For international publishers: a translation excerpt from The Enchantment of Thousand Steps

I post here a translation excerpt from my Portugal-book The Enchantment of Thousand Steps, published by Avain in 2007. This is a many-sided book about (cultural) history, literature, visual arts, music, portraits of local people and places and my poetry about Portugal. This translation excerpt includes preface, portrait of Jose Saramago, islands of Berlenga and vinicultor Antonio, plus poems.

It was a travel book about Portugal, and it was unique combination of cultural history, personal experiences, travel reports and interviews of many local people, as you can see from the excerpt. The book consists of many portraits of diverse local people also; it is a unique travel book, because the culture is

I am one of the few experts of Portuguese poetry in Finland, and co-ordinator of many international literary projects between e.g. Brazilian and Finnish poetries and Finnish and African literature currently. I have made my master´s thesis in comparative literature about Fernando Pessoa and am currently editing and translating an anthology of contemporary Portuguese poetry into Finnish.

More information about me: Rita Dahl (born 1971) is a Finnish writer and freelance journalist. She was vice-president and chair of committee of women writers of Finnish PEN between 2006-2009. She holds masters´ degrees both in political science and comparative literature at the university of Helsinki. Her debut poetry collection, Kun luulet olevasi yksin, was published in 2004 (Loki-Kirjat), and since that she has published three other poetry collections: Aforismien aika (PoEsia 2007), Elämää Lagoksessa (ntamo 2008) and Topics from van Goghs´Ear (Ankkuri 2009). She has written also a travel book about Portugal, Tuhansien Portaiden lumo - kulttuurikierroksia Portugalissa (Avain 2007). In 2009 she published Picturemakers - a collection of articles of at young age died legendary Finnish visual artists, young contemporary poets and foreign writers (Kesuura) and a fact book/pamphlet about Finlandized freedom of speech (Multikustannus) around the world, e.g. in Russia, China, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya and Finland.

She was editor-in-chief of the poetry magazine Tuli & Savu in 2001 and also edited a cultural magazine Neliö (, which had a special issue on Portugal, for whose printform Dahl was responsible. Dahl has also edited a partly bi-lingual anthology of Central-Asian and international women writers called The Insatiable Furnace. Women Writers and Censorship – Kyltymätön uuni. Naiskirjailijat ja sensuuri (Like 2007). She coordinated a meeting for Central-Asian and international women writers, which was arranged simultaneously.

She is editing and translating an anthology of contemporary portuguese poetry into Finnish. Her first translation of Portuguese of poems of Portuguese avantgarde poet Alberto Pimenta was published in September 2009. Her own poetry collection Life in Lagos (Elämää Lagoksessa) was published in Russian in Kazakhstan by Iskender in 2009.

Dahl has participated in several international literary festivals, conferences and seminars, most notably in international women writers´ meeting in Bishkek (2005), in Days and Nights of Literature in Romania (2005), in meeting arranged by Fenno-Ugrian Writers´ Union in Hanti-Mansinsk, Siberia and Petroskoi, Carelia (2005, 2006), in Book and Art -festival in Nigerian Lagos (2006), in Encontro Internacional de Poetas -festivaalilla (2007), in Arab-Scandinavian Female Poets´ Colloquim arranged by Swedish Institute in Alexandria, Egypt (2008) in annual meetings of International PEN in Dakar, Senegal and Bogotá, Colombia (2007, 2008).

Dahl´s singular poems have been translated into English, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Turkish, Icelandic, Arabic, Romanian, Estonian. Her poems have been published in numerous international literary anthologies and poetry reviews around the world, e.g. in The Calque (USA), Ice-Floe (Alaska), Períplo (Mexico), Confraria do Vento (Brazil), The Guardian (Nigeria), Knigoylub (Kazakhstan), Looming (Estonia), Nuestra Voz (International PEN), Shearsman (UK), Revista Prometheus (Argentina).

In 2009 Dahl was chosen as a stipendiate of literature by Finnish Cultural Foundation to the castle of Schloss-Wiepersdorf in Germany.

If are a publisher and interested in publishing this book, please contact the editor Anna-Riikka Carlson:


The Enchantment of Thousands of Steps: Cultural Tours in Portugal

The Birth of Portugal Fever

Portugal fever hit me hard five years ago when I discovered Hetkien vaellus, a Finnish translation of Fernando Pessoa’s poems, and did my proseminar and master´s thesis on Pessoa’s heteronyms and poetry.

Pessoa’s heteronyms – writing personalities distinct from the author, each with its own life story and different style of work created for them by Pessoa – were so fascinating to me that I took a beginning and intermediate course in Portuguese so that I could learn the language.

The whole active artistic movement of Lisbon in the 1910s also fascinated me. Pessoa, who never traveled outside the borders of his own country, lived and spread his influ-ence in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Lisbon’s cafés and restaurants.
In 1914, Pessoa and his artist friends were starting the first wave of Portuguese modern literature, which reached its pinnacle with Orpheu magazine. Pessoa met with visual artists Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso, and Santa-Rita Pintor, visual artist and poet Álmada Negreiros in Lisbon’s cafés. Among the homey clatter of coffee cups, the artists drafted the poems and cubist and futurist paintings that would serve as trailblazers for the future generations of artists.

Maybe Pessoa caught a glimpse of his only known (unrequited) love, 19-year-old Ophélia Queiroz, through the window of the office where she worked as a secretary as he was coming or going from a café.

