Tag Archives: Blindness

141. Meeting Gonçalo M.Tavares…

141. Meeting Gonçalo M.Tavares…

Dear Diary,

It has been far too long since I wrote, and checking exactly how long, I find that my monthly Books Bought & Read section appears to be over 6 months out of date. That will all change in the coming months, when I: a) have my book finished and can get back to blogging and b) move to New York for the winter with little to do but make soup, and write.

Before that, though, I have just returned from an overnight visit to the glorious, medieval walled village of Óbidos an hour (exactly, by bus) north of Lisbon, and I wanted to tell you about the things I found there: fantastic accommodation, great music, and one of my modern literary heroes.


I took two days off work as my favourite living Portuguese writer was attending, and it just so happened that a great Mozambican author and the singer of 2014’s Portuguese album of the year were both going to be present on the same day, so I had little choice in the matter. Finding a room free at the best B&B in the entire region, however, was pure luck. Hosts Sharon and John have the cosiest house right by the train tracks complete with patio, swimming pool, the craziest life stories, and the greatest tea-drawer I have ever seen.


But I wasn’t in town for tea: I was there to attend the first Folio Literature Festival of Óbidos, and to meet Gonçalo M.Tavares. I had bought a ticket to see him in discussion with someone I had never heard of, not expecting to understand much of anything but simply hoping to meet him afterwards and get one of my books signed: in the end I sat through three sessions with him, and understood more than I’d expected to.

First, a packed standing-room-only 60-minute lesson he offered for free in the village hall based (extremely loosely) on Saramago’sBlindness‘; then the talk, on his work in general; and finally a book launch for his latest work, the wonderfully titled ‘The Torcicologologista, Your Excellency.’

Here are the highlights I took from each:


On ‘Blindness’:

-There are so many billions of images today, we are always anxious, whatever we see, knowing how many more we are missing.

-There is a character in certain Japanese theatre pieces called ‘The Absent,’ who represents someone/something not there, but stands stage front and centre…and is the best paid of all, for being able to make the audience not see what is right in front of them.

-The talk focussed little on literature, instead showing Tavares‘ impressive breadth of interests: everything from John Cage’s infamous 4min 33seconds (of silence); a video of a man pushing a block of ice through the streets until it disappeared; and the fact that an image can become so commonplace as to be invisible, but there is always a new way to see it, exemplified by this stunning scene from master Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky:

The Talk:

-Words have weight, and different weights for different people. The word ‘Lisbon’ will mean different things depending on a person’s experience of the city.

-‘Fuga,’ or ‘escape,’ has been a common thread in literature since the Greeks: we are all fleeing something, as are most of the characters in his works.


-If we were immortal, we could watch films until we saw a good one. Mortality means that time and choices weigh heavily on us, (similar to the earlier-mentioned feeling of the anxiety of missing out on all of the images around us)

-When you die, it is not the facts, not: ‘What did you do?” which will be important, but: “How much happiness did you put into, and take out of, the world?”

Gonçalo’s definition of the pleasure to be derived from something as insignificant as playing football: “To do something ‘inútil‘ (useless) and to take pleasure in it is to undertake a revolutionary act”!


The Book Launch:

Gonçalo’s books are all different, but with this newest one the humour is front and centre: humour is an integral part of playing with language, something which he clearly loves to do.

-He likes the ‘weight’ of words, especially Biblical words, old words: ‘pedra‘ (stone) is intrinsically more appealing than ‘computador‘ (computer). He prefers “words with experience.”


As you can see, I got to meet the man himself, and am well on my way to completing my collection of his complete works, two of them now signed and ready to be encased in glass if and when, as the great Saramago himself predicted, Mr.Tavares joins him as the second ever Portuguese Nobel Laureate in literature.

I later got to meet Mia Couto, a wonderful Mozambican author whose books I have been reading here and there, and who took the time to confirm for me a rumour I’d heard and which may be my new favourite anecdote on my tours: Mia was once invited to talk at a literary conference for black African women…despite only being African, and in no way either black or a woman!


As if all that wasn’t enough, the evening was rounded off with a fado performance from Gisela João, one of the hottest modern performers of this most traditional of Portuguese musical styles.


I leave you with one of the songs she played to end the evening, and wish you sweet Portuguese dreams.

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Posted by on October 24, 2015 in BOOKS


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112. José Saramago…

112. José Saramago…

A few weeks ago, I began giving tours of Alfama, the millennium-old Moorish district of Lisbon and the city’s heart and soul. I have the pleasure of beginning my tour at one of the strangest buildings in town: the ‘Casa dos Bicos,’ or ‘pointy house’ as it is loosely translated. Built almost 500 years ago, it was chosen by the topic of this week’s blog to be the location for his Foundation: the José Saramago Foundation. Saramago was the first, (and so far only) Portuguese writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and only the second Portuguese ever to win one, (after Egas Moniz won the prize for medicine in 1949), and the building is used both to promote his works, and to further the aims of the United Nations Charter for Human Rights.


