Tag Archive | José Saramago

Lisbon, Part I

In the second half of June, I went to LabPhon, a phonetics and phonology conference, in Lisbon. I had never been to Portugal before, and so when I and several other colleagues from my department were accepted, I decided to go to my first international conference. In preparation, I ordered a Portuguese phrasebook from France and proceeded to study European Portuguese extremely halfheartedly for weeks. It didn’t help that the phrasebook’s explanation of Portuguese pronunciation was abominable.

LabPhon itself was good. I presented my poster and had some fulfilling conversations with fellow linguists. It was also a good place to see friends from other universities. That said, I did skip a lot of the conference to explore Lisbon. Here are the highlights:


Isabelle and I met up in the afternoon and walked to the Terreiro do Paço, on the estuary of the Tagus. From there, it was a short walk to the Casa dos Bicos, or House of Beaks, a 16th century house whose façade is covered in pyramid-shaped protrusions reminiscent of beaks. It reminded me a little of the beaky portal of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Iffley.

Casa dos Bicos

Inside, on the ground floor, there were remnants of the Roman walls, and upstairs was the Fundação José Saramago, the museum of one of my favorite authors! The permanent exhibit featured hundreds of copies of his novels, translated into many languages, including Georgian! There was a lovely account of how after Saramago died, as the airplane carrying his remains took off from the island of Lanzarote, his neighbors read passages of his novels aloud, to bear him away, so to speak. And then when the airplane landed in Portugal, people waved copies of his books to greet it. It was rather moving. We also learned that Saramago’s ashes were buried under the olive tree we’d admired out front before entering the museum.

We then took a break, and I ate my first pastél de nata, bought at a fancy bakery earlier. This pastry is akin to the Chinese egg tart served at dim sum, but it’s thicker and richer. I’d heard of them long ago but never had one, and my first was delicious!

Next we visited the Igreja de Santo António, where mass was being celebrated (in Spanish…?). We went down to the crypt, where a sign indicated that St. Anthony was born HERE. Just up the hill was the Sé de Lisboa, the cathedral. We climbed one of the towers to get to the treasury and found you could walk through a narrow doorway onto the balcony at the back of the sanctuary. It was rather magical when it was just us up there.

In the evening, Meng and I walked around the narrow streets of the Bairro Alto and ate at a restaurant, where we got the bacalhau (salt cod) for two. It was also delicious.


This was the day I presented my poster. After the conference, Meng, Jeremy, and I walked up some very steep streets in what seemed to be a sort of Chinatown. We met up with Adam, Marc, and Jamie, all graduates of our program, and their partners on a bar patio overlooking the Tagus and shared some sangria. Then we went to a restaurant in the Alfama district, where I had rabbit in a plum sauce with couscous.


After a day at the conference, I met up with my friend Andrew and two other Berkeley grad students to visit the Castelo de São Jorge. There were splendid views, as well as peacocks, peahens, and their babies. We had fun climbing around the castle walls.

View from near the castle

The castle

We had dinner at a restaurant downhill from the castle, and I had my second salt cod dish, bacalhau à Brás. It’s sort of like fish with egg and hashbrowns, all mixed together. It was tasty and filling. Two of the Berkeley students had bacalhau com natas, which looked a bit like a lake of cream with bits of fish in it (this is how I learned that nata means ‘cream’).

My bacalhau à Brás

After dinner, we kept walking downhill, enjoying Lisbon in the evening light of midsummer.

Azulejos in a little square near the cathedral

View from the square

To be continued!

