Portugal Examined

Time to go back to that “Europa XL” series from the Danish newspaper Politiken, now that I’ve rediscovered it on the re-designed Politiken website. For those who came in late, that’s the series-of-photo-series in which the culture of each of the current European Union member-states is depicted via choices in a fixed set of categories (“Painting,” “Photograph,” etc.) made by a leading current literary figure from that country.

(Note that, while the good news is that I now know again where this “Europa XL” series is to be found on the Net, it’s also true that they’ve modified its format so that it’s only viewable in Internet Explorer, not in the Opera or Mozilla browsers.) Later update: That’s no longer true, the pages render fine in Opera.

Now we get into terra incognita, since today I’d like to discuss the presentation on Portugal, as chosen by writer Agustina Bessa-Luis, “a living myth among the Portuguese,” best known for her 1954 novel “The Sybille,” which has also been translated into French and German. (No mention of English or even Danish.) This is a country whose language I don’t even know per se, which I instead try to approach, when I need to, via similarities with Spanish.

  • Painting: Os Painéis de S. Vicente, by Nuno Gonçalves. Painted around 1470, these are also known as the “St. Vincent tablets,” since the work is made up of six panels. St. Vincent is Lisbon’s patron saint, and the overriding theme of the panels is that saint’s adoration. The famous Portuguese king Prince Henry the Navigator is recognizable in the painting by his “Burgundy hat,” but there is reason to believe that this painting was made after he was dead. Also recognizable – incredibly – is the face of former Portuguese dictator Salazar on one of the anonymous fisherman pictured. Or so at least in the prominent literary opinion of Agustina Bessa-Luis.
  • Photograph: The Ribera Quarter in Porto. Bessa-Luis is inevitably going to have a partiality for Porto (over Lisbon, say), since that is where she is from. Still, this is an interesting cityscape – “heavy and closely-packed” – which Bessa-Luis claims is the source of Porto’s gruff approach to life, as well as its “taste for the virtuous, if not always for exactly virtuous customs.”
  • Person: St. Anthony of Lisbon. Unfortunately, the description does not give the years that he lived, but it must have been prior to the Reformation, as the early act by which he distinguished himself was his abandonment of the order of monks to which he had originally been sworn for the reform order of the Franciscans. Those first monks, you see (who wore white – so probably were of the Carmelite orders), had become much too corrupt and wordly, yet they were also part of the Establishment of the day, so that St. Anthony constantly ran afoul of the authorities. “He is today one of the most popular and respected saints in the whole world,” Bessa-Luis claims.
  • Object: Marie Antoinette’s Necklace. Hmm, it’s unclear here from the text why this particular object, connected as it is after all with a French queen, should somehow typify Portugal. What was supposedly Marie Antoinette’s necklace came to light in the wake of the “Carnation Revolution,” the popular uprising of 25 April 1974 that drove the Portuguese dictator, Salazar, from power, when the safe-deposit vaults were temporary opened. A rumor made the rounds that the necklace had belonged to Marie Antoinette, but that it was now the property of a family from Porto . . .
  • Text: Menina e Moça (Young and Innocent), by Bernardim Ribeiro, from 1554. An extract of text, translated into Danish, is included. Bernardim Ribeiro was a Jew, Bessa-Luis reports, and his Menina e Moça is “one of world literature’s prettiest narratives,” being apparently about the prematurely-early thrusting of a young and innocent girl out into the wide world.
  • Song (but really “Music” here): Gota. It’s old folk-music from Minho (not explained in the entry, but that is the most north-west part of Portugal), danced to in pairs, in folk-costumes that are either green (everyday) or red (for festivals) or black (to show off dowry-jewels).
  • Poem: To His Beloved in Heaven, by Luis de Camões. The poem is reproduced, in Danish, and it’s a sonnet, from the 1500s. It’s a “hymn of longing,” written of course in response to a beloved’s death.
  • Food-dish: Cabidela de Frango. What is that? It’s a sort of “chicken ragout,” of uncertain origin but Bessa-Luis hazards the guess that it may be from the Arabs, for they liked to prepare chicken in vinegar this way.
  • Place: Douro, whose name is derived from the Celt “dour,” meaning “water.” It’s a Portuguese wine-region, where the port best-beloved by the British comes from. The Douro river that flows through it ends up emptying into the sea at Porto. “Portugal’s only tragic landscape,” Bessa-Luis calls it.
  • Event: Decolonization. Apparently Bessa-Luis was part of this herself, as she spent her youth in Portuguese colonies in Africa, and after leaving always longed to go back. Decolonization was a “blow to the heart” for the Portuguese historical consciousness, as she describes it, which is understandable for me since the Netherlands experienced the same thing: once a force in the world with far-flung colonies contributing so much to the national wealth (usually at the cost of the inhabitants), now but a small country. In the case of Portugal, Bessa-Luis notes, the inhabitants could feel rich from the colonies although they really remained poor.

    There you have it: Portugal. It was for me mostly unfamiliar stuff, hardly as well-known to me as Germany (which has been covered now in the Europa XL, so that we could turn to that country next) – but still rather better-known than Luxembourg (which has also been covered, and so therefore to which we also could turn next).

    What do you think? Germany? Luxembourg? I could also do Ireland next. The thing is, I rather like this series from Politiken; I think it’s a rather good cultural look at these countries, and the fact that the series’ elements are written in Danish doesn’t get in my way. There’s little prospect so far as I can see of my getting bored with it. If that starts to happen, I’ll simply space out my treatment of individual countries further. As it is, you can see that I at least try to alternate Europa XL with standard €S-style coverage.

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