A Greater Step Toward Pessoa

I took a greater step toward Pessoa when I set out for the University of Lisbon to attend a Portuguese language course in 2001. I didn’t have any firm idea about where I would stay. It would be an adventure, a new country and language that I had only a slight familiarity with from my university language courses.

I spent several days in the Anjos neighborhood at the home of a philosophy instructor who was about 40 years old. My host, who was not the most musical person in the world, had the habit of playing minimalist compositions on his synthesizer in the even-ings. I lay on the sofa on the other side of the wall, completely unable to sleep. His mu-sic certainly had a powerful effect on one.

The next day I asked if he knew where I might find a room to let, and he sprang into ac-tion. We went to make inquiries at the leitaria, the local dairy shop, as to whether any senhora in the neighborhood was looking for someone to rent a room.
We were directed to a house at the end of the block where an old woman had a room for rent. The senhora, who had been widowed a few years earlier, lived alone with her cat, Fofa. The synthesizer racket had worked on my nerves, and thus I moved into the first apartment I found without thinking what kind of person my landlady might be. I found out soon enough.

High on a Hill Among the Empty Bottles

It was made clear that I shouldn’t use the shower too often. Hot water wasn’t a cheap commodity in Portugal – although for us it’s considered more essential than heat. There were no limits on my use of the kitchen – the only practical limit was my minimal skill as a cook.

My landlady would sit for a long time every evening watching television with the volume turned up. Evening television in Portugal is filled with overly dramatic – and melodramatic – Brazilian telenovelas and assorted quiz shows, not at all the high level offerings found on public television in Finland, or any other European country.

Fofa the cat would occasionally make a break for it and dash out the open door and onto the roof, and my landlady would set out with her cane to hunt for her. Once my landlady asked me to have dinner with her and served some tasty spinach soup she had made, and I asked if she would give me the recipe. As she was giving me the cooking instructions, she lamented that she ought to teach young people how to cook so she wouldn’t have have to do it herself. There was more mortification to come. I learned that the superior attitude of the explorers was still present in Portugal to a de-gree, at least among older people. The young had some experience in international cir-cles with different kinds of people and had shaken off those unpleasant attitudes that can poison communications anywhere you go in the world.

Anjos was a wonderful place on the top of a tall hill. Lisbon is a city of innumerable hills – not just seven, like in Rome. In the evening, I could see a deep blue sky filled with thousands of stars from my window. The pile of empty red wine bottles on my dark-colored bureau just kept growing. Every morning I got up at seven and caught the metro to the campus of Cidade Universitária for my Portuguese course.
After class there was always homework. I sometimes stayed on campus and studied in the university library, which wasn’t easy, since for the Portuguese, studying involves more talking than reading. The architecture didn’t help – the library was one large space with every level connected to the next in such a way that any sound made on one level was heard on every other.

After a couple of months, the situation with my landlady had become unbearable, and I started to look for another place to rent. I called and went to visit a few apartments, but I didn’t want to sleep in the same bed with another person, so I decided to rent my very own room from a lonely old woman who went nearly every day to visit her sick mother in the hospital.

She told right away that she wouldn’t tolerate overnight guests of any kind. She’d had a boarder once, a German student, who had a habit of dragging men home to spend the night. I assured her that I had no such habit.

She said that she had thought at first that I must be Italian because there were occa-sional Italian words mixed up with my Portuguese. I had spent the previous summer taking an Italian course in Helsinki.

I felt beset by the dark, sturdy furnishings in my room on the Campo de Ourique. The nearby Prazéres cemetery offered an escape where I could would walk and sometimes even jog – without permission, of course – among the graves like little houses. Then I got caught, and that put an end to my weekend jogs in the lonely cemetery village.

The Relaxed Men and Women of the Village

My second rental was no better than the first. After a while, I found the very last of my landlords, Dona Florinda, a family woman from Évora, in Alentejo province, and moved into a small room in her apartment. The room was also situated in the Campo de Ourique neighborhood, which I had grown fond of.

Dona Florinda was the prototype of the Portuguese who had moved from the country-side into the city following the Carnation Revolution, still missing her home province but at the same time admirably well-adjusted to her new home.

Dona Florinda’s husband was also from Alentejo, a tough working man who wasn’t the type to turn down a drink. Like many Portuguese men, he wobbled off to the local tasca, for a bagaço plum brandy every evening and greeted me happily on the rare occasions when we met with a sparsely toothed grin.

The blazing fields of Alentejo, with its 40 to 50 degree temperatures, could scarcely be forgotten by the country people who came to Lisbon and turned it into into a great big village.

True Lisbonites are much like the inhabitants of any large European city, focused on advancing their careers and wringing as much money as possible from them. They dress in designer clothes and zip around at full throttle.

Prime Minister Salazar died a long time ago but the Salazar mentality still has an influ-ence among the older generation, and hasn’t yet faded completely even among the young.

It shows in a slight timidity around officials but also in the ability to steer things to one’s own advantage. There’s no reason everybody should always play by the rules, particu-larly in matters of money. Old-fashioned honesty is rare these days in Portugal outside of the most remote corners of the country – which I never found the time to visit – and even there it is a quality or characteristic that is rapidly disappearing as a natural re-source.

Inside the courtyards of Lisbon people yell, laundry is hung to dry, lush gardens grow, and animals are free to wander from house to house. That’s Lisbon from the inside, and you have to find your own way in – no one’s going to come and fetch you.

