Lisbon 1964: Scent of the Future

Three images:  a castle on a hill, a lamppost beneath my cheap hotel room in the early November evening illuminating a trench-coated man within its murky glow, a piazza with half a boy on a wooden platform on wheels.

I knew little of the history of the castle of Sao Jorge, atop the hill sheltering Lisbon’s old city. But it had been there, in some form, in 718 when the Islamic armies conquered the whole of the Iberian Peninsula, except for some white-capped scraps of Atlantic coastline in the north.  It had been there in 1147 during the Second Crusade, when the crusaders’ Siege of Lisbon had been their only military success, taking the castle from the Moors for Christian Europe. It had been there in 1255, heavily fortified against Muslim attempts to retake it, when Lisbon became the capital of the Kingdom.  It had been there between 1373 and 1375 when the new wall with its seventy-seven towers replaced the old Moorish wall.  It had been there in 1498, when King Manuel II welcomed to the Royal palace the explorer, Vasco da Gama, discoverer of the maritime route to India.

And it had been there, too, in 1755 for the Lisbon earthquake, about which I was thinking now, looking at the spectacular view of the city below from the barbican, the low wall built around medieval fortifications to prevent siege engines from attacking the main walls. Lisbon looked peaceful, its red-tiled roofs and white houses in the distance slumbering in the policed embrace of its fascist dictatorship.  Antonio de Oliveira Salazar’s authoritarian regime had been ruling Portugal since 1932 and would rule it until his death in 1968, four years later.

His Orwellian-named “Estado Novo” (New State) had nothing of the “novo” about it. It had come to power in a coup against a brief republic, the spirit of which had swept in from the steppes of Russia, where the Bolshevik Revolution had put the fear of popular democracy into the hearts of bourgeois Europe.  The Estado Novo was a throwback to the medieval intolerance of Catholic Europe and had much in common with the Catholic social ideas of Salazar’s 1930s contemporary, Austrian Engelbert Dolfuss of Anschluss fame.  The Hapsburg Catholic legacy died hard, its dynastic power declawed by military defeat in WW I, its residual ideology still agonizing here in Lisbon and nearby, in Franco’s Spain, like a cancer in remission.

I had smelt the fascism in the city’s air—like the smell of organic matter decomposing in shallow water, breeding maggots—a feast for flies. And I could see it, too—in the averted gaze, the stepped-up pace at sight of uniforms, the forlorn paint peeling from passively resigned facades.  Men and women going about their business—but furtively, it seemed to me, as though they wished they’d been safe at home behind locked doors.  They called it “stability,” those who enforced it, but it was a wake for an unutterable loss and a palpable defeat of the human spirit.

But now, on the barbican, I was thinking of the Great Lisbon Earthquake about which I had read in “Candide,” the story of that hapless youth whose Leibnitzian optimism Voltaire had so enjoyed torturing under an avalanche of brute reality—war, religious obscurantism, natural disasters.

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On 1 November 1755, at 9:40 pm, the earthquake, now estimated of magnitude nine on the Richter scale, shook Lisbon for three to six minutes.  Fissures fifteen-feet wide in the city center induced survivors to rush to the docks, where they saw the sea ominously heaving and scraping back from the shore. In the aftermath of the sea’s uncanny flight, lost cargo and shipwreck debris lay exposed to the terrified eye on the naked sea floor.  The tsunami that followed forty minutes later in three separate waves, burst into the Tagus River, swallowed and then vomited back the harbor and city in fragments. What parts of the city the tsunami spared went up in flames, burning for five days.

It was such a spectacularly awesome rage of nature that it developed the idea of the sublime in philosophy—beginning with Immanuel Kant. The young Kant was fascinated by reports of the Lisbon earthquake and published accounts thereof, arguably spurring the founding of scientific geography and certainly of the science of seismology.

The question of evil haunted the entrenched Christian dogma of a benevolent providence. How, asked the eighteenth-century philosophers, could a kind god permit all this on one of the holiest days of the Christian calendar, All Saints’ Day—the wanton rape of land and sea, the destruction of 40,000 lives out of 200,000 in Lisbon alone, the ruin of 85% of Lisbon’s structures, including a bountiful quantity of its most prominent churches, the new Opera House, the Royal Ribeira Palace with its 70,000-volume royal library and its paintings by Titian, Rubens, and Correggio, the royal archives with accounts of the exploratory navigations by Vasco da Gama?