My Three Favorite Authors

I draw a (possibly pedantic) distinction between my favorite authors and the authors of my favorite books. Some authors in the latter category are Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials), J. K. Rowling (Harry Potter), Catherine Jinks (the Pagan Chronicles), Cornelia Funke (Inkheart), and Lemony Snicket (A Series of Unfortunate Events). I like each of them for a particular book or series they wrote, but I haven’t necessarily sought out their other works. When I count someone among my favorite authors, though, it means I will read anything they write and I have gone out of my way to try to read their entire oeuvre. By this definition, I have just three favorite authors. I actually discovered all of them thanks to required high school reading, so hooray for our curriculum, without which I might never have stumbled upon them! In chronological order, I give you…

Chaim Potok

Our summer reading book before 10th grade was Davita’s Harp, by Chaim Potok. This novel tells the story of Ilana Davita Chandal, a girl growing up in New York City in the 1930s and 40s. Her Jewish mother and Gentile father are radical activists. After her father is killed in Spain during the Civil War, Ilana becomes deeply drawn to Jewish practice. The book chronicles her political, religious, and literary explorations as well as the changes in her family life. I loved Davita’s Harp. It was one of only a handful of books I brought with me when I first went away to college. I’ve read about eight of Potok’s books now. His most famous novel is The Chosen, about a Hasidic boy and an Orthodox boy in Brooklyn who meet after the former hits the other in the eye with a baseball during a heated game. Their relationship is one of the most beautiful friendships I have ever read. Potok’s novels opened my eyes to the richness of Judaism, especially it’s tradition of study. (I guess this shows I like my religion academic?) He makes textual interpretation so exciting. I’m not sure anyone else could make a rabbinical ordination exam (in The Promise) so riveting and suspenseful.

José Saramago

One of the books I had to read the summer before my senior year of high school was José Saramago’s All The Names, translated from the Portuguese. I remember liking it, and my copy has copious margin notes I made in it that summer, but I don’t quite remember when or why I sought out more Saramago. I’ve now read sixteen of his books (mostly translated by either Margaret Jull Costa or Giovanni Pontiero), and he died in 2010, so his body of work is complete. Some of my favorite novels of his are The Stone Raft (in which Iberia breaks off of Europe), Blindness (which was made into a movie not that long ago, though I haven’t seen it), and Baltasar and Blimunda. And The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, a powerful and subversive book which I’ve reread once and would eagerly reread again. I can’t quite describe what I find so compelling about Saramago’s fiction. He has a distinctive and unmistakable voice (even in translation), but that’s true of all three of these authors. He often starts from a bizarre or fantastical premise (like Iberia breaking off of Europe or an election in which most of the populace casts blank ballots) and then plumbs the lives of ordinary people caught up in these events. I don’t know, his books are just addicting.

Orhan Pamuk

During my senior year of high school, we read Orhan Pamuk’s Snow (translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely) in World Literature. I remember reading way ahead of the class schedule because the book was so good I couldn’t put it down. (It didn’t hurt that it was about, well, snow; I’ve already mentioned this novel as one of my favorite snow books.) Snow remains my favorite Pamuk novel, but I’ve read all his other novels which have been translated into English, as well as his memoir, Istanbul: Memories and the City, which I read while visiting Istanbul in February 2013. A lot of Pamuk’s characters have an almost painful level of self-awareness that I find appealing for some reason.

Pamuk is the only writer on this list whom I’ve seen in real life. In October 2009, I visited my friend in Boston during my fall break. At the time, Pamuk was the Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard, and he was giving the Norton Lectures, one of which occurred during my visit. I heard him talk in a theater on Harvard’s campus. I really wanted his autograph, but I was afraid to approach him, and I also didn’t have anything (like a book) for him to sign. So I just kind of hovered as he talked to other people, and then when he left the theater I sort of followed him and whoever he was with across Harvard Yard for a ways… I mean, that’s not creepy at all, right? The funny thing is, a day or two later, walking around Cambridge, I came upon one of those used book sales where someone leaves a table of books out on the sidewalk and a box for you to put your money in. There was a copy of Snow in the collection, so I bought it (the copy I’d read in high school belonged to the school). Too late for the author’s autograph, alas! But it’s still special because I acquired it more or less on the same occasion that I saw Orhan Pamuk speak.

By now, you might be thinking, Hmmm, her favorite authors are all men. That has not escaped my notice. I take it as a sign that I have more reading to do!