Passageways and Social Ascents

The only drawback to my new sublet was that the other tenant had to pass through my room to get to her own. Dona Florinda, my good-hearted landlady, took notice and con-structed a screen between the passageway and my small space.

In the Portuguese tradition, Dona Florinda insisted that her children would have a better life than she did. The older of her two daughters had majored in chemistry and worked in a pharmacy. At the time I moved into the rented room she had married and moved into an apartment next door that Dona Florinda and her husband had acquired through tremendous hard work. The younger daughter was a student at the university at Braga and spent her school vacations visiting her parents.

When my class schedule changed for spring semester, I started spending mornings at home watching the well-known local fashion designer Fátima Lopes’ morning television show, which didn’t do much to spruce up the image of Portuguese television offerings. Lopes laughed at the young and the old, at people down on their luck and laid low by fate who were invited on the show to spin the wheel of fortune and find out if it was their turn to become a participant in the worldly mammon. For most, it wasn’t. Young and old tied up phone lines for hours calling the old home place to ask the Lord’s blessings, but in vain. God didn’t grant them anything this time, if he ever had.

Dona Florinda lived in the same building with me, a couple of floors up. She was my most beloved landlady, and particularly enjoyed cleaning. It was the same pattern every weekend. I would be lying in bed under five layers of blanket, trying not to move (like hot water, heat was expensive for the average person in Portugal, and they tried to conserve by not heating the house, and I believed – incorrectly, as it turned out – that I could keep warm a little by wrapping myself in five blankets and not moving), reading and doing my homework.

Dona Florinda would arrive at the door with a bucket of water, a mop, and cleaning fluid, asking if she could clean the place.

Leaving her to limpar (to clean or tidy), I would take my few things and go to one of Lis-bon’s romantic or artistic quarters where I could sink into my own kind of saudade, that distinctive Portuguese brand of nostalgia, pining in my own way for far off, cold and dismal Finland, where people walk around in furs all year round and never grant each other so much as a warm smile.

In My Own World Among the Vegetation

The botanical gardens became my very favorite place. I would picnic on wine and sandwiches among the grand sycamores, lost in a book or the interwoven threads of my own imagination. Or I would sit in a turn-of-the-century café at the turn of a new century, sipping a double espresso – uma dupla bica – and sprinkling cinnamon and powdered sugar over sweet Bélem cream pastries and gobbling them down with gusto. My hunger for culture was sated by the Centro Cultural de Bélem, the contemporary art museum next to the gardens, with its rotating exhibits.

Dona Florinda invited me to spend Christmas with her family. She knew that I would otherwise have a lonely holiday in Lisbon. The table was set brilliantly and there was even a Christmas tree in the corner. Instead of serving ham like we do in Finland, the Portuguese eat turkey at Christmas, and for dessert the traditional bolo or “royal cake”, a circular sweet cake filled with dried fruit.

This book isn’t about about Portuguese senhoras, in spite of appearances. It’s a book about my experiences during a year in Portugal, in which landladies happened to play a distinctly important role.

As a cultural enthusiast, I rummaged through Lisbon’s museums, cafés and bookstores that year and on following visits. I fell in love with the Bairro Alto’s narrow cobblestone streets and cozy little restaurants, and the bookstores of Baixa Chiado, where time had stopped in the 19th century. All of the architecture in the center of the city contributed to the feeling of enchantment.

If I could choose anywhere in time to go back to, maybe it would be here, in the middle of the village idyll, troubles forgotten among the blooming roses that lined the cobbles-tone streets. Walking Lisbon’s cobblestones doesn’t feel like walking in a large city, but in a large village that’s an international melting pot. Lisbon brings together country people who moved to the city for a brighter future and new inhabitants from the former colonies and other countries. It is a peculiar, lively metropolis with a friendly feeling that comes from this diversity.

Children play ball in the street and old women watch passersby from their windows and the eye alights on every color of skin.

From Village to City

There were three rooms in Dona Florinda’s sublet, inhabited by first three, then four people. The last ones to pass through my room were two women who were studying to be nurses. The one from Madeira was so noisy that in the end I wanted to leave even Dona Florinda’s room behind, so I lugged my belongings to the apartment of a French classmate for a month of storage and was on my way.

First I spent a week and a half in the Algarve sunshine trying to avoid the tourist traps and visiting the most deserted beaches, places neglected and not even mentioned in the guidebooks, for no apparent reason. My trip took me from Távira and Faro all the way to Sagres, from which the explorers embarked on their journeys of conquest to the New World.

After my tour of Algarve I headed for antique central Portugal, covered in the patina of time, where old and new sit side by side. Then I traveled to the barren north, with its strict, pious atmosphere that leads one to imagine horrific and unchaste deeds committed there.

According to my non-theoretical theory, northern Portugal’s strict piety causes a cor-responding closure in some people’s minds, perhaps closing them off from their prob-lems. You see more odd-looking people skulking about the streets there.
I finally settled my mind in the romantic environs of Lisbon’s neighborhoods, among them the Sintra area, recommended by Lord Byron.

Since my travel budget was student-sized, I avoided the five star hotels and stayed in the cheapest hostels. My lodging ranged from Faroan travel huts where the very con-struction of the place made sleeping nearly impossible to a hostel high above the glass canopy of the São Bento train station in Porto with panoramic views of the city as it cel-ebrated São João’s day, its patron saint. From my perch above the city I could see the flames of the fireworks and the dense crowds snaking through the streets.

