doesn’t have to be that bad. Life for most of us is a patchwork of adjustment and compromise, as the Rolling Stones’ old song goes: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you’ll get what you need.”

I’m writing this while on vacation in Lisbon; My daughter has been living here for a few months. We descended on them en familyto taste the delicacies of the Portuguese capital before returning home.

It’s a wonderful place. The climate is just right for my northern European constitution with a constant Atlantic breeze keeping temperatures in the mid 20’s.

For history buffs and culture buffs, Lisbon is a gold mine. Every other street has a memorial, museum or gallery and connections dating back to the Phoenicians.

Here is the oldest bookstore in the world, the “Livraria Bertrand”, which has existed since 1732. I spent some wonderful hours there. The smell of books is intoxicating, the walls and aisles are lined with publications from all corners of the world, while leather sofas and chairs are provided for those who wish to sit and read.

After endless browsing, I bought some books and introduced myself to two of the great Portuguese poets, Luis De Camões and Fernando Pessoa. Both were centuries apart, writing in times like ours, when Europe was in turmoil and old certainties were crumbling.

De Camões lived between c. 1525 and 1580, when the Reformation splintered Christianity, while European explorers encountered worlds and cultures that challenged many of the fundamental beliefs about the nature of life and humanity. Over the course of an eventful life, De Camões attended university, got into trouble with the authorities and found himself in prison. He was pardoned on condition that he served in the Portuguese colonial armies and fought in North Africa, Macau, India and Mozambique.

His main literary work is the epic The Lusiadsis often interpreted as an autobiographical account of life through the prism of contemporary Portuguese history.

Helder Macedo of King’s College London describes it as “an ambiguous epic set in a gap in history [sic] between a past that deserves to be celebrated and the vision of a future marked by doubt and uncertainty.”

De Camões wrestles with the concept of truth, his reflections in the closing stanzas The Lusiads are sobering:

You unjust luck that you wear yourself out

Men’s lives that stand up to them

hope, looking like a diamond;

But when it falls out of your hands, you recognize it

What is there is fragile glass.

Fernando Pessoa was born in Lisbon in 1888 and apart from nine years of his youth in South Africa lived in an old part of the city known as Chiado. He worked as an accountant and translated into French and English for an international company.

His writings span the period between 1912 and his death in 1935, an era in which Europe slipped from the trenches of World War I into the hell of dictatorship.

Most of his work went undiscovered until his papers were found in a disordered state in a suitcase containing 25,000 poems, letters and diaries after his death.

His main work The Book of Unrestis a journal that took years to compile from his papers and was finally published in 1982.

Written under the name Bernardo Soares, it chronicles Pessoa’s inner conversations and observations as he reflects on life, its limitations and possibilities.

The book is for every man and woman and offers the reader the companionship of a fellow traveler in search of meaning and truth.

“When it’s time to go back to work, I go to the office, just like everyone else. If not, I walk down to the river to stare at the water, again just like everyone else. I’m the same. But behind this sameness, I secretly scatter my personal firmament with stars and create my own infinity within.”

I’m going back to Lisbon. Jim O’Brien: In search of the truth among the hills, barrios and bookstores of Lisbon

Fry Electronics Team

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