Dreams of Lisbon

After Porto, Lisbon is a thunderclap of light. The Portuguese sketchers we met in Porto tried to prepare us. They told us that Lisbon is a “brighter” city. But we didn’t understand how very different the quality of light actually is until we arrived at the Santa Apolónia station and emerged from the shadowed interior into a blinding vista.

The light seems magnified by the city’s building materials and physical situation — the whitewashed walls and pale stone. But also by the much wider river valley along which the Tagus River, far broader and deeper than the Douro, flows and shimmers in the sun.

On our second day, a massive Disney cruise ship, decorated with Mickey Mouse ears, heaved into position and remained squatting there for forty-eight hours.

We stayed within sight of the Disney ship, in the ancient quarter of Alfama, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Given the number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites we’ve visited on our travels, I’m becoming a little doubtful about their standards of admission. It won’t be long before Decarie Hot Dog is also declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its fryer oil protected as a cultural legacy for future generations.

The ancient neighbourhood of Alfama, spread out before us.
The light is blinding, and so the shadows are sharp.

The Greek confidence man

On our second-to-last day, while Shari sat in a hilltop churchyard to sketch the pattern of clay-tiled roofs below, I wandered the dusty cobbled lanes. Rounding a corner, I discovered a small used-book store with a number of English books in the window — mostly out-dated guidebooks and beach novels.

Inside, a young woman sat behind the counter, wearing an old-style patterned blouse and smoking a cigarette. She barely looked up when I entered.

In the corner, a box of English books rested on a chair alongside a hand-drawn sign — ONELY €1. Digging through, I found an old paperback translation of a Portuguese novel titled Dreaming Worlds, written by Hingston Vinheiros. By the looks of it, Dreaming Worlds had been produced on the cheap, with a cheesy illustration of people fleeing a flying saucer, which bears no connection to the story inside. The book didn’t name the translator. Nor did the copyright page list the date of the original edition, although the edition I found is marked 1963.

But here’s the really curious thing. A few days earlier, I had read an article in the July 30th issue of The New Yorker about a Spyros Enotiades, who worked for years as a DEA informant. Basically, his job was to infiltrate the society of violent and hyper-suspicious drug lords, and to convince them — through his language, manners and charisma — that he was, like them, a high-stakes criminal. His heroics as a world-class con put many criminals behind bars.

I positively devoured the article, not just because it profiles a Greek confidence man — Greek trickster figures date all the way to the Odyssey — but mostly because he spells his name with a y, as I do, instead of an i. This is the pettiest of reasons for reading a long New Yorker profile of an obscure con man. But I lead a quiet life and am easily impressed.

Around the corner, down a flight of steps, I found a small bookshop.

Feeding the dreamer

In any case, it was barely two days later, and as I thumbed through this yellowed paperback in a tiny bookstore in Lisbon, out from its pages jumped a character named Spyros. Without any more examination of the book, in high excitement, I handed over a one-euro coin and began walking back to our rented apartment, repeatedly tripping over the cobbles as I buried my nose in the book, seeking this other Spyro.

Dreaming Worlds is a work of fantasy. It tells the story of a rich man in Lisbon who gradually withdraws into himself, quits society and stays in bed. He spends his days dreaming about a universe where rebel androids have exterminated all humans and created a society governed by reason and good sense. Eventually a small faction of these androids, working in secret, begins to experiment on life forms, with the intention of restarting humanity — a second chance, as it were. Long conversations ensue in which androids discuss humanity’s deep-seated flaws and…I began to yawn.

The idea wasn’t new. It’s been covered by the science fiction writer Phillip K. Dick, whose Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? became the Blade Runner movies, and by other writers.

But what happened outside this man’s dreams held me tighter.

Over time, the dreaming man’s family begins to forget about him. They find they can get on quite well without his presence, although they continue to bring a tray of food and water to his door each morning.

As the years pass, forgetfulness, or a kind of sympathetic dreaming state, also overwhelms the family. Only the iron ritual of feeding the dreaming man remains intact, which various members of the family continue to honour. As the home’s inhabitants come and go, as marriage, birth and death alter the size and composition of the family, so, too, does the house change.

During one period of heavy remodelling, the doorway to man’s room is walled off to create a new wing. However, the construction workers are instructed to leave an opening near the floor, so family members can continue to slide a tray of food and water behind the wall, even though they’ve long since forgotten why they do this…

While reading the book, at several points I wondered about the quality of the translation. The language was flat and awkward in many places. It reminded me of reading an English translation of the great novel, Blindness, by the Portuguese Nobel Prize winner, José Saramago. Here, too, the wooden prose seems to emerge from a Portuguese speaker who has no feeling for idiomatic English. It’s a translation, but it hardly matters. Saramago’s pitiless vision burns through the lead-footed language.

(Maybe this just a late style of certain great writers? I’ve noticed the same awkward prose in John Coetzee’s later novels, as if winning the Nobel finally gives them permission to not try as hard.)

I don’t know how Dreaming Worlds ends because, as I eventually discovered, its final pages — however many remained — have long since fallen out.

And, by the way, the Spyros that jumped up from its pages turned out to be a Greek servant who prepares the dreaming man’s meals. He also functions as a kind of oracle in the novel. But as I said, I don’t know how the book ends.

We’re back in Montreal now. I’ve looked for more information about Hingston Vinheiros, but have yet to find anything. Let me know if anything comes up.

On the left, a small section of the 16th-century Casa dos Bicos, our favourite building in Lisbon, with its facade of pointy titties. It also houses the Saramago Museum.
Forget all my nonsense about High Encrustation being a characteristically Portuguese architectural and decorative style. The cloister inside the Jerónimos Monastery in Belem, just outside Lisbon, is magnificent and worth visiting. 
A view from a tower of people studying the many achievements, some questionable, of Portuguese navigators, explorers and colonizers.


7 thoughts on “Dreams of Lisbon”

  1. I read Blindness too and thought the phrasing a bit odd. But I love your account of your newly-found Spyros. All this reminds me of the discussions around whether AIs should be programmed to explain themselves…


  2. The odd phrasing in Blindness might exist in the original, but I have no access to the Portuguese. It could be a device for distancing the reader. With the growth of AI, we’re seeing a resurgence of a certain kind of speculative fiction. A recent story by Ian McEwen in The New York Review of Books, and my return to Philip K. Dick after all these years, and an essay I read on the Argentinian writer Ricardo Piglia, along with the profile of Spyros Enotiadis in The New Yorker, and my stumbling across this little bookstore in Lisbon… I was helpless.


  3. Dear Spyro,
    I thoroughly enjoyed reading all your descriptions of your recent travels! Our family
    visited many of the places you described and it brought back many delicious memories!
    Thank you.


  4. Again, terrific writing. Made me chuckle out loud several times — well, a stifled chuckle so as not to disturb my fellow passengers on the train. Your photos are terrific! Denis and I were in Portugal in 1982, I feel like I was in that small passageway to the bookstore. Though I realize there are many like it in Porto. I have read Blindness, figured the language was use part of the flavour of the tale. But what do I know?


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