When I stepped into the the hubbub of the crowd I received good-natured, light blows on the shoulders from little plastic mártelo hammers. I couldn’t respond in kind, since I hadn’t bought myself a festival hammer – but I will next time!
I took the bus through little villages that seemed to beckon to me outside the bus win-dow, but traveling unfortunately requires you to prioritize. I met other foreigners, we shared the road for a moment, and parted.

It was harder to get to know Portuguese people. These inheritors of the explorers re-minded me a little of Finns in the way that their friendship warms to strangers slowly, but once warmed, burns brightly. The Portuguese are a Latin people, it’s true, but a Finn will soon find her own Latin side here, if she has one.
This is a completely subjective book. Although it goes to the places I wanted to go, it doesn’t only meet the people I wanted to meet, but those people who I ran into in one way or another as I was traveling.

My trip to Lisbon was my first trip to Portugal. More would come later. I’ve arranged the experiences from my travels in an entirely arbitrary fashion, rather than chronologically. The narrative is the final authority over the order of these experiences.

This is a book about my experiences, I don’t claim that your experiences would be the same. I’m just trying to spread Portuguese fever.

In addition to places, I interviewed Portuguese people for the book, including artists, civil servants, and workers in professions both new and traditional.
Literature is strongly in evidence. I’ve rummaged through Lisbon’s past and present literary and cultural history, visiting book stores and meeting authors living and dead.

This combination of places, people and culture (history) make up my Portugal. Try it and see what yours is like.

An Author Due to Circumstances

José Saramago became an author due to his circumstances. Living in the aftermath of the Carnation Revolution, he had just been fired from his assistant manager’s post at the Diário de Noticias.

Saramago had fulfilled his duties as managing editor from April to October, 1975. The military-democratic government gave him the boot. There were no other employment opportunities in sight. Working full-time as a writer started to look like a possibility.

“I made two important decisions in my career as a writer: first in 1947, when I decided that I wouldn’t write because I had nothing to say, then in 1975 when I decided I would write, because I had something to say. I was 58 years old when I came into my own as a writer.”

The revolution and counter-revolution of 1974-75 affected Saramago’s writing in other significant ways as well.

But Saramago had in fact published books before he became a full-time author. His first novel, Terra do Pecado (Land of Sin), appeared in 1947. Twenty years later he pub-lished Poemas Possiveís (Possible Poems). He couldn’t have written anything more, he said, because he had nothing more to say.

“Life doesn’t end at 30,” the 85-year-old Saramago said on a visit to Finland at the end of March. “A long life gave me an opportunity to write things that I wouldn’t have known how to write when I was young, or even when I was an adult. The work will continue throughout my life, only death will interrupt it.”

Saramago advocates continuing to work as long as you have it in you. He is still waiting for the time when he can retire in contentment and devote himself to sailing with his wife, Pilar.

Saramago was lured, primarily by a cd sent to him by Elina Mustonen, to visit Finland for the first time to attend the opening night of Laulustaan lintu tunnetaan (You Know a Bird By Its Song), a light opera based on his novel Memorial do convento.

His writing career started up in earnest and works began to appear at a steady pace: Manual de Pintura e Caligrafia (Manual of Painting and Calligraphy) in 1977, the short story collection Objecto Quaxe (Quasi Object) in 1978, and two plays, A Noite (Nightlife) and Que Farei com Este Livro? (What Will I Do With This Book?), in 1979 and 1980.

The 1980s and 90s were his novel period. Among the works that came into being were O ano do Morte de Ricardo Reis (The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, 1984) and A Segunda Vida de Francisco de Assis (The Second Life of Francis of Assisi, 1987). in 1986 Saramago met El País editor Pilar del Ríon, whom he married two years later.

Problems Personal and Wide-Ranging

All of Saramago’s later works could be called broad social allegories, sketches of vi-sions of the future, as well as partial solutions to his personal double-identity problem.

Saramago’s early childhood was tinged with a crisis of identity: he had the same name as his father, José de Sousa Saramago, and official documents recorded his birthday as November 18th. He was actually born two days earlier.

Many characters in Saramago’s novels, such as the dutiful and meticulous José in To-dos os Nomes (All The Names), a character not really alive in the sense that we im-agine living, have characteristics of the author himself. Many of his main characters must carve out a place for themselves in the world. Working in the population registry office, amid the facts of life and death, a whole new world opens up for José when he accidentally runs into a woman thought to be dead who is, in fact, alive. José sets out to track her down. His life becomes momentarily meaningful, the living death comes to life. Instead of merely following the lives of celebrities, José’s life momentarily becomes meaningful in another way.

Saramago himself worked at one time as a civil servant: he has a close knowledge of the dry, routine world of the government office.

The novel Ensaio sobre a Cegueira (Blindness) plays with the opposite poles of life and death. A group of people become blind, and they are quarantined in a concentra-tion-camp-like institution. The novel is a strong comment, as Saramago’s novels usually are: he himself believes that most people are blind, though officially able to see.

O Homem Duplicado (The Double), one of Saramago’s most recent novels, translated into Finnish under the title Toinen minä (Tammi, 2006), ponders the identity problematic more directly. Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, a retired man, meets his spitting image, and his life is forever changed.

“In the novel I examine the theme of the double from multiple points of view: could a person stand being exactly the same as someone else, a mirror image? Would it be possible to live with one’s reflection? In the book, the double must be eliminated, there is no other solution. It can be summed up in a simple sentence: the other exists, and it is me*.

