Wise is the man who contents himself with the spectacle of the world.—RICARDO REIS
To choose ways of not acting was ever the concern and scruple of my life.—BERNARDO SOARES
If they were to tell me that it is absurd to speak
thus of someone who never existed, I should reply
that I have no proof that Lisbon ever existed, or I
who am writing, or any other thing wherever it might be.—FERNANDO PESSOA
Here the sea ends and the earth begins. It is raining over the colorless city. The waters of the river are polluted with mud, the riverbanks flooded. A dark vessel, the Highland Brigade, ascends the somber river and is about to anchor at the quay of Alcântara. The steamer is English and belongs to the Royal Mail Line. She crosses the Atlantic between London and Buenos Aires like a weaving shuttle on the highways of the sea, backward and forward, always calling at the same ports, La Plata, Montevideo, Santos, Rio de Janeiro, Pernambuco, Las Palmas, in this order or vice versa, and unless she is shipwrecked, the steamer will also call at Vigo and Boulogne-sur-Mer before finally entering the Thames just as she is now entering the Tagus, and one does not ask which is the greater river, which the greater town. She is not a large vessel, fourteen thousand tons, but quite seaworthy, as was demonstrated during this crossing when, despite constant rough weather, only those unaccustomed to ocean voyages were seasick, or those accustomed but who suffer from an incurably delicate stomach. On account of the homey atmosphere and comforts on board, the ship has come to be affectionately known, like her twin the Highland Monarch, as the family steamer. Both vessels are equipped with spacious decks for games and sunbathing, even cricket, a field sport, can be played on deck, which shows that for the British Empire nothing is impossible. When the weather is fine, the Highland Brigade becomes a garden for children and a paradise for the elderly, but not today, because it is raining and this is our last afternoon on board. Behind windowpanes ingrained with salt the children peer out at the gray city, which lies flat above the hills as if built entirely of one-story houses. Yonder, perhaps, you catch a glimpse of a high dome, some thrusting gable, an outline suggesting a castle ruin, unless this is simply an illusion, a chimera, a mirage created by the shifting curtain of the waters that descend from the leaden sky. The foreign children, whom nature has endowed more generously with the virtue of inquisitiveness, are curious to know the name of the port. Their parents tell them or it is spelled out by their nurses, amas, bonnes, Fräuleins, or perhaps by a passing sailor on his way to some maneuver. Lisboa, Lisbon, Lisbonne, Lissabon, there are four different ways of saying it, leaving aside the variants and mistaken forms. And so the children come to know what they did not know before, and that is what they knew already, nothing, merely a name, causing even greater confusion in their childish minds, a name pronounced with the accent peculiar to the Argentinians, if that is what they happen to be, or to the Uruguayans, the Brazilians, the Spaniards. The latter, writing Lisbon correctly in their respective versions of Castilian or Portuguese, then pronounce it in their own way, a way beyond the reach of ordinary hearing or any representation in writing. When the Highland Brigade sails up the straits early tomorrow morning, let us hope there will be a little sunshine and a clear sky, so that the gray mist does not completely obscure, even within sight of land, the already fading memory of those voyagers who passed here for the first time, those children who repeated the word Lisbon, transforming it into some other name, those adults who knitted their eyebrows and shivered with the general dampness which penetrates the wood and metal, as if the Highland Brigade had emerged dripping from the bottom of the sea, a ship twice transformed into a phantom. No one by choice or inclination would remain in this port.
A few passengers are about to disembark. The steamer has docked, the gangplank has been lowered and secured, unhurried baggage handlers and stevedores appear below, guards emerge from the shelter of their huts and sheds, and the customs officers begin to arrive. The rain has eased off and almost stopped. The passengers gather at the top of the gangplank, hesitant, as if in some doubt as to whether permission has been granted to disembark, or whether there could be a quarantine, or perhaps they are apprehensive about those slippery steps. But it is the silent city that frightens them, perhaps all its inhabitants have perished and the rain is only falling to dissolve into mud what has remained standing. Along the quayside grimy portholes glow dimly, the spars are branches lopped from trees, the hoists are still. It is Sunday. Beyond the docksheds lies the somber city, enclosed by façades and walls, as yet protected from the rain, perhaps drawing back a heavy, embroidered curtain, looking out with vacant eyes, listening to the water gurgling on the rooftops, down the drainpipes to the gutters below, and onto the gleaming limestone of the pavement to the brimming drains, some of their covers raised where they have flooded.