What god, who still anointed Catholic monarchs as his representatives on earth, would exact a king’s ransom of such magnitude?  For which sins?  What kind of god would permit cannibalism after the disaster rather than providing a starving population with morally civilized food? Was it because the king of Portugal had ordered the massacre of thousands of unarmed natives in Paraguay and other parts of South America in 1754-55, as many feared?

Dangerous questions, but Voltaire asked them:

Will you say, “It is the effect of everlasting laws
which necessitates this choice by a free and good God”?
Will you say, seeing this heap of victims:
“God is avenged; their death is the payment of their crimes”?
What crimes, what bad things have been committed by these
Lying on the breasts of their mothers, flattened and bloody?
Lisbon, which is a city no longer, had it more vices
Than London, than Paris, given to doubtful delights?

[Lines from Voltaire’s Poem on the Disaster at Lisbon]

Then, I saw him—the man in the trench coat, shambling amicably my way on those soft, rubber-soled CIA shoes, which made no noise, in spite of his Anglo-Saxon bulk.  Perhaps in his mid-thirties, he looked like what we then called a “square”—not unhandsome in a tussled, private-school, post-pubescent sort of way, but decidedly unsexy in that suit, the tie, and that ridiculous trench coat worn on a flawlessly sunny day. Besides, who trusted anyone above thirty in those days, even if with one hand he harmlessly held a crumpled paper bag and with the other he deftly pried a peanut free of its shell, and brought it to his mouth.

“Hi,” he said, munching carelessly, his gaze careful not to fix on me but zooming leisurely with impartial indifference toward the view of Lisbon, in the distance below.

“Hi,” I said unenthusiastically.

“Nice view,” he said, turning towards me.

The guy was a creep, but exactly what sort of creep I couldn’t decide.  Last night, pushing back the curtains on the window of my third-class hotel room, I saw him standing under the lamp post, his back to my window, looking nonchalantly bored in the fog and drizzle of the early evening.  It’s the guy from the airport, I had thought with annoyance but not alarm. Making sure I’m ‘safe’.  And I had returned to my worries.

I had boarded the plane in Nice that morning, half hour across the French border from Sanremo, leaving Italy behind reluctantly, resolved to return to New York and settle the business with J. During the stop in Barcelona, I had second thoughts. I could get off the plane.  In Lisbon, I did.

“Would you please retrieve my luggage,” I said to the startled airplane hostess. “I’m stopping here.” Going through passport routine, the Portuguese authorities asked where I was staying in Lisbon. I said I didn’t know.  I would ask a taxi to take me somewhere. “You cannot leave the airport without registering an address,” said the official, regarding my American passport, which said I had been born in Yugoslavia. “Why are you staying in Lisbon?” “Private reasons.” Like not knowing if I wanted to settle in the new or remain in the old world.  Like not knowing what to do about J. Like not knowing anything concrete but that I had to get off that damned plane.

“Wait here,” said the official in Portuguese; I’d been answering him in Spanish, an arrangement that worked effectively throughout my Lisbon stay.  He returned accompanied by the American guy in the trench coat.

“Where have you come from,” he said. “Italy,” I said.

“What were you doing there?” “Staying with my uncle,” I said.

“Are you Italian?” “Yes.”

“What were you doing in Spain all summer?”  “Studying at the University of Madrid. Who are you? What are you doing in Lisbon?”

He ignored me.

“How long you staying?” “I don’t know. Depends.”  “On what?”

On whether my uncle will have me back or on whether I can find the money to continue by ship to New York. Hate planes—especially those that fly me where I’m not sure I want to go.

“On whether I like Lisbon or not.” He looked stern now. “Here’s a list of places, registered with the Portuguese authorities. Pick one.  Then you can leave the airport.”

So, here he was, my Yankee minder at the police-state court of dictator Salazar, relic of European fascism and great friend of the United States in the global war on communism.

Salazar’s secret police was called the International Police for the Defense of the State, or PIDE in the Portuguese acronym.  The PIDE had scattered unmarked offices throughout Lisbon, and people crossed the street to avoid passing in front of their doors.  The question was, what had Trench Coat to do with it and why was he interested in me? Not that I was worried. My sentimental and existential problems—my self-preoccupation was bulletproof. That was the irony.