Twoness is absolute if the mirror images are of the same sex but relative if they are a man and a woman and are thus at least physically different. The doppelganger theme is not new to literature: Fyodor Dostoyevski and Oscar Wilde, among others, have explored the idea.

In A Caverna (The Cave), an elderly potter named Cipriano Algor comes face to face with the Center, which represents an entirely new and unknown world to him. Algor’s pottery shop is no longer profitable. The Center, which has every kind of product and service, symbolizes the world of turbo-capitalism, picking up steam even when its pace is already unprecedented. Algor tries to adjust to the change by starting to produce ce-ramic dolls, but there is no guarantee of survival. The warm, old world based on mutual support is, of course, a kind of communism. In this old world there are no titles or hono-rifics, all people have the same value.

It’s not hard to guess which world’s side Saramago is on.

A Moment of Illumination

Saramago doesn’t know where the ideas for his books come from.

“It’s a matter of a moment of illumination, when the ideas just suddenly form my brain.”

The idea for the novel Blindness, for instance, came to Saramago in a restaurant when the thought came into his mind, Are we all blind? To his sorrow he realized that he was, and started to write a novel about it.

Saramago found his present writing style, with its long, stream of consciousness sen-tences, in his 1969 novel Levantado do Chão (Raised from the Ground).

“I found my style suddenly on page 23 and 24. I stopped using punctuation entirely. I used commas and periods like music, only in the places where there were pauses. The novel itself told the story of a poor country life in Alentejo.”

That country life is reminiscent of the descriptions of a country laborer’s life in F.E. Sillanpää’s Hurskas kurjuus (Meek Heritage). Saramago read the novel some time at the end of the 1950s.

Becoming a writer wasn’t a straight road for Saramago. Life is a teacher. If you have a gift for writing, you have to develop it.

“All writers are self-taught. Literature isn’t a career, and there is no school that can cer-tify you as a writer.”

Saramago and his wife have lived on the island of Lanzarote for more than ten years. He made the decision to move there in 1991 after the Portuguese government made the decision not to send his novel O Evanghelo segundo Jesus Cristo (The Gospel According to Jesus Christ) as a nominee for the EU literature prize, feeling that the book offended Catholic values. But Saramago has never broken off his relationship with the Portuguese people.

His most recent book, As Pequenas Memórias (Memories of My Youth, 2006), is an autobiographical account of a happy childhood in the village of Azinhaga, in Ribatejo. Childhood passes in the treetops of olive groves and the blaze of sunshine, as if the landscape of the author’s spirit was inherited from these happy, peaceful, gently rolling hills, unbroken by a single needless sound.

“The question was how a child of parents who couldn’t read or write nevertheless be-came a writer, and a Nobel Prize-winning writer at that. My parents didn’t have land of their own, they worked another man’s fields. I bought my first book when I was 19, with borrowed money.”

Communist, Atheist, Pessimist

Saramago has characterized himself as a communist, atheist, and pessimist on many occasions, including his visit to Finland. Is it because the master of broad social allegory hasn’t renewed the development of his own thoughts terribly much over the passing decades?

His pessimism shines through in many of his books: politics, the bureaucratic machine, and transnational corporations make life a mostly monotonous routine and drive people away from the simple joy of life in the name of making life better.

“How can you say that we live in a happy world? If we don’t live in a happy world we have no reason to be optimists – pessimism is the only option. Optimism is a satisfac-tion with the world we live in. Only pessimists can change the world for the better.”

Saramago’s great overarching themes are present in Todos os Nomes (All the Names), Ensaio sobre a Cegueira (Blindness), A Caverna (The Cave), and A Jangada de Pedra (The Stone Raft). In The Stone Raft, Portugal breaks free from Europe for certain acci-dental reasons and drifts off into the Atlantic. What he means to say is that Portugal, and the lusophone world in general, as well as Spain – are not really part of Europe and European history.

Saramago believes that more evil than good is done in the name of religion.
“All religions are intolerant, and they haven’t brought people closer together. If there is a God, there’s only one – why should Muslims and Christians, for instance, each have their own God?”

Saramago asks why any reader expects some kind of message from literature.

“A writer can take a kind of Christ-like, savior’s role, but he can never use his works to change things like politics or the future. Even I haven’t managed to form my readers into a pacifist army,” he says, with a twinkle in his eye.
He has a store of humor and irony, although he is a physically frail, in fact withered fig-ure."

“My next novel to be translated into Finnish, for example, Ensaio sobre a Lucidez (See-ing), is about the inhabitants of a small town who are unhappy with the way politics are run. A good 83% of them vote for ‘none of the above.’”

Saramago believes that democracy has lost its meaning because it allows a change of representatives every four years, but not real change in politics or the economy. The world is run by transnational corporations, the World Bank, and other international institutions.

In place of capitalism, Saramago puts his faith in good old fashioned communism, where the means of production may be in the hands of a few, but at least in principle the proceeds of common labor is shared for the good of all. Saramago has stubbornly remained a communist from the very beginning of his career. In at least this, you cannot call the old man a turncoat.

He is above all an author focused on his work, but he has always been a defender of the humane. He once condemned the execution by hanging that Fidel Castro ordered for three dissidents in Cuba.

