8 books about Lisbon in English (that aren’t travel guides)
I always wanted to share a list of books about Lisbon that weren’t travel guides, but that weren’t one-hundred percent fiction either (even the ones listed here that are fiction have Lisbon as background). Lisbon as a scenario. Lisbon as a spectator. Lisbon as a character. Lisbon as a subject of our full, undivided attention. Imagine how many cities you can find here.
"Secret Lisbon" by Vitor Manuel Adrião
Do you know how some people claim – myself included on more than one occasion – to know a place like the back of their hand? Well, I used to think that about Lisbon until the day I found this book and started to flip through the pages. The fact that I couldn’t put it down was more than enough reason to buy it. Are you familiar with those stories (Dan Brown style) about secret messages and hidden meanings, where nothing is what it seems? This book, my friends, is the Lisbon version of that.
The minute I bought this book, I knew this was the kind of book you read twice – the first time, to get to know the stories, and the second time, to go to all the spots listed to confirm them. I haven’t done it yet but will let you know when I start (it’s a long list).
"What the Tourist Should See" by Fernando Pessoa
Whether you’ve visited Lisbon already or are planning to, chances are you’ve heard about Fernando Pessoa. His statue has to be the most famous one in the whole city where people pose for photos. Outside the Brasileira Café – an overrated and overcrowded place where the service does not live up to the expectations brought by its fame – the bronze statue, sharply dressed and low-key, sits with the posture of a regular customer (which he was, in the early 20th Century).
Pessoa was a complex author, and one of the most difficult to interpret. I will argue one day that he probably didn’t want to be interpreted at all; he just wanted to write (frequently under the influence of low-quality alcohol). He kept writing and creating, furiously, generating new personas when his own voice wasn’t enough to say what he meant. To say the least, he was vertiginous.
After his death, his descendants found a trunk of bits and pieces, some scribbled random notes and some unpublished work – this book was among them, written in English, as the author’s take on showing the real Lisbon to tourists. See? Even in 1925, there was already a concern with what was authentic.
"Street Art Lisbon"
When the subject is urban art, I have no idea where to begin. If someone asks me about the best spots for street art in Lisbon, I could hardly tell the difference between a vandalized wall and a signature statement by a renown artist (unless I’m looking at something that I easily recognise, made by Vhils, Os Gemeos, or MaisMenos). In fact, part of me doesn’t find it beautiful all the time. I know art is about interpretation, but clearly I’m miles away from grasping the concept of street art. I agree that, mostly, it adds a colorful vibe to the city (and we, the Portuguese, are sometimes known for being gloomy and always complaining about something).
This book is a photo collection of different artworks – some of them very familiar to me, others a complete surprise (and a handful of others that I don’t consider to be art… but that’s my divergent interpretation) – and includes a map with all these spots in the city.
Side note: as you know, street art is not always permanent, so chances are that some of these works only exist in the book today.
"Disquiet Lisbon" by Bernardo Soares (edited by Jerónimo Pízarro)
For the sake of accuracy, Bernardo Soares is one of the personas created by Fernando Pessoa. He is not an alter ego nor a pen name; he was one of the many characters imagined, created and brought to life by the hand of Pessoa – they were his heteronyms, and they all wrote and published their work as individuals. “The Book of Disquiet”* was an unfinished work found after the author’s death and later published (it’s more of a compilation of loose notes than a book, in the traditional sense). This is a book you don’t read all at once, in fact, I’ve been reading it over the years, by opening up the book at random pages. Oddly, it always makes sense (you will be able to find some structure easily).
Author considerations aside, that book is also a unique perspective on Lisbon’s life through the eyes of an office clerk – as unenthusiastic as this might sound.
This edition strips out the rest of the book, leaving only Bernardo Soares’ account of the city (and its people).
"Lisboa, Cidade Triste e Alegre" by Victor Palla & Costa Martins
The cities shift as its population’s fads and trends change; if you think they’re not as organic as living tissue just because they’re made of bricks and stone, you haven’t been paying attention. I notice this in Lisbon, and the change has been fast in the last 20 years I’ve lived here. This is a very recent realization, and it happened around the time I started exploring the city for the sake of writing travel guides and blog posts. I miss certain parts of the city, but I still have the memory of them (so, they’re not really gone).
This book – a limited edition launched in 2009 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first edition – pairs the raw and untidy city life in the 1950’s (via unpolished, snap-shot-like, black and white photography) with poems by Portuguese authors.
There’s something about Lisbon that compels poets to write about her. Often portrayed as a woman (sometimes a maiden, sometimes a luscious vixen, frequently luminous and bright), the city has as many facets as the number of authors that have written about it.
Compiling poems written about Lisbon in a book is not completely original, I assume, but editing them in English side by side with its original version gives it a refreshing twist. A lot is lost in translation from Portuguese to English; in poetry, the odds of that happening are higher. Hopefully, having access to the Portuguese version to compare it with might help to keep some of the meaning.
Side note: If you ever walk the 8Km trail between Belém and Cais do Sodré (or part of it), somewhere (I think in Alcântara, or slightly after that) stencilled on the sidewalk you can read the poem “Eu Sou do Tamanho do que Vejo” (“I Am the Size of What I See”) by Alberto Caeiro (Heteronym of Fernando Pessoa).
"Queen of the Sea: A History of Lisbon" by Barry Hatton
I often talk about Lisbon’s several cultural and historical layers. The most famous historical event in the city, the Great Earthquake of 1755, not only shook Lisbon violently but buried its past under more layers of rubble and speedy reconstructed buildings and streets.
Nevertheless, now and then we manage to unearth what’s beneath the surface, like the Roman galleries under Baixa-Chiado. And while the future discoveries may be an act of luck, Barry Hatton’s book can unveil all those layers that built Lisbon into the city we know today.
"A Short Book on the Great Earthquake" by Rui Tavares
I have the Portuguese version of this book, a birthday present from a friend, and I was looking forward to an English translation. And, here it is. You can now buy it in English directly from the publisher (yes, they ship worldwide).
Rui Tavares is many things — author, historian, politician, professor, public figure — but to me, the most important side of him is the storyteller. In this book, he weaves a convincing story around Lisbon’s likely most transformative natural disaster (the Great Earthquake of 1755) and the ripple effect throughout Europe.
In a mix of political, historical, and philosophical considerations around the impact of the earthquake, Tavares also takes us by the hand through a would-be Lisbon in a parallel universe where the earthquake never happened.
My advice? Read it before, during, and after you travel to Lisbon.