Saramago has been one of my favourite authors since I first read the stunning ‘Blindness‘ after finishing university, and which has stayed in my Top 10 books ever since, although having previously only read him in English, and having done no research into the man himself, I was pleasantly surprised to find that he was Portuguese when I arrived here, (I had always presumed him to be South American!)


Now that I live and love in Lisbon, I put forward one of his works as being the most quintessentially Portuguese, (or at least Lisboeta), pieces of literature you could possibly imagine: 1984’s ‘The Year Of The Death Of Ricardo Reis‘ is a beautiful, slow-paced novel which tells us the story of one of Lisbon literary legend Fernando Pessoa‘s most famous heteronyms, (an invented or separate facet of his personality), Ricardo Reis, returning home from Brazil to meet and talk with the ghost of the famous poet himself. Anyone who has ever visited Lisbon and enjoyed walking the streets at night, or seeing the sunlight glint off the cobble stones, will appreciate every line of this work.


The Foundation/Museum is a small but fascinating place, featuring walls of his works in various translated languages; various photographs of the man himself; a gorgeous bookshop; a staircase featuring quotes from his works; Roman and Moorish ruins in the ground floor; and the only real life copy of a Nobel Prize I’ve ever seen.


The outside of the building also features some impressive street art in honour of the Portuguese writer:


Saramago‘s style and attitude are not to everybody’s taste: as an atheist and Communist, he was constantly at loggerheads with the Portuguese government and church, and had beefs with everyone from Israel to the EU. Most notably, his 1992 novel ‘The Gospel According To Jesus Christ,’ a wonderfully blasphemous rethinking of the Bible through the eyes of one of its main protagonists, led to its being banned by the Portuguese government for entry into a European literary prize, an action which saw Saramago move to the Canary Islands in Spain for the rest of his life in protest at government censorship.


Saramago’s challenging writing style, (he did away with most punctuation, paragraphs, speech marks and suchlike in order to make dialogue more natural), made enemies of some readers, but the broad range of topics and ideas which he wrote about, (mostly after the average person’s retirement age), are fascinating: from politics to industry to history, and always with a focus on the human aspect of the story. I have mostly been working my way through any novels and short story compilations of his which I haven’t yet read, and next week’s blog will feature some reviews and quotations from these books. For now, I leave you with the view from outside the Saramago Foundation, which features an olive tree from his native village, Azinhaga, under which the man himself asked his ashes to be buried.



Posted by on April 26, 2014 in BOOKS


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71. My Top 10 Most Favouritest Authors EVER!…(pt.2)

Welcome to part two of my attempt to share some of my favourite writers with you, some of my favourite readers. For those who missed pt.1, it can be found here, and you should probably catch up on it before you go any further.


Good. Here we go!!…

6. Haruki MURAKAMItumblr_luyy18ftWK1qzt1rbo1_500

I can’t remember when I first discovered Haruki Murakami, (who, thanks to years talking about him in Japan, I now automatically call Murakami Haruki, ‘coz that’s how they roll over there, name order-wise), but I think I began with ‘The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.’ After reading everything he has ever released in English, (and a couple of essay collections he hasn’t), this is still (just about) my favourite: the historical, social, magical realism of almost all of his fiction is mind-bendingly, bizarrely readable, (especially if you are into wells, cats, ears so beautiful you can’t take your eyes off them, rural locations and liminality), although his non-fiction can be less accessible. The most annoying thing about Murakami? The fact that his most famous novel, (‘Norwegian Wood‘), is his least representative, and least fun. Skip that, read all the others, and buckle in for a roller-coaster ride of randomness.


7. Kurt VONNEGUTkurtvonnegut

This entry is proof of my earlier assertion that these are in no particular order: KV is one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, and someone whose entire back I believe I may well have read. Again, his most famous book, (WWII critique ‘Slaughterhouse Five,’), wasn’t my favourite, (although still a wonderful novel), and annoyingly the book I most enjoyed by him was the first one I ever read, meaning as good as everything else was, it never quite lived up to the first, (although maybe that was just the thrill of reading for the first time someone as sarcastic, critical, science-fictiony, funny and human as Vonnegut is).