“I later visited Cuba, and was asked to speak at the University of Havana. I talked about human rights, among other things, and publicly denounced the execution of dissidents. Three days later Castro came to see me. We discussed life inside and outside Cuba for an hour, but we didn’t say a word about the fate of the dissidents. After that there were no more executions – and I wasn’t executed, either.
Saramago still keeps his edge – thanks also to his wife, Pilar – although he is physically aged. Still, when I briefly thanked him, “muito obrigado pela sua visita”, and looked into his eyes, he looked up from the first page of the book that he was just signing his name to and smiled, happy to hear someone speaking his language in the middle of a Helsinki bookstore. He may be physically frail, but mentally he is still among us.

The Box

A Mechanic Who Became an Author

Saramago was from a poor family of farmers. His talent was apparent as early as grade school, and later in grammar school, where he could only attend for two years, because his family could no longer afford it. The family moved to Lisbon, where his father worked as a policeman. Two years later, his brother Francisco died.

Saramago trained as a mechanic, because his family couldn’t afford any other educa-tion for him, but he only worked for a couple of years in an auto shop, spending his evenings in the library studying literature.

In 1944, he married and began working as a civil servant in the social and health ministry. His wife, Iida Reis worked as a typist for the Portuguese railway service. Their only daughter Violante was born in 1947.

Saramago worked as a production manager for the Estúdios Cor publishing house in the 1950s. Through his job, he became acquainted with Portugal’s most distinguished authors. In 1955 he began to translate to earn a little extra money for his family. He has translated the works of Colette, Baudelaire, Hegel, and Maupassant, among others.

Saramago’s wife Pilar translates his books into Spanish. He places a high value on the work of the translator, and believes it to be one of the most difficult professions.

In addition to his work as an editor, Saramago found time for a political column in Diário de Lisboa later in his career, in 1972 and 1973. He was a seasoned writer when he finally dedicated himself exclusively to writing following the revolution.

Saramago’s writing career encompasses nearly twenty published novels and plays as well as the libretto for the opera Divara, based on his play In Nomine Dei, composed by Azio Corghi, which premiered in Münster in 1993. That same year, he began his Ca-dernos de Lanzarote (Lanzarote Diaries).

Brandy, Oil, and Fish

The Berlenga Archipelago, made up of Berlenga, the main island of the archipelago; the Estelas, the world’s leading producer of bagaço, a local brandy; and the Farilhões, a site of oil drilling, has its own reality, separate from the coast and the rest of the outside world. Berlenga is inhabited mainly by fishermen and their families, and seagulls, who flock over the arid landscape, which is reminiscent of the deserts of North Africa, in every direction and as far as the eye can see.

There is a beach in Caramusteiro Bay that is the only place on the island where you can dive in, when the tide is low. The low, whitewashed houses of the fishermen are found here, as is one of the island’s two restaurants.

The seagulls’ empire begins just past the houses on either side of the path. The fe-males, guarding their nests, screech testily at the sight of a stranger. Next to the path as it curves sharply to the left there is a small tent campground, where there is no place for a tent. A group of Portuguese who look like students have already pitched their tents there for the evening. A few of them are just coming back from a swim. There aren’t many other activities on this island but swimming, water sports, fishing, sunbathing, and refreshing yourself in the restaurants. It certainly isn’t a traditional tourist trap. The Berlengas are a paradise for bird watchers and rare plant botanists.

There are seagulls everywhere among the scarce flora. They come from as far away as Galicia. The most common varieties are Larus michahellis, whose common name is the Yellow-Legged, or Southern Gray Gull, and the Larus fuscus, or Black-Backed Gull. The best way to describe the number of gulls is to tell you that there are so many on these islands that researchers can’t get in among them to do their work.
Other birds commonly found on the island are the Common Murre (Uria aalgae), the Cory’s Shearwater (Calonectris diomedea), the European shag (Phalacrocorax aristote-lis) and the Madeiran Storm Petrel (Pterodroma madeira).

Farol Dom Duque de Bragança – Duke Bragança’s lighthouse – established in 1841 and serving as a military base in Salazar’s time, is now manned only by patrols of sea-gulls.

If you plan to stay a little longer on the island, you should reserve a bunk well in ad-vance at the Pousada da Juventude, the youth hostel, in a former fortification situated in the fortress of São João Baptista – St. John the Baptist – along with the orphan’s home. Your other option is a tent.

Barren Soil and Rare Flora

Berlenga is a stopping place for numerous migrating birds. It is the northernmost habitat for some species, the southernmost for others. The EU Council has named Berlenga an official wildlife refuge and biogenetic preserve that also encompasses 1,000 hectares of underwater habitat. Portugal’s government gave the area wildlife refuge status in 1983.

Hundreds of species of marine animals, insects, and mammals can be found there. The most common invasive species on the island are the Black Rat (Rattus rattus) and the European rabbit (Oryctadagus cuniculus).

There are one or two unique species of lizard on Berlenga – the Jeweled Lizard (Lacer-ta lepida) and Bocage’s Lizard (Podarcis bocagei), which can also be found in Gilmond, in the northern Portuguese province of Barcelos. In spite of the scattered flora, no substantial bushes grow on the island. The plant life is mostly low and adapted to the harsh conditions.

Nature travelers to Berlenga can also spot three varieties of plant found no where else in the world. Armeria berlengensis is a small, branched shrub that blooms on the ridges in April and May. Herniaria berlengiana only grows singly and has small, thick leaves that turn red as they dry. Its flowers are small. Pulicaria microcephala is a highly branched plant that develops little yellow flowers from May through July and can be found on the island’s ridges and highlands. Plant-eating animals like the black rat and the rabbit threaten the population of unique plant varieties, of which there are about a hundred.