The first passengers disembark. Their shoulders bent under the monotonous rain, they carry sacks and suitcases and have the lost expression of those who have endured the voyage as if in a dream of flowing images, between sea and sky, the prow going up and down like a metronome, the waves rising and falling, the hypnotic horizon. Someone is carrying a child in his arms, a child so silent it must be Portuguese. It does not ask where they are, or else it was promised that if it went to sleep at once in that stuffy berth, it would wake up in a beautiful city where it would live happily ever after. Another fairy tale, for these people have been unable to endure the hardships of emigration. An elderly woman who insists on opening her umbrella has dropped the green tin box shaped like a little trunk that she was carrying under her arm. The box has crashed onto the pebbles on the quayside, breaking open, its bottom falling out. It contained nothing of value, a few souvenirs, some bits of colored cloth, letters and photographs scattered by the wind, some glass beads shattered into smithereens, balls of white yarn now badly stained, one of them disappearing between the quayside and the side of the ship. The woman is a third-class passenger.
As they set foot on land, the passengers run to take shelter. The foreigners mutter about the storm as if we were responsible for the bad weather, they appear to forget that in their beloved France or England the weather is usually a great deal worse. In short, they use the slightest pretext, even nature's rain, to express their contempt for poorer nations. We have more serious reasons for complaint, but we remain silent. This is a foul winter, with whatever crops there were uprooted from the fertile soil, and how we miss them, being such a small country. The baggage is already being unloaded. Under their glossy capes the sailors resemble hooded wizards, while, down below, the Portuguese porters move swiftly in their peaked caps and short jackets weatherproofed and lined, so indifferent to the deluge that they astonish all who watch. Perhaps this disdain for personal comfort will move the purses of the passengers, or wallets as one says nowadays, to take pity on them, and that pity will be converted into tips. A backward clan, with outstretched hand, each man sells what he possesses in good measure, resignation, humility, patience, may we continue to find people who trade in this world with such wares. The passengers go through customs, few in number, but it will take them some time to get out, for there are many forms to be filled in and the handwriting of the customs officers on duty is painstaking. It is just possible that the quickest of them will get some rest this Sunday. It is growing dark although it is only four o'clock, a few more shadows and it will be night, but in here it is always night, the dim lamps lit all day long and some burned out. That lamp there has been out for a week and still hasn't been replaced. The windows, covered with grime, allow a watery light to penetrate. The heavy air smells of damp clothing, rancid baggage, the cheap material of uniforms, and there is not a trace of happiness in this homecoming. The customs shed is an antechamber, a limbo, before one passes on to what awaits outside.
A grizzled fellow, skin and bones, signs the last of the forms. Receiving copies, the passenger can go, depart, resume his existence on terra firma. He is accompanied by a porter whose physical appearance need not be described in detail, otherwise we should have to continue this examination forever. To avoid confusing anyone who might need to distinguish this porter from another, we will say only that he is skin and bones, grizzled, and as dark and clean-shaven as the man he is accompanying. Yet they are both quite different, one a passenger, one a porter. The latter pulls a huge suitcase on a metal cart, while the other two suitcases, small by comparison, are suspended from his neck with a strap that goes around the nape like a yoke or the collar of a religious habit. Once outside, under the protection of the jutting roof, he puts the luggage on the ground and goes in search of a taxi, they are usually here waiting when a ship arrives. The passenger looks at the low clouds, the puddles on the rough ground, the water by the quayside contaminated with oil, peelings, refuse of every kind, then he notices several unobtrusive warships. He did not expect to find them here, the proper place for these vessels is at sea, or, when not engaged in war or military maneuvers, in the estuary, which is more than wide enough to give anchorage to all the fleets in the world, as one used to say and perhaps still says, without bothering to see what fleets they might be. Other passengers emerged from customs, accompanied by their porters, then the taxi appeared, splashing water beneath its wheels. The waiting passengers waved their arms frantically, but the porter leaped onto the running board and made a broad gesture, It's for this gentleman, thus showing how even a humble employee in the port of Lisbon, when rain and circumstances permit, may hold happiness in his meager hands, which he can bestow or withhold at a moment's notice, a power attributed to God when we talk of life. While the taxi driver loaded his luggage into the trunk, the passenger, betraying for the first time a slight Brazilian accent, asked, Why are warships moored here. Panting for breath as he helped the taxi driver lift the heavy suitcase, the porter replied, Ah, it's the naval dock, because of the weather these ships were towed in the day before yesterday, otherwise they would have drifted off and run ashore at Alges. Other taxis began to arrive. Either they had been delayed or else the steamer docked an hour earlier than expected. Now there was an open-air market in the square, plenty of taxis for everyone. How much do I owe you, the passenger asked. Whatever you care to give on top of the fixed fare, the porter replied, but he did not say what the fixed fare was or put an actual price on his services, trusting to the good fortune that protects the courageous, even when the courageous are only baggage handlers. I have only English money, Oh, that's fine, and he saw ten shillings placed into his right hand, coins that shone more brightly than the sun itself. At long last the celestial sphere has banished the clouds that hovered oppressively over Lisbon. Because of such heavy burdens and deep emotions, the first condition for the survival and prosperity of any porter is to have a stout heart, a heart made of bronze, otherwise he will soon collapse, undone. Anxious to repay the passenger's excessive generosity, or at least not to be indebted in terms of words, he offers additional information that no one wants, and expressions of gratitude that no one heeds. They are torpedo boats, they are ours, Portuguese, this is the Tejo, the Dao, the Lima, the Vouga, the Tâmega, the Dao is that one nearest you. No one could have told the difference, one could even have changed their names around, they all looked alike, identical, painted a drab gray, awash with rain, without a sign of life on the decks, their flags soaked like rags. But no disrespect is intended, we know that this destroyer is the Dao. Perhaps we shall have news of her later.
