quarta-feira, maio 25, 2016

A trip to Naples and Pompeii

I loved my recent trip to Naples and Pompeii. Arriving in Rome, at the Termini train station, when one presses the button "English" on the ticket vending machines, there pops up a message: "beware of pickpockets!", which reminds me how my wife was mugged as soon as we arrived in Rome, the first time I've been there, many ears ago. Familiar territory, then. The train to Naples takes only about an hour.

The city centre in Naples is very different from most European cities, usually gentrified and made up for tourists. Not here - the city centre is dirty, chaotic, lived in, and it feels like a refreshing place, no "boutique" hotels or "gourmet" places, but crowds of local people going about their business, cars and motorbikes driving everywhere, tourist shops amid local shops, food stalls where local people queue to eat, etc. And then there are lots of churches, among them the beautiful Duomo and San Domenico, and the small museum of the Capella Sansevero with the veiled Christ. The old Scapanapoli is a feast for the eyes, and it's always nice to eat an icecream or a babá au rum.

On the second day I walked along the corniche, from the Castelnuovo until the Donanna palace, along the beautiful bay. It looks like a different world from the sleazy city centre, with the stately buildings and the gorgeous views over the sea and the Vesuvius. The funicolare takes us to the Vomero neighbourhood, to castel Sant'Elmo, from where we can enjoy superb views over the city and the bay. The affluent neighbourhoods of Mergellina and Posillipo seemed miles away from the hectic centre, a sign of the city's diversity.

The Archeological Museum has a stunning collection, even if it's somewhat haphazardly shown. Great statues, amazing paintings and mosaics from Pompeii, not much information and a sad cafeteria with vending machines - couldn't they have set up a café?

Then a visit to Pompeii - I always wanted to go there, ever since reading about Winckelman's diggings when I was a child. The city is just amazing, one can really feel how this was a real city, extremely modern in many ways - the speed bumps, the night reflectors, the baths, the food stalls - and the decorated villas are just stunning. I could spend whole days there, exploring the streets, the villas and their beautiful frescoes, the theatres, shops, etc. The setting is beautiful, with the hills and the volcano in the background. The casts of the people killed and buried by the eruption are impressive and moving. One wonders how a big city would look like in the heyday of Roman times, from this small sample...How would have been Rome, Athens, Ephesus, Alexandria?

Back to Naples, we decided not to go to the Amalfi coast, beautiful as it must be, but rather enjoy a last day in the city. We visited the Capodimonte Museum - amazing collection of Renaissance painting, and very well displayed for a change - and then walked down from the museum to the city centre - popular narrow streets, with corny altars in every corner, lines of drying clothes, busy small shops. Toured the busy narrow streets of the centre and the Spagnioli quarter again, ate more ice creams and babas. It felt really good relaxing around this lively city, watching the scenic vistas over the bay and the Vesuvius, drinking strong espressos and eating tasting pizzas. Naples is a wonderful town, and it really made me look forward to know more of Southern Italy, and Sicily... Another time.

Pumpkinflowers - A Soldier's Story, by Matti Friedman

I knew about Matti Friedman, as about so many other people and stuff, on Facebook, through a good Israeli friend. She praised me his book The Aleppo Codex, which made me read it, and I liked it very much; I have since been reading his articles, always sensible, intelligent and articulate, so I was looking forward to reading his new book, that was published early this month. So, my expectations were high, and I was not in the least disappointed, actually it's even better than I expected. It's a very well written story, moving, engaging and thought provoking. Through its characters, ordinary - even if I dislike to use this word, because each one comes out as a unique and interesting individual - young men who find themselves right after high school in the middle of a dangerous, bloody and seemingly pointless low level war, one gets a clear and poignant picture of the violence and senselessness of war, and how meaningless and wasteful it all seems. Young boys die, huge human potential is lost, the status quo goes on; the similarities to other conflicts, other lives equally wasted is often evoked along the narrative's several allusions to the trenches of WWI and the sad and beautiful poetry of boys like Owen or Brooke. This doesn't mean these young men, the author included, were pacifists, they were all conscious of the need to protect a vulnerable country surrounded by enemies and willing to risk their lives to do it, even if they were probably not aware of what it really entailed, as young men usually aren't, with the youth's belief in its own invulnerability.