The Berlenga Archipelago began to break off from the rest of the continent between 146 and 208 million years ago. Since then the island has developed an idiosyncratic geological structure essentially uninfluenced by outside forces. For this reason the ecology of the islands, especially the plant life and less mobile, ground-dwelling vertebrates have not come to resemble the species of the mainland, but have grown more endemic over time.

Dead Rabbit on the Stairs

The fortress of St. John the Baptist is situated in a low place, connected to the sea, and you have to go down stairs to get to it. I can only imagine what kinds of rooms line the grim stone corridors, because I haven’t reserved ahead, so I just take a short walk around the fortress walls.

There’s a restaurant in the inner courtyard, but I’ve already enjoyed a lunch outside: table wine, bread, and cheese. I need nothing more. A hungry gull who came to greet me also got a serving.

Nearby is a cove with caves that have served as overnight shelters for seafarers in times past. Now the local fishers lead tours to them which you can board from almost anywhere for a fee.

The boat from Berlenga back to Peniche on the mainland doesn’t leave until the after-noon. I enjoy the glow of the sun’s rays. Now and then I rub a little more suntan lotion on my skin, which is threatening to burn. Finally the time comes to mount the fortress steps back to the harsh world of the seagulls. On my way, I see a little, lacerated rabbit on the stairs. This is a place where sustenance is got by tooth and nail. The Ilha da Berlenga is an encapsulation of life.

The screeching, noisy world of the seagulls is a complete break with the quiet of the fortress, as if there could be two different realities side by side on one little island. I like the quiet best. I could go back there, I think, as I cross back to the mainland.


A History of the Berlenga Islands

The first signs of human habitation on the islands are from the time of the Roman Em-pire. In 1513, Manuel The Great’s wife Maria established the Mosteiro Da Misericórdia, The Monastary of Mercy, for the order of St. Jerome.

King John IV built the fortress of John the Baptist in the 1600s. The fortress had a cen-tral role in the wars against Castile, during the French invasion, and in the skirmishes between the liberals and the miguelists. Over the years the fortress has served as a point of attack for pirates and foreign fugitives. It was abandoned in 1847, but has been put to use as a hostel since 1962.

Wine and Radical Culture

António Ribeiro, 36, returned with his wife Sara to his home, the small Northern Portu-guese village of Mouraz, with about two hundred inhabitants, after his years in Lisbon. He is the director of Casa de Mouraz, an ecological wine producer, and also has an in-terest in experimental art.

António was born in a granite house that his father, also named António Ribeiro, built on his mother Maria Fernanda’s ancestral land. His 84-year-old father says that he built the house and storehouse in two years. All of the stone used in the building, a structure that rises handsome and terraced from the barren landscape, was torn from one and the same soil.

It happened that the same year António was born, the Ribeiros lost their annual grape crop because they had been concentrating on building the house. They had to put in a new vineyard.

“I was born above a tavern full of wine vats, presses, and casks. In December the wine was put in casks and the aroma drifted up from the separator.”

António was the youngest of a flock of four siblings. Adriano, Hélder, and Jorge all found their places in the world, in Portugal or elsewhere. Mouraz was a tiny village of 140 people at the time of António’s birth, in one of Portugal’s oldest regions.

“My strongest memory from childhood is my first day of school, my first meeting with other people. I went to school arm in arm with my older brother Helder, who is an avid traveller these days, just returned from the East. The school stood atop a high rock, and was also made of granite.

Helder had on a faded, green t-shirt and worn blue jeans, and he had curly hair.”
António’s childhood was spent in the company of books and jokes. He took his siesta in an open field under a canopy of grapevines, olive trees, and pines, looking at the clouds and making up thousands of stories about them. In the fifth grade he transferred to a school in Tondela, five kilometers from Mouraz.

“In seventh grade I made two friends, one of whom came with me to Lisbon to study law.”

Law School, Wines, and Avant-Garde Art

When he went to study in Lisbon in 1990, António was already a member of a society for the promotion of ecological vineyards in Portugal.

“Three years later, because of my father’s declining health, I had to make a decision whether to continue in his footsteps or not. The decision was quickly made. Since then our vineyards have been grown sustainably.”

António spent the 1990s studying law and viniculture and learning to operate a tractor. In Lisbon, his youthful interest in sculpting, film, music, and architecture revived again.

“I was part of an organization whose noble goal was to bring together all the most revo-lutionary and progressive directions in contemporary art. The Ópio poetry journal and Número, a magazine focused on culture, were started in 1998. Número presented the films of Chris Marker and Michael Snow, the architecture of François Roshe and Fiuza Faustino, Jêrome Beli’s movement pieces, sound art by Panasonic, Chicks on Speed and Aphex Twin, as well as interesting Portuguese artists. The Número festival specialized in multimedia, film, and music.

Later, António divided his time between fields inherited from ancient times with names of unrivaled antiquity, and the newest, most progressive movements in the arts.
Dinis Guarda has worked as the organization’s prime mover and an enricher of Por-tugal’s art world from the beginning. Literary studies at the University of Lisbon were left behind when the art world took Dinis with it. Now he makes his living from art. Número’s offices are in the Anjos section of Lisbon, as is Dinis’ home. His lively and curious two-year-old son cavorts around the house among the bohemian poets and other creators and followers of avant-garde culture.