The porter raises his cap and thanks him. The taxi drives off, Where to. This question, so simple, so natural, so fitting for the place and circumstances, takes the passenger unawares, as if a ticket purchased in Rio de Janeiro should provide the answer to all such questions, even those posed in the past, which at the time met with nothing but silence. Now, barely disembarked, the passenger sees at once that this is not so, perhaps because he has been asked one of the two fatal questions, Where to. The other question, and much worse, is Why. The taxi driver looked into his rearview mirror, thinking the passenger had not heard him. He was opening his mouth to repeat, Where to, but the reply came first, still indecisive, hesitant, To a hotel. Which hotel, I don't know, and having said, I don't know, the passenger knew precisely what he wanted, knew it with the utmost conviction, as if he had spent the entire voyage making up his mind, A hotel near the river, down in this part of the city. The only hotel near the river is the Bragança, at the beginning of the Rua do Alecrim. I don't remember the hotel, but I know where the street is, I used to live in Lisbon, I'm Portuguese. Ah, you're Portuguese, from your accent I thought you might be Brazilian. Is it so very noticeable. Well, just a little, enough to tell the difference. I haven't been back in Portugal for sixteen years. Sixteen years is a long time, you will find that things have changed a lot around here. With these words the taxi driver suddenly fell silent.
His passenger did not get the impression that there were many changes. The avenue they followed was much as he remembered it, only the trees looked taller, and no wonder, for they had had sixteen years in which to grow. Even so, because in his mind's eye he could still see green foliage, and because the wintry nakedness of the branches diminished the height of the rows, one image balanced out the other. The rain had died away, only a few scattered drops continued to fall, but in the sky there was not a trace of blue, the clouds had not dispersed and they formed one vast roof the color of lead. Has there been much rain, the passenger inquired. For the last two months it has been bucketing down like the great flood, the driver replied as he switched off his windshield wipers. Few cars were passing and even fewer trams, the occasional pedestrian warily closed his umbrella, along the sidewalks stood great pools of muddy water caused by blocked drains. Several bars were open, side by side, murky, their viscous lights encircled by shadows, the silent image of a dirty wineglass on a zinc counter. These façades are the great wall that screens the city, and the taxi skirts them without haste, as if searching for some break or opening, a Judas gate, or the entrance to a labyrinth. The train from Cascais passes slowly, chugging along at a sluggish pace yet still with enough speed to overtake the taxi, but then it falls behind and enters the station just as the taxi turns into the square. The driver informs him, The hotel is that one as you enter the street. He halted in front of a café and added, You'd better ask first if they have any rooms, I can't park outside the door because of the trams. The passenger got out, glanced fleetingly at the café, which was named Royal, a commercial example of monarchical nostalgia in a republican era, or of reminiscences of the last reign, here disguised in English or French. A curious situation, one looks at the word without knowing whether it should be pronounced rôial or ruaiale. He had time to consider the problem because it was no longer raining and the road went uphill. Then he imagined himself walking back from the hotel, with or without a room, and no sign of the taxi, it has vanished with all his luggage and clothes, his papers, and he wondered how he could exist deprived of these things and all his other worldly goods. Climbing the front steps of the hotel, he realized from these musings that he was exhausted, that he was suffering from an overwhelming fatigue, an infinite weariness, a sense of despair, if we really know what despair means when we say that word.