Still, Trench Coat was following me now through the Alfama, Lisbon’s oldest district, its narrow streets spilling below the ramparts of Sao Jorge.  It had been the Moorish quarter, partly spared by the 1755 earthquake, which must have shaken Christian Europe’s faith in their deity even further. Under the Casa dos Bicos, the sixteenth-century architectural curiosity known to English speakers as the House of the Pointed Stones for the diamond-shaped stones studding its façade, I turned around continuing to walk–tauntingly backwards. “Would you like to eat now or wait after the movie later?  Separate tables, of course! And you can drop the five-feet-behind routine in the meantime.” He laughed, as people scurried around us in a meticulously deliberate maneuver to avoid us—and avoid meeting our eyes.

We did go to the movies. The cinema was much as I remembered the three provincial theatres in my Italian town in the 50s—smoky, noisy, restless, and smelling of humid coats impregnated with the smell of boiled fish and vegetables. The movie was Fifty Days in Peking, which portrayed the British legation victimized by the Chinese Boxer rebels.  Typical imperial fantasy!

We ate in the Bairro Alto, which we reached by trolley car. He knew Lisbon well, for he took me to a fado club and ordered Ginjinha, sour-cherry liquor typical of Lisbon. The Bacalhau a Gomes de Sa’, a casserole of cod, potatoes, and onions still lingers seductively on my palate as I remember Lisbon and that weird dinner, throughout which he learned nothing about me that I didn’t want him to know, and I learned nothing about him that I couldn’t stand knowing. “Fado means fate, “he said, too meaningfully.  “Yes. The lyrics are about the sea and the life of the poor. That’s why the music is so mournful, “ I said. “Are you a red?” “Of course. That’s what I’ve been doing on the Riviera, planning the revolution. Isn’t that why you are following me?” “I could think of better reasons.” “I’m flattered.”

After that, I never saw him again.

But as we flirted strategically in the fado club, in Caxias prison, nearby, Trench Coat’s buddies in the CIA were supervising perhaps the first of the American prison-gulag system we have come to learn so much about in recent years. Run by PIDE, Caxias, on the outside, was an old fortress by the sea.  Inside, the CIA devised a chamber of horrors.  Their objective?  Experimenting with “DDD syndrome” of “debility, dependence, and dread”—in non-weasel words, destruction of the human personality. It’s all there in a 1963 CIA document, “Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation,” declassified in 1997 under pressure from The Baltimore Sun, arguing for disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

And, in fact, the curious thing about Caxias was that prisoners, mostly communists and socialists, subjected by the PIDE to Langley’s exported and supervised coercive techniques, were released after their ordeals—free to resume their former lives. They had been utterly changed into non-beings—mere mental zombies released to the present with no past or future, model subjects of any fascism. The legacy of these experiments we have seen in pictures from Abu Ghraib, in accounts of “renditions,” and “black holes.” It was just as well that I had flattered Trench Coat by flirting. In uneven power relations, opt for masochism; wait until the master distractedly unzips his ego in the false glow of your admiration, then, run like hell.

Freed from the ghost of rendition (although neither the word nor the dread attached then to Trench Coat’s half-hearted stalking), I set about embracing the city. I gravitated most often to Rossio (The Commons) Square, because it was the most beautiful square in Lisbon, rebuilt after the earthquake in harmonious, rational, Enlightenment style—called Pombaline in Portugal, after the Marquess of Pombal who championed it.  I could sit in historic Café Nicola and think back to the square in 1540, when the Inquisition performed here its first auto-da-fe of many to follow. Every age has its state terrorists—a dubiously consoling thought for our own.

In Rossio square, I waited for the young man, whose body’s lower half had gone missing. Neither a beggar nor an employee, he would rattle assertively into the square from one of the narrow side streets, ambulating by means of a wheeled wooden platform. An intense and severed Galahad, looking for an absconded Grail? A self-appointed messenger delivering imaginary solidarity from one end of the majestic square to the other? A symbol of Portugal’s cut-off-ness from the rest of Europe’s temporarily restored sanity?

I never tired of watching him—the body-politics cut in half– flying over the pattern of contrasting gray and white stony waves in the Portuguese paving, mosaic art developed in Mesopotamia and adopted by Greek and Roman urban planners but come to Portugal from the Moors. He moved with the elegance and speed of the accomplished dancer, gliding, over a reality beneath which another was waiting to be born—and is still waiting.

Luciana Bohne was co-founder of Film Criticism, a journal of cinema studies, and taught at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania.