So it goes.

I was here before, and I am here still

The mystery of things is in their ineffability. When now I try to figure out Lisbon I still long to see the city as from the windows of the cab on my first night here, a strange geography of decay where light and shadow allow glimpses of an old colossus at the end of the world. The buildings of the Avenida Libertade, streaked all over by dark tears and burdened by the sadness of obsolete signs that in their time must have looked grand and exciting, palms all around as static one-legged giants standing with their monstrous heads held high. The lights burning into the depths of the Assembleia as in a monumental subterranean cave. The fulgent dome of Estrela, an alien spaceship trapped in wires and surrounded by the black manes of the trees. The blinded eyes of the abandoned houses, mouths agape, neglected mummies of ceramic and wood.

And now, now I can almost feel the terrible ubiquity of familiarity, and I can finally place everything… Everything? I look up and on top of a towering building a fluorescent light is still on. Cold and eerie against the dark summer sky, it glows like the eye of a sea monster. I need more dull light, to dispel the tricks of memory, to become once again a stranger. Beware the anaesthetic of routine, you start to feel for places that are not even there. I walk with an eye turned inward and my city is all there, forever defiled and falling apart. When I will be gone, memory will turn sour, then recede. Will I be freer then? Will my inward eye weep harder than the outward one right now? 

Five minutes of delay

The apparent stillness of the Tejo in the distance, the big clouds overhead drawing dark shapes on its reticent surface, these are things I can imagine dreaming when I will not be here anymore. Will they be happy or sad dreams? I wonder. Perhaps they will be neither. The dream of the fool is a lonely place indeed. And yet there is no word that is only mine, and in these delusions the dreams I dream are someone else’s too. Already I have to look out of the window to make out the ripples on the river and start over and over. The bird cries the same cry night and day, a cry that drowns more easily than it fluctuates in the air. And then there are more ripples besides, all these remote voices are glimmering over the waters.

Henri et compagnie, why don’t you stick to what you care for?

I hate ethnographic photography. Everywhere it’s full of these competent little photographers — and of incompetent ones too — who spend their relatively big budgets or the big budgets of some affluent media outlet on travel tickets to the realm of exotic to collect extraordinary faces and situations. The photos they produce are so patronizing and mundane, yet the tiny eye of the avid public never tires of them. They go “wow” over the trinkets and the fancy costumes — or the lack of them –, over the different shape of the noses and ears, over the dirt, the smoke, the deviance of situations, over the strangeness of animals, buildings, over ruins and unheard of food, and so on and so on. And it’s not only the obviously exotic, the remote and the bizarre; poverty and destitution fall into the same category most of the times. They constitute a very special kind of exoticism, often closer to the maker and to the viewer spatially but not conceptually. It may be that my curiosity is terribly warped, but looking at these images I cannot stop myself from yawning inwardly.

You put a stranger in a situation where he is a hopeless alien, culturally, emotionally, but also intellectually, and you expect him to produce a lifelike portrayal of something he doesn’t even know how to read with his own eyes.  Even the sharpest mind cannot comprehend everything at first glance, it’s not a matter of bad will, but rather of lack of instruments to decode, to feel instantaneously. It’s also the urgency of the visitor, who wants to fill his travel bag quickly and is already projecting his whole being on the comeback, too engrossed in these and other preoccupations, even if not entirely consciously, that he has no time to open up fully to the new surroundings. Given the circumstances, the photographer makes a neat set of postcard pictures, or, in the best cases, a sensible and even semi-artistic visual sample fit to accompany some entry on the National Geographic. It’s not necessarily their fault, but the photographers have no real empathy for their exotic subject, and no understanding as well. They are more or less after producing literal illustrations and the viewer likewise scans these images like a catalogue of novelties, like those albums full of figurines all dressed up in their regional costumes that were popular many years ago. The camera, however sophisticated its elaborate collection of knobs and buttons, is just a recorder, and as such it only records a vacuum of incomprehension.

The celebrated and the committed, those that in the course of time have been making and will make the relevant photos, the masterpieces, often have a tendency to take this kind of pictures too. I’m looking at a number of photographers who won their respect with their skill and perspicacity. Take Cartier-Bresson’s portraits of people — writers and painters, but also common folks — in environments closer to his personal experience and sensibility and look at the difference with his photos of China… This is particularly evident when you give the same photographer a subject he knows well or can feel for. Most of what is labeled as “reportage” is a record of the photographer’s lack of comprehension in a given moment and situation, more than it is a document about the subject’s truths.

