At the beginning of February a woman from Harper Collins asked me if I would like to join a group of writers in Lisbon, all expenses paid for a long weekend, to hear about a novel, meet the author and tour the sites associated with the book, Codex 632, which seeks to prove that as a result of a long and complicated conspiracy the fact that Columbus was a Portuguese Jew had been suppressed. The bound galleys were sent to me and I should have refused as the book is a clunky mechanical effort hoping to duplicate the success, if that book can be seen as a success, The DaVinci Code.
But I did accept and began to read again in Pessoa because I realized I could finally see the city of this most wonderful of writers.
I re-read but did not act on Pessoa's words:
Travel? One need only exist to travel. I go from day to day, as from station to station, in the train of my body or my destiny, leaning out over the streets and squares, over people's faces and gestures, always the same and always different, just like scenery.
If I imagine, I see. What more do I do when I travel? Only extreme poverty of the imagination justifies having to travel to feel.
I watched IN THE WHITE CITY a film by Alain Tanner which walks Bruno Ganz about the hilly streets and by the shore front of Lisbon as he makes little movies showing what he sees and which he sends to a woman back home as a way to remind himself that he is away.
Because it is not on VHS or DVD I was not able to re-watch Tanner's RETOUR D'AFRIQUE... and the great lesson of that film that sometimes it is better to just think about going away and then not go away... though when I re-read a review by Vincent Canby which was not at all kind about a movie I remember liking very much because it reflected so well my own boredom and vicissitude in 1973..."It is never strong enough to prevent the boredom and futility experienced by Vincent and Francoise from seeping into the experience of watching the film."
Well, I had admired the film for so well depicting my desperate situation of living in the Earle Hotel in a room over-looking Washington Square--- the same room according to Richard M. Elman, that Lenny Bruce had lived in, behind aluminum foil covered windows... but that is all another story...
I had asked the guys at Dalkey Archive if they knew how to get in touch with Antonio Lobo Antunes whose new novel they were publishing, KNOWLEDGE OF HELL. I had written about two of his previous novels and he is the best living Portuguese writer. Dalkey Archive did not know how to get in touch with him. He didn't answer his mail.
So now I was confronted by the reason for why should I go to Lisbon?
To sit in the cafe Pessoa sat in?... to see some pretty buildings?... to note the downward spiral that was sure to be on display from the 1920s when Albert Jay Nock was in Lisbon and noted that they had the best bookshops in Europe because Portugal had the lowest rate of literacy in Europe and as a result the country was also free for the most part of billboards...
I tried to watch another movie LISBON STORY by Wim Wenders but it was nearly unwatchable. Ugly people in ugly places celebrating EUROPE... would probably be an unfair summary of the film but it put me in a very dark mood to think again about having been in Lisbon.
---the low road---
The e-tickets were long in coming but the details of the first class hotel, the meals to be eaten, the places to be seen and the description of the fellow travelers--- free lancers: one wrote for the Boston Globe, a few wrote for Jewish newspapers and one did something for SHELF AWARENESS... and myself...
I had already gone to Lisbon... if there was a financial incentive I could describe the whole weekend...
The e-ticket finally arrived and it was for tourist class courtesy of the Portuguese airlines and the land arrangements were from the Lisbon or Portuguese tourist office... so the journey was not sponsored by Harper Collins... and my excuse for not going finally was I could not see myself for 14 hours to and fro crammed into a tourist seat on a plane for three nights in Lisbon..
A low reason, I guess, and I did have second thoughts but still that crammed in sitting and the basic cheapness of the airline--- how was one to enjoy the sights, the meals after such a flight and then the coming back to a week of recovering...
I could never figure out why me? though a friend said I guess they know you write about foreign books with a real appetite but I knew deep down it was my connection to the LA Times that really interested them... and that connection is real and so this was really business and so finally on that low road I was surprised that they had offered me a tourist class seat on the plane-- but to be fair the nice woman at Harper Collins did say there was the possibility of an up-grade but the dice had been rolled and that up-grade should have been from Business to First to have any real meaning.
All through these last few weeks I was remembering Michael Oldfield, the former editor of Melody Maker, saying when I told him of this trip or junket as it might reasonably be described, "Everybody hates people who go on junkets."
I do not know if Oldfield is really correct though hearing of someone's good luck is never totally free of envy and begrudgery...
Jewish people in New York to whom I mentioned this voyage told me that they had long heard that Columbus was a Jew. I looked at Morrison's great definitive biography of Columbus and he argued that there is no real solid evidence for this rumour which has been about for centuries. A friend of Anna's was here from Barcelona and she said everyone there knows that Columbus was Catalan. Elizabeth Frank suggested to me that of course Columbus has to be a Jew now that generally in liberal circles Columbus is seen as a greedy Indian killing monster.. and such a book I added, to Elizabeth's insight, by suggesting that it was another little scratch of the resurgent European antisemitism that is a very real characteristic of the European left...
and so, a little sad--- I didn't get to ask my question though I had anticipated a certain real pleasure in seeing what would have happened if I had asked that question...
Did I learn anything?