Teolinda Gersão - a story that leads readers down multiple paths, through myth and history, reality and fantasy, literature and the visual arts, the past and the present, male and female relations, the crisis of civilisation and the need to reimagine the world.
Teolinda Gersão, City of Ulysses, Trans. by Jethro Soutar and Annie McDermott, Dalkey Archive Press, 2017.
A man and a woman meet in Lisbon and fall in love. City of Ulysses is their story, and the city's love story besides. It is a story that leads readers down multiple paths, through myth and history, reality and fantasy, literature and the visual arts, the past and the present, male and female relations, the crisis of civilisation and the need to reimagine the world.
An elegant paean to love—and to “the least known of all European capital cities,” Lisbon.
By Portuguese novelist Gersão’s account, speaking through her many-flawed hero, Paulo Vaz, “for millions of perfectly well-informed people across the globe, Portugal barely existed: at most, it was a narrow strip of land tacked onto the side of Spain.” She does much here to make the country and the city come into a life of specific detail: how the sunlight glints, how spring arrives to the soft green trees on the Avenida da Liberdade, how a crumpled-up T-shirt bearing the slogan “Lisbon is for lovers” looks when covered with “salt and boat oil.” Gersão’s central theme, though, is the impermanence of love. Though a sensitive artist, so sensitive that he bears his supportive mother’s last name and not his indifferent father’s, Paulo is a bit of a noodge: “Don’t expect too much from me, Cecília,” he says, in an internal monologue addressed to a long-departed lover. “I’m a free-spirit, or unreliable, if you prefer.” Cecília, African born, is a colonial come back to help remake Portugal after the fall of the dictators 40-odd years ago; also an artist, she is the always present object of the dejected Paulo’s obsession: “Having gone in search of Lisbon with you,” he laments, “I must now go in search of us, look at us. From very close quarters.” Like an unfunny refraction of Woody Allen’s Manhattan, with Paulo as Isaac, Gersão’s novel is a celebration of setting; the story, a touch tiresome owing to Paulo’s nonstop mope, gives way to the loveliness of place. The quiet echoes of moments from The Odyssey, as when Paulo casts Cecília in the role of Nausicaa, are just right, too.
Readers planning a trip to Portugal will find this a fine, revealing complement to their guidebook—and on the evidence of this book, Gersão deserves a wider audience in English. - Kirkus Reviews
The 'city of Ulysses' of the title is Lisbon -- the legend being that the Portuguese capital was actually founded by Ulysses, giving:
Lisbon a singular status: a real city founded by a fictional character, a city contaminated by literature and storytelling.
The story is told by an artist, Paulo Vaz -- and it is told, more than narrated, almost entirely addressed directly to a woman he was involved with many years earlier, Cecília Branco.
The novel opens with Paulo being invited to have the first exhibition at Lisbon's Contemporary Art Museum in a planned series where artists are to convey: "their personal visions of Portugal" -- with his exhibition having Lisbon as a theme. It's this offer that bring Cecília very much back to mind for him: as it turns out, Paulo and Cecília had imagined exactly such an exhibit, decades earlier -- even if:
But neither of us had taken the idea of an exhibition about Lisbon seriously. It was just for our own amusement, a private game to challenge each other's imagination. Wherever we went in the city we'd look around as if it belonged to us, as if we were going to make it into something else.
Despite this background and premise -- with Paulo accepting the commission and agreeing to the exhibit -- City of Ulysses isn't so much a story about Lisbon. It is very much Paulo's story -- the story of a peripatetic artist; the story of his relationship with Cecília. He holds some information back at the beginning, including what has happened with Cecília -- he believes he can only create the exhibit as originally planned, with his partner from that time, but that is no longer possible; eventually he agrees to do it on his own but to do so he must revisit all that was between him and Cecília. This also means that the woman currently in his life, Sara, is long sidelined -- "Forgive me, Sara, for leaving you in the background for perhaps a little too long", he apologizes early on, as he turns his fiull attention to his former life- and art-partner. (Here as elsewhere, the narrative plays a bit too coyly with its secrets, somewhat undermining Paulo's tale by making clear there's artifice to it, Paulo manipulatively structuring it in specifically this way so his big reveals make more of an impression (though Gersão at least does have Paulo be someone who tends to hold back, in his relationships and especially in talking about himself, so it's at least somewhat in character).)
Much of the novel then is retrospective, Paulo explaining his own troubled family background -- a father who was a harsh military man whom he disappointed, his mother a dutiful wife who only blossomed secretly creating her own art -- and then his relationship with Cecília; the middle of the three sections of the novel is simply: 'Four Years with Cecília'.