As a comparison I am thinking about the exoticism in the paintings of Paul Gauguin. Yes, a painting is a different artefact from a photograph, and one mediated rather than immediate, thus it bears a different message in itself and it is likely born for a different purpose. However, Gauguin is the example of a man who needed to penetrate the subject by feeling not only outer but also inner proximity with it before giving his portrayal such an emblematic and humane depth. His paintings are not about the quirky folkloristic side of the natives and their environment, they are not patronizing, because Gauguin feels a sincere kinship with his subjects and knows them as well as he has command of his art. The subjects in his paintings can afford to become universal symbols because they are so close to the artist’s particular way of relating to the world, intellectually and emotionally. The artist here is not looking at a specimen. And that’s exactly what I find so aggravating about the ethnographic photos, that even when they are so cleverly made they remain a voiceless specimen deprived of any identity. As Berger would put it, I feel no desire to bestow upon them a past and a future.

In a wordless whirl of words

This vacuum needs to be filled, waits to be filled. I’m looking for the word that will unlock a consciousness, shake a will; a word that will break the barrier of dead comfort. But there it is, the word. It only bears the outward semblance of meaning, a smooth stone in a barren womb. I feel the torment of the searcher who always comes back with the empty hand and an inside out pocket around the crooked waistline, the bumpy knees bruised but not yet bleeding. The relentless flow of locutions in the midst of which I stand as a silent pillar in ruins erodes the glaze of certainty which I put on everyday as one wears a cloak to conceal utter confusion and lack of purpose. I’m sucked in from the inside, guts collapsing again and again. A mouth that stretches its corners doesn’t often tell the truth. Collecting the refuse of days is a deranged contentment, but in the dark, clasping the sheets, I close one eye at a time.

On leaving Lisbon

This city is an injured diamond, its broken facets shining day and night. White and coral, the doubtful light grazes dry crevices and blotches of mould on these quiet façades. Blue and yellow flourishes reflect echoes of dogs barking and remorseful human cries. It’s a melancholy that has no purpose, so perfect and true. I look up and see grass growing in the sky and I say to myself, “This is the place, the place to be. Let my body rest here.” My doleful stance is heavy with confusion. Summer rages on, timid enough to be tempting. I just want to find a hole where I can sleep for two hundred years, all responsibilities forgotten, all ambition void of meaning.

Lisbon, you have become my cradle, the warm comforter of my lethargy, but the day is long and the eye of the moral destitute needs to wander. My face is growing longer under the sun. I will leave you with pain, hopeless, vagarious. The hope of a comeback is not the luxury of the maladjusted.


Her little joy lasted less than a handful of days. The dazzling light of the kitten Pombalina has sunk fast. Just one week ago she was sending loud cries to a cherished missing mother. “Find me,” she said, “I’m so lonely and everything is so scary, I don’t have big enough teeth yet.” Instead of welcoming back the beloved whiskers, she was abducted by strange people, then handled, washed, given medicines, all in the hope her tiny frame would grow stronger… but for whom? All passed her by without her consent, but she timidly submitted to everything. She was tired, she accepted any home that would have her.
Once she found herself in a new environment, she made a house in the midst of towels. Buried in fluff smelling of laundry she would dream about the litter, the familiar scents of warm milk and cuddly sleep, of the little brothers and sisters who, one by one, were fated to disappear. She stayed there most of the time, a soft bundle of silence enveloping her, emerging once in a while to eat and to be socialized, to play.
It’s curious how life has always a way of creeping into the most unlikely spaces. Pombalina’s short-lived existence took place in the fissure between the lonely fear of the dark streets and the dissolution of the body. In this negligible interval she had the time of her life, purring and wishing to jump, looking askance at the dog while getting her ears cleaned and biting avidly on fingertips.
The sun in Lisbon goes down today over a city of forgotten cats. This world is still big enough to be a wonder, but she will never know how far its cruelty and beauty can reach. She will never eat a cockroach, fall down the chest of drawers when she’s fallen asleep or brush her spotted head against the hand that feeds her. Her sight was limited to an irregular ridge of rags and towers of shoe boxes, the light in the towel rack went out so soon. Her frivolous name is her burial’s ultimate treasure, the only gift she was given, the sole proof she was here at all.