Even more annoyingly, I can’t remember whether that first novel was ‘Player Piano,’ ‘Hocus Pocus‘ or ‘Cat’s Cradle.’ Or something else. It has been around a decade and a half since I read most of them, in a reading frenzy midway through university, and I can remember almost nothing about most of them except the style, and the fact that I loved them. But I recently discovered his last work, ‘A Man Without A Country,’ whilst travelling through Mexico, so that is my recommendation. But read everything. They’re pretty short.


(And, in case you didn’t catch it in my earlier blog, now that I have figured out how to embed videos into the blog, you get this hilarious, concise, and genius proto-TED talk from the man himself direct to your eyebrain, to give you an idea of whether or not you’d like his style.)


8. Nick HORNBYimages

I love everything Nick Hornby does, (apart from being an Arsenal fan, it goes without saying). As do movie directors, apparently. From his novels, to his monthly articles for The Believer magazine which inspired this blog, to his opening of the Dave Eggers-inspired charity-based Monster Supplies shop in East London…but mainly his novels. And his articles. And…

Hornby seems to write effortlessly, about everyday people and everyday life, from the point of view of football fans, music lovers, women, even children, so there’s something for everyone. My favourite is his second novel, ‘High Fidelity,’ but I would honestly recommend pretty much any of his books, especially the first of the compilations of ‘Stuff I’ve Been Reading‘ articles, ‘The Polysyllabic Spree.’ Go get him!

EDIT: I had the pleasure, honour and luck to interview Nick at an event in London: read about it here.


9. Salman RUSHDIEimages-1

Possibly my number one in this top ten, (although that title changes daily), Rushdie makes me feel more intelligent, more learned about everything from history to myth to religion to the simple, pure art of story-telling. His essays are amusing and deeply thought-out, but it is in his novels he spreads his wings and soars, (a little too much for many people’s liking, apparently: my favourite, ‘Midnight’s Children,’ is the novel which I hear more people give up on than any other). He may not be for everyone, but for his years spent battling religious intolerance and promoting freedom of artistic speech, he deserves your respect, if not your undivided attention for 500-pages.


10. José SARAMAGOSaramgo-books

A blatant attempt to appear worldly and educated, the Portuguese Nobel Laureate was a borderline entry into the Top 10 due to the fact that, of the half dozen or so of his novels I have read, one was dull, and another was practically unreadable. But that just lets you know the quality of the others, especially his 1997 work ‘Blindness,’ (it’s surely no coincidence that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998), later made into a slightly disappointing movie.

Saramago writes in what can be seen as either a post-modern or a pre-tentious style, generally shunning everything from punctuation to paragraphs to chapters to capital letters, which is occasionally distracting and sometimes downright infuriating, but what draws me back to him again and again is the way he takes a single, simple idea and stretches it to breaking point and beyond, always with a straight face, (although sometimes a straight face with a tongue in its cheek, and a slight wink). ‘Blindness‘ is a 300+ page thought experiment on how quickly society would degenerate if everyone suddenly turned blind overnight: my second favourite, ‘Death With Interruptions,’ charts the fate of a country which awakes one morning to find out that nobody in its boundaries can die, (which proves to be less fun than it sounds); ‘The Double‘ follows the thought process of a man who sees himself as an extra in a film, and decides he has to track him down; and so on and so forth.

Anyone out there read him?


Before you say it, let me beat you to the punch: I was shocked when I made this list to discover that there is a distinct and glaring lack of female membership. Not a single one in the entire top 10, in fact. Discovering this lacuna in my reading preferences in conversation with a friend recently, I began to wonder why that would be: Do I not read enough female writers? Are there just way more male writers than their counterpart, or is it that men’s writing appeals to me more, (a thought I instinctively flinch from: I am as feminine as the next guy!)

Some of the best books I read over recent years have been by women, (Audrey Niffenegger‘s beautiful and twisted ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife‘; Margaret Atwood, probably the closest to making the list, whose distopian ‘Handmaid’s Tale‘ and ‘Oryx & Crake‘ I adored), but I rarely find authors whose back catalogue I feel I have to devour in the way I do with Vonnegut or Rushdie. Thanks to a recent literary friendship, I have a list of new authors to explore and re-explore, from Anaïs Nin to Joyce Carol Oates, so I hope to readjust this imbalance in the coming months and years.

That said, this isn’t actually the end of ‘My Top 10 Favouritest Authors EVER’ as I have several names still on my Top 10 list who haven’t made it on, (I’ll figure out how to deal with the maths of that later). For now, let me know what you think of the Top 10 to date: who are you hoping to see in the blogs to come? Who can’t you believe made it into the first ten?

Enjoy exploring if any of these names were new to you!





Posted by on June 8, 2013 in BOOKS


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