For those who are not familiar with Lisbon, the capital city of Portugal, it is another location currently under the full weight of societal changes brought about by the explosive influx of mass tourism. Increasingly expensive to live in, and trading its poetic decay for that made-up version of “Very Typical” that caters to the casual visitor, Lisbon might have lately gained a globalised shine but, as a living entity, runs the risk of becoming devoid of its critters and previous life habits.
Notwithstanding the pros and cons of change, the fact is that such a makeover of the city dynamics comes always with some losses. Attuned to this tectonic shift, Portuguese writers have been purposefully tapping into fantastical elements to highlight these conflicts and contradictions. Indispensable recent examples are “Sleeping with Lisboa” [Sleeping with Lisbon] (2017), by Fausta Cardoso Pereira, and, the focus of this present review, “A Imortal da Graça” [The Immortal from Graça] (2019), by Filipe Homem Fonseca.
One of the historical neighbourhoods of downtown Lisbon, Graça is both a picturesque urban setting, still reminiscent of the XIX century factory worker villages that were contemporary with its current naming, and one of the best viewpoints to enjoy the overall cityscape, being sprawled down over one of the city’s seven hills. As in many historical neighbourhoods in downtown Lisbon, this is still a ground for elderly people, which are now constantly pressured out of the area by economic interests. And Filipe Homem Fonseca takes full advantage of this scenario to stage a novel about neighbourhood life, a way of life threatened by the aging and gentrification of the population, the rise of rent prices, the self-interest of political powers, and the alienation of close human relationships.
In “The Immortal from Graça”, Filipe paints a neighbourhood isolated from the rest of the city by a siege of renovation and construction works, which mysteriously formed an insurmountable barrier to the adult residents. Indeed, while, for some reason, children and tourists are able to navigate the interstices of this encircling barrier, inexplicably coming and going with ease, Graça’s adult residents, although frustrated, seem resigned to adapt to the blockade, apparently unavoidable until the works to bring forth a renovated city are complete. A renovation which nonetheless they express to be either unwilling or unsure to desire.
As in every social unit, the personal network of residents provides the backbone to its true identity, instilling life and character into the urban stage. Here, Filipe traces a strict hierarchy, built on seniority, which assures a kind of social submission regarding daily matters in the Graça microcosm. This hierarchy is assured by psychological manoeuvring, and even murder, which allows old ladies to rise up in the ranking. And, in true Highlander fashion, there can be only one “Number One”. This is further upset by the fact that the current “top of the pyramid”, Miss Celeste, shows no sign of tiredness or disease, besides being a hermit by choice, thus being dubbed the immortal. Real social power is thus exerted by the incumbent, the number two, Glória, which is in turn the elected target of the twin “crows”, Gorete and Manuela, the ex aequo number 4. To close the shortlist, Rosalina, number 3, is a mere observer, chronicling the antics of the others to the presence of her dead husband, from the veranda of an ever sinking building.
Filipe Homem Fonseca is a “machine of creation”, from literary works (both prose and poetry) to TV series scripts, writing and directing short movies and documentaries, radio and theatre plays, and performing as stand-up comedian or musician. If these were not enough, he is also a well-known expert and promoter of pop culture, especially comics. He is thus perfectly adept at instilling a mainstream novel with fantastic elements, and to sustain them throughout, producing a novel close to the magic realism field. Following the tone set in his first novel, “Se não podes juntar-te a eles, vence-os” [If you can’t join them, defeat them], Filipe Homem Fonseca brings forth in “The Immortal from Graça” an harrowing tale of the domestic mundane, and how it structures a viewpoint not only of daily human power struggles but also of the World, which, by being removed from our immediate vicinity, is so often filtered by TV, a relationship that is here magnificently explored with Glória.
But the story is not only about older people. Gabriel and Graça are two characters forced to fight for their right to cling to a modicum of space and emotion within the city, and that embody the epitome of self-inflicted misery, so common in younger people, while being masters of different trajectories along the book. With them, the novel highlights the challenge in the personal search for what makes us worthy, from characters that, either objectively or subjectively, dwell on failure.
Furthermore, like Fausta, and David Soares before them, by weaving a fantastic dimension to the city of Lisbon, Filipe Homem Fonseca also ends up by using time as an inseparable dimension of an iconic city like Lisbon, which takes final form in the evocation of a 2800 years shared kiss between a pair of buried lovers. Indeed, remembrance and the immortality of memory are frequent allusions, by which several of the characters measure themselves throughout the novel.
All these engaging characters and colourful dialogue populate the “The Immortal from Graça” with a truly Portuguese flavour, enabling the author to discuss serious matters without coming across as preachy. And, as is becoming his signature, the ending is both surprising and satisfying beyond mere logic. After all, we just might be trying to discover ourselves in a world which, as it mutates, perhaps changes essentially to remain the same.