Achilles and the Lusitan Tortoise

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Manguel on the "Lusitans"

After just a few months in Lisbon, undaunted by his ignorance of the language, Manguel manages to cobble together this portrait of the Portuguese psyche mostly, it would appear, from bits of information gleaned from his readings. Always anxious to impress, he gives us a soporific list of authors consulted, including ten Portuguese writers (all but three dead!). Missing, however, is a reference for his use of the term “Lusitan” and I can only conclude that this is a neologism of his own creation (perhaps he meant “Lusitanian”?). Pity that a global pandemic precluded field work. Human contact seems to have been limited to conversations with friends who speak slowly and don't interrupt, and to encounters with obstructive petty bureaucrats. Had Manguel been allowed to mingle with the masses, he might have discovered the pleasure of eating - or at the very least learned how to spell - bacalhau. That aside, this essay has given me valuable insight into a question that has puzzled me since September 2020, when the City of Lisbon announced the creation of the “Centre for Research into the History of Reading” to house Manguel’s personal library. Now I get it!

Now I know that it was Portuguese provincialism that led the mayor of the city, Fernando Medina, dazzled by the erudition of the cosmopolitan writer, to pronounce, as told by Manguel himself in Literary Review that “the collection was exactly what Lisbon needed”. And with that pesky incapacity for irony imbedded in the Portuguese character, the mayor of a city with perennial financial difficulties, a city criticized here by Manguel for its “inability to tend their many dishevelled gardens”, agreed to use precious funds on a vanity project, on the say-so of the writer’s local publisher. So flattered was Mr. Medina that he never considered why the donation, presented as a coup for Lisbon, had been politely refused by many other places.

If Mr. Manguel were to cultivate the arts of listening and observing, he might learn that the Portuguese have a biting wit and a certain penchant for black humour, honed during four decades of dictatorship. Many a cynic can see the absurdity of having a centre for the history of reading in a county that is trying to forget that until recently it had the highest rate of illiteracy in Europe. That a rate of 26% in the 1970 census was reduced to 5% by 2011 is testament to very hard work, and the Portuguese have a right to be proud. If Manguel is to contribute to his adoptive city, he might descend from Mt Olympus, stop lamenting that the Portuguese are not avid readers and consider how this might be remedied. But perhaps the hero of this tragicomedy is already imagining young Lusitanians, readers of the twenty-first century, thronging at the doors of the palace on the Rua das Janelas Verdes for the honour of reading books written in foreign languages, and chosen by an old pedant inhabiting an alternate universe.

Teresa Costa 109 days ago

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