Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Cidade Proibida (2007)

Recently read two works of fiction by Portuguese author Eduardo Pitta, his recent novel “Cidade Proibida” and “Persona”, the later in the recent revised second edition. Neither impressed much and won’t last longer in my memory. I wasn’t impressed by either… but here’re my thoughts on the first.

“Cidade Proibida” (“Forbidden City”) is a short novel, with a plot that centres on the relationship between a british working-class professor in Lisbon and his upper class “native” boyfriend, and the people surrounding them. Somehow, I feel that its length was its greatest asset. I took me about four hours of reading spread over three days, in a few tube rides from home to work and back. I also liked the title, which refers not to any homosexual context (as one would have thought from the subject matter) but to the rarefied upper classes of Portuguese society.

But that’s were the good things stopped. It’s not a bad read, at worst it’s snobbish and pedantic, and at best I felt indifferent. While it describes the Lisbon environment fairly well, with its rules and codes, when the action changes to London, I couldn’t help not believing in it because I live here. It seemed too much stuck in the memories and places from the past and not at all real. The most (unintentional) hilarious moment of the book, which I shared with friends, is when Rupert, raised in London, says he can’t believe how expensive Portuguese houses are. It should be noted that a studio flat within a decent distance from the centre of London will probably buy a two bedroom flats in a nice area of Lisbon.

Often the book is simply a catalogue of unpleasant characters. In the first chapter we are introduced to Nora, Martim’s mother, and immediately, from the way she tells the maid off, and fires her on the spot, I disliked her. As the book progressed I realised neither of the leading men were much better. Rupert’s letter towards the end of the book kills whatever empathy we may have had for him that wasn’t killed from the events set in London. And a similar point could have been made for Martim, Guida, and all the others whose stories we are introduced despite their presence in the main events be little more than a glance.

There’s another issue, which I admit is due to personal taste. In an interview the author mentioned that his characters are not “sexless angels”, but I wonder if the explicitness of some of them is really necessary. I admit that I dislike sex scenes in books. They usually are uncomfortable readings, and the ones in the books are no exception. You require real talent to pull them off rather than just good writing skills. That does not mean that the characters must choose celibacy – but you can imply rather than describe, because in most cases details are unnecessary.

Ultimately books are a matter of taste. And this one isn’t for mine. But I might recommend it to someone who I think will enjoy it.

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