One of the things I liked most about the book is how it balances an articulate and sharp view of the historical and general context and a humane and insightful description of the individual people involved. He captures excellently the mood of the soldiers, the families, as of the country after the war, affectionately but never condescendingly. His analysis of the conflict and its consequences is lucid and realistic. Another thing I liked much was how he shows how our convictions, expectations and perspectives change with the events along the years, and how our appraisals are far from static, and what we believe to have been "always like this" actually changes a lot is as little a couple of decades - a good lesson lots of people should understand to think twice before embracing radical beliefs or making bombastic and too staunch statements.

The last part is particularly impressive, one really gets an eerie feeling of unreality and one turns the pages as in a thriller, almost as if one was there oneself, besides the narrator, driving on a simultaneously familiar and alien land, meeting these nice individuals that yet are the enemy. And again one is reminded that, in spite of all that divides us, we are all pretty much the same.

All in all, a great book, and I highly recommend it.

quinta-feira, março 24, 2016

História do Novo Nome, de Elena Ferrante

This is the second part of the story of two Neapolitan friends by Elena Ferrante. At first, I wasn't enjoying it very much, the first chapters seemed inferior to the first book, somewhat repetitive, but then the story caught strength and it became just as good. The characters are credible and real, the author really knows how to convey the different stages and feelings involved in a deep friendship, and the depiction of the narrator's struggle to come out of her poor and hopeless background is excellent. It's also a very good fresco of the life at the times the novel is set. So, looking forward for the third volume.

segunda-feira, março 21, 2016

O Retorno, de Dulce Maria Cardoso

A very good book, about something that has been very seldom written about, the return of half a million people from the Portuguese colonies in 1975. I remember very well the returnees, for whom I felt at the time sympathy and solidarity, also because, having just returned myself from 2 years in Cape Vert, I was a little acquainted with the kind of life they had left behind, and because they seemed to me different from the boring familiar people of the metropolis, with different experiences and freer mores. I had several good friends among them at the time; later I understood they were not exotic or special, just people who got caught in the consequences of a misguided policy and who tried to cope how they could, and that the apparent "specialness" was mostly bragging to feel like they were compensating for what they had lost. And that's why I liked this book so much, I think it expresses extremely well the situation, how they were and what they went through, not using the pretence to glamour like so many of them did, and in that way being so much more true to how it really was. It is also an excellent depiction of the atmosphere of the times - the revolutionary period, with its absurdities that seem so strange now. All in all, a very strong narrative, and I hope more people would write about this period that is being forgotten without ever having been duly analysed.

quarta-feira, março 09, 2016

Margarita e o Mestre, de Mikhail Bulgákov

I had heard about this book for a long time, but didn't have any idea of how it was. I was very surprised - after a few pages, when someone's head is chopped off by a tram car, it's just like embarking on a rollercoaster of a surrealistic absurd. The writing is light, funny and witty, and it reminded me of other fantastic novels, like Manuscript found at Zaragoza. There is a background of social critic of the Soviet society and the absurd of burocracy, but always subtle and intelligent. A nice surpise.

sexta-feira, fevereiro 26, 2016

Mémoires d'Outre-Tombe, volume 3, de Chateaubriand

The first chapters of this third volume of Chateaubriand's memoirs seemed less interesting than the previous volumes, but then it gained momentum and I really enjoyed it. Chateaubriand was a fascinating mixture of a conservative with some progressive ideas, guess today he would have been a social-democrat. I totally disagree with his monarchic and religious views, but his writing is superb, and he can really bring life to his depictions of diplomatic and political life in the 19th century, so similar to our own times in so many ways - some things never change? And his account of the July Revolution is extremely lively.

terça-feira, fevereiro 23, 2016

A Amiga Genial, de Elena Ferrante

I had heard about Elena Ferrante for a while, and it made me want to try some book of hers; I did, and it was a good bet. The writing is very good, and she has the talent to depict a friendship and an atmosphere, in this case the poor suburbs of Naples, that truly come alive through her writing. It's a coming of age novel, a novel of mores and the characters are true and credible. It makes me want to read the other novels in the series.

quarta-feira, fevereiro 17, 2016

Afirma Pereira, de António Tabucchi

This is an excellent book by an Italian-Portuguese author. I had read before Mulher de Porto Pim, and liked it, but this one is much better. He writes really well, and the story reminded me somewhat of Saramago's O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis - it is set in the same time period, the 30s in Lisbon - but I think I liked this better. Simulataneously sad and hopeful, which is quite an achievement.