My rating: 3 stars
Lisbon has served as inspiration for numerous books. In A Cidade de Ulisses (City of Ulysses in the English translation), the Portuguese author Teolinda Gersão mixed the history of the city with a story about love and the visual arts. At first, this is an enthralling read, thanks to a rhythmic prose and various stimulating considerations. However, the fact that it tries to juggle various elements means that the events that are explored at each given time are not always the most interesting.
The narrator, Paulo Vaz, was invited to take part in an art exhibition about the city of Lisbon. Years before he had thought about doing something similar, but it never came to fruition. It was a project he had with a woman he loved, Cecília, whom part of the text is addressed to. He recalls their relationship, their conversations, sexual attraction and experiences. He was a graduate teaching assistant at the university she was studying in. They shared a love for art and discovering Lisbon. Cecília believed that love was simple and joyful. The narrator, on the other hand, considered that it also comprised sadness and melancholy.
It’s not only his relationship with Cecília that Paulo Vaz explores. He also remembers his parents. His father had never accepted his decision to become a painter, and his mother lost part of herself by continuing in an unhappy marriage. Their strained relationship still haunts the narrator for various reasons that are exposed later on.
Lisbon’s history is also prevalent in this book. Legend has it that it was Ulysses (Odysseus in Greek mythology) that founded the city. The singularity of having a character from a book founding a real city doesn’t go unnoticed by the narrator. But there are many other references to real events. Paulo Vaz makes thought-provoking considerations about, for example, cultural diversity, the inquisition, the Age of Discovery and colonialism.
At first these contemplations are for the most part gripping. They benefit from a writing style which has a poignant rhythm, a mix between longer and shorter sentences. Nevertheless, at certain occasions, the recalling of events from Portugal’s past becomes a boring checklist, and even the prose loses its enchantment.
Although I wondered from the outset why the relationship between the narrator and Cecília had come to an end, I started to doubt if the plot was actually going somewhere or if it was just an excuse to remark about historical events and art. The story of their relationship has in fact a resolution, but it takes too long to unravel. Some interesting events on the narrator’s life are mentioned in passing, while others which are virtually inconsequential are excessively delved into.
A Cidade de Ulisses tries to achieve too much and is not fully successful. Its initial allure is gradually lost until the narrator shows a conflicting and darker side that influenced the outcome of his relationship with Cecília.