The wonderfully visualized Número journal can be bought throughout Europe. The journal has also spread its festival tours across Europe with a festival site that changes from one year to the next. The Número festival continues to be Portugal’s annual high point of progressive, avant-garde culture.

The Dream of His Own Wine Label

Since he was 16 years old, António has dreamed of creating his own, sustainably-grown brand of wine.

“In 2000, the Dão region’s ecological wine label CASA de MOURAZ finally saw the light of day, created together with my wife, sociologist and dance teacher Sara Dionísio. Out main goal from the beginning has been to make authentic, personalized wines that present the aroma of their provenance in all its richness.”

António travels around the world, especially in Europe, marketing the wine from his own vineyards, and the entire production is his responsibility. Sara takes care of marketing, billing, sales, and customer contacts. The vineyards also have an ecological team and enlist technical assistance and help from outside as needed.
Dão, where Mouraz is located, is one of Portugal’s most well-known wine regions, highly valued by wine enthusiasts. António’s reasons for growing wine sustainably are primarily ecological and ethical.

“I’m an ecological vintner for ethical and aesthetic reasons. Ethically speaking, I’m more or less just one link in a timeless chain, someone who has established something and will leave it to someone else. Aesthetically, I’m tied to the idea of supporting complexity, not monoculture but cultural riches. Ecological farming is simply more beautiful than industrial farming.

CASA de MOURAZ respects nature by supporting environmentally sustainable growing methods that pay attention to plants and animals – just like avant-garde artistic movements: they don’t think of the world in a reductionist way, but rather from a global point of view.”

In 2003, António and his wife returned from Lisbon to Mouraz, where they continue to farm ecologically. António handles sales and his wife takes care of the paperwork.
“In March we participated in Germany’s largest wine festival. Later I’ll be going to Hol-land, Belgium, and Luxembourg, where there are a lot of potential customers. Then home again.”

When he returns from his conquests abroad, his wife and children, António, 2, and Jorge, 1, will be waiting for him, making sure that there is still some life in the family after the day’s work. António’s connection to the arts hasn’t been broken – on the con-trary, he has begun a project where wine and art, two different languages, will meet.

“I’ve started a project that will use the kind of contemporary art that describes what it’s like to live in the moment in some way. The project will be like a positive infection passed between different arts and languages – just like our wine: it’s alive and organic, it changes its form. In the future, the project will expand and hopefully form a permanent reference point for talking about quality Portuguese wine.”

CASA de MOURAZ is appreciated outside of Portugal, as well. You can come across it in England, Germany, Brazil, Belgium, Denmark, France, and, beginning this year, in the United States. Soon it will be the turn of Finland, and no doubt many other Euro-pean countries.

More information:

Translated by Lola Rogers

Poems from same book, translated by author:


Beautiful, hairy Coimbra, you start the day by denying reading the journal at kiosque, because
it has not been paid and freely one does not get even a sniff of a paradise that the
night hides inside, Coimbra, you are a greasy donut, the filling flows from edges
of the mouth and fills up, but leaves vague anxious feeling, you are
massive human monuments delivering the Justice in front of
the university and tall buildings, you are black cloaks
and the statue of Dom Dinis in front of the principal´s office and festive
rooms, manueline stoneknots and poets, that have fastly knitten
into your stony loins. Coimbra, you are botanical garden, never open,
otherwhere imported trees, not even a branch moves in the wind, like the
sellers of your kiosques, Coimbra, you are festive routines that are repeated
in the dark dormitories, pricks, penetrations, paid guests in a paid city, right
does cannot be ever found.

The city of white stairs

Lisbon, city of white stairs, numberless poets
have descended your stairs, your loin-like stairs,
describing that descent towards
the glimmering blue Tagus with its
hints of yellow. Or they’ve
sat in the furthest corners
of dark bars wondering why their
lives are so miserable, why their destinies
are too long for something that can’t be put into words,
drunk these little cups dry and asked for more, asked why
life hadn’t given them a different role to play. And they have
described descending the stairs, described longing for something
unsaid that they would never achieve and, as if to prove these words, they
drink more booze so they might feel something, even for a moment, even the
oblivion of drunkenness and they write about getting drunk and at the same
time get even drunker. And they drain their cups dry, write verses
on the stairs that lead down to the Tagus, on other cups still to be emptied so that
this rolling downhill might be forgotten and life might take an upward curve, like
the idea of flying or the act of flying itself, they rise from their chairs
as if they were just getting up and heading out through the bar door while

A rose, also a rose
A rose, also a rose, Lisbon is not perfect without a rose blooming in every season,
and the rose flourishes everywhere, but in the middle of Rossío
its thorns scratch no-one more gently than the passer-by,
that rose is Lisbon's rose, it is all the gentle feelings that flourish in this
city, it is the rose of crooks, whores and drug-dealers,
the rose that with its thorns strokes anyone who wishes it,
that rose does not mock, does not hate, it accepts anyone regardless of
skin colour, that's why it flourishes in the
middle of Rossío and that rose is the rose of
mad men and drug addicts, given
when one wants to be friends with
a stranger, it is
the rose of

There is a desire in me
There is a desire in me for nights without night, dawn
breaking, many suns simultaneously
rising, there is a desire for rain, falling
like a veil. There is a desire in me, but
no will, I use simple tools, a voice of hammer and
chisel in the darkest night. As if by hammering
I might try achieving something, a night descending on a dark
wall, runes, a name perhaps.


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