In revealing his own troubled family background and his career -- studying art, at home and abroad --, as well as his time with Cecília, Paulo constantly also places it in the changing Portuguese context. Gersão handles this effectively, with incidental mentions that nevertheless capture the gist of Portugal's rapidly changing political and economic situations from 1974 through the present, especially the 1980s, when Paulo and Cecília are together. The essentials from the passing years are captured, without Gersão going into any great depth, with the movies Paulo and Cecília see together as defining as some of the larger political and other circumstances, nicely dealt with in quick paragraphs such as:
Purchasing power collapsed still further in 1985, but Parliament voted to raise politicians' salaries by fifty percent.
The tax system was uneven and unjust, as usual. And, also as usual, after winter flooding, the summer brought forest fires.
City of Ulysses is very much the novel of an artist, Paulo revealing the childhood that shaped him, his struggles to establish himself as an artist, his blossoming in Cecília's company, and his life, as artist and man, since their parting.
Cecília was a vital figure in his life -- and he in hers -- but some fundamental differences remained between them. Some of her ambitions prove to be different -- beginning with her getting a cat. Paulo is at least forthright -- admitting that he handled that situation, and the cat, very, very badly -- and also true to himself, and it becomes clear why he and Cecília are not meant to be. Eventually, they split -- a hard, awful rupture -- which also eventually drives Paulo on, including beyond their once shared city:
I was the only one who could see it, Cecília, but Lisbon as falling apart. If I were to tell anyone else they'd think me crazy, but I assure you: Lisbon vanished when you did.
The planned exhibit -- to which the story eventually returns in its third, final section -- allows Paulo to reclaim Lisbon, and his past. Not only that, it brings Cecília and her own art back even closer yet again -- complicating the new relationship he has entered, with Sara. Eventually, the exhibition-plans change drastically, the museum showing a somewhat hard to believe last minute flexibility, allowing for (perhaps a bit too neat) resolutions and finality.
Gersão presents all this engagingly and well, and City of Ulysses is a fine -- and, in places, very good -- novel of an artist life, as well as an effective account of the times and changes in modern Portugal. The novel is, however, slightly marred by its reliance on two pivotal, terrible events that are pure melodrama; Gersão tends towards the melodramatic resolution in any case (both Paulo's father and mother end up in extreme situations), but what she does with Cecília, and how she does it, is too much straight out of baser tear-jerker fiction. A lighter touch would have worked just fine, too -- but perhaps she was hoping for easier popular appeal in a novel that might otherwise seem to be too 'artsy' -- a shame, because it isn't (too artsy), but rather is simply a solid novel of a man who is devoted to art but whose story isn't completely consumed by it. (Indeed, City of Ulysses nicely avoids most of the artsiness writers of such stories often burden them with, while still being a serious novel on the subject.) - M.A.Orthofer www.complete-review.com/reviews/portugal/gersaot.htm
This is only the second novel by Gersâo, one of Portugal’s foremost novelists, to appear in English but then that is one of the themes of this novel – how little Portugal and Lisbon are known to the rest of Europe and the rest of the world. Unusually for Gersâo, the novel is narrated by a man, Paulo Vaz, a contemporary Portuguese artist. (His real name is Paulo Ramos but he uses his mother’s maiden name for his artistic work. The reasons for this are explained.) At the start of the book, he has been asked (along with other artists) by the Contemporary Art Museum to present a series of individual exhibitions based on their personal visions of Portugal. Vaz’s will be the first. In particular, they want him to take Lisbon as his theme or, more specifically, my impressions of certain aspects of Lisbon.
Lisbon was probably the least known of all European capital cities, indeed one of the least known capitals anywhere in the world. While that is clearly not true, it is certainly less well-known than other major European capitals. As the intention is to take the exhibition on tour, he suspects that the aim is to put Portugal on the map but Ironic, really, in a country where culture has always been so chronically undervalued.
He writes two letters, neither of which he sends. The first rejects the idea outright. The second explains in some detail why he will accept, namely because he has already worked on this project with a woman called Cecilia Branco, his now ex-lover. He tells Sara, his current lover, that he cannot really do it without Cecilia but, at the same time, they seem to have well and truly broken off relations. Again all is explained later.
Paulo and Cecilia had met when she was one of his students and had had a passionate (his word) affair with good sex, though, as he is quick to state, that was not the only reason. Indeed, he goes on to say that art is a form of making love. - the modern novel, read more here
Teolinda Gersão, The Word Tree, Trans. by Margaret Jull Costa, Dedalus, Reprinted 2013.
