Written as a response to Stephanie White’s article Azulejos, in Onsite Review 25: Migration, On Hunting was first published in Onsite 27: Rural Urbanism [5 May 2012]. It can be read as a stand-alone essay.
By Joshua Craze. December 2011.
White brought me back to Lisbon. Not so much because of what she said, but how she said it – the way she peeled back the layers of the city, like an onion.
In Azulejos, White is a hunter.
People get hunters all mixed up, and think they are looking for what is rare or elusive – the thing that might give them the slip, and scurry away down some furtive alley if it were not for the hunter’s state of constant awareness. On the contrary, for the hunter, there is too much world, and all of it is clamouring for attention. Nothing rare or elusive here.
White sees her quarry everywhere. If she were to make an appearance in Carlo Ginzburg’s great book, Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method, he would no doubt call her a detective; a job that, one would have to agree, is merely a modern incarnation of the hunter. Her language reveals her true role when she refers to “the sheaf of stencil evidence.” White is looking for evidence, clues; the broken branches on the forest-floor that lead the way to the beast.
(And here I am, hunting for evidence of the hunter).
What is White looking for? On the surface of it, she searches for stencilled tiles, though they are relatively numerous in Lisbon. Does she then search for something in those tiles that others can’t see, like the professional antique hunters who throng the Parisian flea markets early on a Saturday, their noses diving down amid the bric-à-brac. Perhaps she searches for a slip of a moment in the 18th century, between the hand-drawn (which occupies the attention of lesser hunters) and the silk-screened and lithographed mass-produced products of the 20th. Or else she searches for other, less visible histories: traces of the Dutch East India Company, and of the Portuguese empire, resounding out from the tiles, into contemporary Lisbon.
White doesn’t fool me. All this talk of tiles is designed to put me off the scent, and deceive those who hunt the hunters. I know the real story. White is looking for time, hidden in the walls.
We are all a bit dislocated, we hunters; always pressing forwards, and trying to discern, on street corners, in tiles, and in malls, a sense that is always just escaping us.
Lisbon for me exists between two faces: that of the immigrant, and that of the old man.
The old man has a secret, and he remains rigid in it. Perhaps he will die there. Can you see it?
It can be seen in the perfectly ironed shirt, still smelling freshly of starch, in his trousers, which finish slightly too high up the ankle for modern tastes. The space between him and where he lives: a small inch of tired flesh held together by black socks.
It can be seen in the erect posture, the face that seems to bend impossibly backwards, away from you, and away from the street.
Most of all, it can be seen in the eyes: the fierce pride that seems to live on despite everything.
Lisbon is a world of people waiting: kids against walls, Angolans on curbs, and old men sitting in the squares, carving out tiny circles of space. What are all these people waiting for?
Hunters wait. For those waiting, just as for the hunter, no shadow is without significance. Everything may be a harbinger of the prey that we chase: every broken twig, torn leaf, street sign, newspaper, and every stranger holds within the promise that, just maybe, our time has arrived.
When we wait, we attend. Because we do so, we are not fully present; our sense of self is projected forwards to that happy imagined time in which we are united with the object that we await. We live in the future conditional. This waiting, which might seem to deprive the world of all colour, and render it monochrome, with hints of red happiness at the corners, is a condition of us being in the world at all.
The kids wait to rid themselves of their youth; the fur on the lip and the wise cracks constitute part of the sheaf of evidence (and how else could you luxuriate in your youth other than by already trying to be rid of it?). The Angolans wait for an opportunity that will enable them to transform this strange life lived in abeyance – not quite at home, but not fully in Portugal. The old men, who remember the Estado Novo, and a stiffer Lisbon than the world of today, remind me of some lines in Beckett. I am waiting. For what are you waiting? For it to all blow over. For what to all blow over? Life, I am waiting for life to blow over.
Like White, the people of Lisbon are waiting in space: hunting for objects that, if they can be recognized, will signal the arrival of the right time.
I keep seeing it – that sense of loss, of uncertainty, that encounters me everywhere. In Lisbon, it crept up on me when I least expected it.
In mute arcades, on side streets, down passages that suggest nothing but bare walls and struggling businesses, worlds congregate. Just as sleep, in conditions of oppression, can be a liberation, so concealed spaces in cities can act as a dream, in which one is liberated from a disjunctive present into an impossible past. In these empty spaces, neglected by the Portuguese, time is trapped in a bottle, and left to ferment.
I found myself wandering down one of these side streets, one day in Lisbon, and entering a mall.
As I climb up the stairs, there is floor after floor of food shops: plantains, ripe and brown, compete for space with fiery-red Scotch Bonnet chillies and dried fish. There are no warehouses for these shopkeepers, and the produce spills out of brown cardboard boxes, just as the cardboard boxes in turn poke out of doorways, onto the course-ways, turning the mall floors into a long extended market, in which the boundaries between the shops are no longer clear.
I stopped to speak to one of the shopkeepers; I no longer recall her name. She said she was building a house in Angola, a three-storey dream house. Every cent she made in Portugal went back to Angola, to her family, and into her house. Life in Portugal is a suspended life, which consists simply of building a life elsewhere. At least here, she said, in this mall, I am reminded of home. The mall is a dreamed world, a world that is a function of another, more concrete dream. In the mall, Portugal and Angola enter into uneasy co-existence, with the Angolan shopkeeper depending on the former colonial master for her future independence. She is waiting to live again.
She spoke dismissively of the bar downstairs. Every cent must go home (and every cent spent in Portugal, is a cent wasted). The bar is in the basement, and you can hear the shouts and the music as you enter the mall. It is to here that everything flows. The lost, the forgotten, and those that want to forget, congregate here. I drink with two Liberians, who wait on the curb like the Angolans, but not for possibility; they wait for the appointed hour, and they walk to the bar. The stronger you are, the longer it takes you to get there; the bigger the foundations of the dream-home, back home, the longer it takes for you to succumb to its memory.
Only it is not home. This bar resembles no bar in Liberia or Angola. It is a bar in Lisbon. And it is not. It is a bar made by a community that is in Lisbon, but it is only uncertainly a part of it. It is there. It is not from there. A lost space, grown ripe and drunk on fermented time, unmoving.
So the old men look, in their small circles in the parks of Lisbon, for a space that will close the gap between the world they know and the world Lisbon is becoming; and so the Angolans, in their shops, on street curbs, search for the concrete possibilities that will mean they are no longer living a life suspended, and can rejoin a now-liveable life in Angola. So White looks, in tiles, for a sense of time that will ground her in the city, and so I look, amongst them all, for a sense of what it is I am hunting for.
We people of Lisbon are a type of us all. We keep looking for the answer to time in space, and the answer to space, in time.