Teolinda Gersão paints an extraordinarily evocative picture of childhood in Africa and the stark contrast between warm, lush, ebullient Mozambique and the bleak, poor, priggish Portugal of Salazar. 'Salazar's forty-year dictatorship in Portugal and that country's colonial wars in Africa cast their long shadow over Teolinda Gersao's The Word Tree. This is the first of Gersao's novels to be translated into English. As the Mozambican Laureano reflects,' the men crossing the sea from Lisbon didn't want that absurd war either'. Laureano's wife Amelia had come to the country from Portugal in search of a better life, but mentally never leaves her homeland, whereas her daughter Gita loves the country and grows up to resent the colonial presence. There are lush descriptions of the country, while the racial order is starkly spelt out: Amelia 'clings to the belief that fair-skinned people are the very top of the racial hierarchy, and that dark-skinned Portuguese people are almost at the bottom, just above the Indians and the blacks'. Adrain Tahourdin in The Times Literary Supplement Margaret Jull Costa's translation was awarded The Calouste Gulbenkian Portuguese Translation Prize for 2012.
Before reading Teolinda Gersão’s vivid evocation of a girl’s coming-of-age in Africa, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, I knew little about the history of Mozambique, its Portuguese colonisers, the crushing poverty and its fight for independence.
The daughter of Portuguese parents, Gita is growing up in the sprawling, chaotic port, Lourenço Marques, as the capital of Mozambique was known until 1976. For Gita, life revolves around her adoring father Laureano and black housekeeper Lóia. She is at pains to avoid her seamstress mother, Amélia, whose crushing sense of disappointment weighs heavily on them all. An unwilling immigrant, Amélia travelled from a rural village in Portugal to Africa in response to Laureano’s newspaper advertisement for a young bride.
Gita’s joy in simple pleasures is infectious: “Everything in the back yard danced: the broad leaves of a banana tree, the flowers and leaves of the Hibiscus, the still tender branches of the jacaranda, the blades of grass that grew like weeds…”
Her sense of wonder is in sharp contrast to Amélia’s relentless dissatisfaction. Not content with their modest wealth, especially when compared to those living in the shanty towns, Amélia craves the lifestyle of Mozambique’s rich with their servants, chauffeur-driven cars and expensive clothes. Gersão perfectly captures these two distinct voices — the tart despair of Amélia and youthful exuberance of Gita.
Amélia is doomed to remain forever an outsider looking in. The impossibility of her aspirations is revealed when she enters one of many shops aimed at the Portuguese elite: “You could live without jewellery or perfume. In that climate, gloves and furs were quite superfluous, a luxury that could only be shown off on very rare occasions. But that was precisely what attracted her, it was why she had gone into that shop. She had wanted the superfluous, the luxurious, what was reserved for the few.”
This desire to possess what is so blatantly unnecessary in a country battling with poverty is heartbreaking. Inevitably, Amélia’s growing disillusionment and the decisions she takes taint her husband and daughter.
Gersão’s achievement is to use the personal stories of one family to shed light on Mozambique’s troubled past and the immigrant experience in Africa.
It is indicative of the dire state of foreign fiction in this country that despite being translated into eleven languages, The Word Tree is only the first of Gersão’s twelve novels to be published in English, thanks to Dedalus’s new Africa series. Hopefully, other will swiftly follow. After a two-year campaign, Arts Council England recently restored its regular funding of this tiny, literary powerhouse, allowing them to continue to publish new literary fiction in translation and offer readers a window into other worlds. - lucypopescu https://lucypopescu.wordpress.com/2011/01/20/review-the-word-tree-by-teolinda-gersao/
Set in colonial Mozambique, Teolinda Gersão’s bildungsroman follows Gita, a young girl forced to pit her love of country and family against her mother’s bitter prejudices. Portuguese immigrant Amélia’s resentments pervade the novel, providing a compelling antagonist to Gita. This personal narrative of control, and subsequent neglect, has wider significance. Mozambique is a country on the cusp of war, eager to gain independence. Home truths are told through memorable imagery, such as the quizumba, the hyena whose body splits because it wants to travel every path. First published in 2010, The Word Tree was reissued earlier this year after Margaret Jull Costa’s translation won the Calouste Gulbenkian Prize. Gersão’s assured hand is evident throughout this convincing story of division. Mother and daughter, black and white, old and new worlds – the narrative perspective shifts effortlessly, returning each time to a fundamental question: why should anyone think they are worth more than anyone else? - Sarah Gilmartin