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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

City of Ulysses

Teolinda Gersão

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Title: City of Ulysses
Author: Teolinda Gersão
Genre: Novel
Written: 2011 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 197 pages
Original in: Portuguese
Availability: City of Ulysses - US
City of Ulysses - UK
City of Ulysses - Canada
La città di Ulisse - Italia
  • Portuguese title: A Cidade de Ulisses
  • Translated by Jethro Soutar and Annie McDermott

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Our Assessment:

B : relies a bit too much on some melodramatic turns, but otherwise a solid artist-novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The 'city of Ulysses' of the title is Lisbon -- the legend being that the Portuguese capital was actually founded by Ulysses, giving:

Lisbon a singular status: a real city founded by a fictional character, a city contaminated by literature and storytelling.
       The story is told by an artist, Paulo Vaz -- and it is told, more than narrated, almost entirely addressed directly to a woman he was involved with many years earlier, Cecília Branco.
       The novel opens with Paulo being invited to have the first exhibition at Lisbon's Contemporary Art Museum in a planned series where artists are to convey: "their personal visions of Portugal" -- with his exhibition having Lisbon as a theme. It's this offer that bring Cecília very much back to mind for him: as it turns out, Paulo and Cecília had imagined exactly such an exhibit, decades earlier -- even if:
     But neither of us had taken the idea of an exhibition about Lisbon seriously. It was just for our own amusement, a private game to challenge each other's imagination. Wherever we went in the city we'd look around as if it belonged to us, as if we were going to make it into something else.
       Despite this background and premise -- with Paulo accepting the commission and agreeing to the exhibit -- City of Ulysses isn't so much a story about Lisbon. It is very much Paulo's story -- the story of a peripatetic artist; the story of his relationship with Cecília. He holds some information back at the beginning, including what has happened with Cecília -- he believes he can only create the exhibit as originally planned, with his partner from that time, but that is no longer possible; eventually he agrees to do it on his own but to do so he must revisit all that was between him and Cecília. This also means that the woman currently in his life, Sara, is long sidelined -- "Forgive me, Sara, for leaving you in the background for perhaps a little too long", he apologizes early on, as he turns his fiull attention to his former life- and art-partner. (Here as elsewhere, the narrative plays a bit too coyly with its secrets, somewhat undermining Paulo's tale by making clear there's artifice to it, Paulo manipulatively structuring it in specifically this way so his big reveals make more of an impression (though Gersão at least does have Paulo be someone who tends to hold back, in his relationships and especially in talking about himself, so it's at least somewhat in character).)
       Much of the novel then is retrospective, Paulo explaining his own troubled family background -- a father who was a harsh military man whom he disappointed, his mother a dutiful wife who only blossomed secretly creating her own art -- and then his relationship with Cecília; the middle of the three sections of the novel is simply: 'Four Years with Cecília'.
       In revealing his own troubled family background and his career -- studying art, at home and abroad --, as well as his time with Cecília, Paulo constantly also places it in the changing Portuguese context. Gersão handles this effectively, with incidental mentions that nevertheless capture the gist of Portugal's rapidly changing political and economic situations from 1974 through the present, especially the 1980s, when Paulo and Cecília are together. The essentials from the passing years are captured, without Gersão going into any great depth, with the movies Paulo and Cecília see together as defining as some of the larger political and other circumstances, nicely dealt with in quick paragraphs such as:
     Purchasing power collapsed still further in 1985, but Parliament voted to raise politicians' salaries by fifty percent.
     The tax system was uneven and unjust, as usual. And, also as usual, after winter flooding, the summer brought forest fires.
       City of Ulysses is very much the novel of an artist, Paulo revealing the childhood that shaped him, his struggles to establish himself as an artist, his blossoming in Cecília's company, and his life, as artist and man, since their parting.
       Cecília was a vital figure in his life -- and he in hers -- but some fundamental differences remained between them. Some of her ambitions prove to be different -- beginning with her getting a cat. Paulo is at least forthright -- admitting that he handled that situation, and the cat, very, very badly -- and also true to himself, and it becomes clear why he and Cecília are not meant to be. Eventually, they split -- a hard, awful rupture -- which also eventually drives Paulo on, including beyond their once shared city:
     I was the only one who could see it, Cecília, but Lisbon as falling apart. If I were to tell anyone else they'd think me crazy, but I assure you: Lisbon vanished when you did.
       The planned exhibit -- to which the story eventually returns in its third, final section -- allows Paulo to reclaim Lisbon, and his past. Not only that, it brings Cecília and her own art back even closer yet again -- complicating the new relationship he has entered, with Sara. Eventually, the exhibition-plans change drastically, the museum showing a somewhat hard to believe last minute flexibility, allowing for (perhaps a bit too neat) resolutions and finality.
       Gersão presents all this engagingly and well, and City of Ulysses is a fine -- and, in places, very good -- novel of an artist life, as well as an effective account of the times and changes in modern Portugal. The novel is, however, slightly marred by its reliance on two pivotal, terrible events that are pure melodrama; Gersão tends towards the melodramatic resolution in any case (both Paulo's father and mother end up in extreme situations), but what she does with Cecília, and how she does it, is too much straight out of baser tear-jerker fiction. A lighter touch would have worked just fine, too -- but perhaps she was hoping for easier popular appeal in a novel that might otherwise seem to be too 'artsy' -- a shame, because it isn't (too artsy), but rather is simply a solid novel of a man who is devoted to art but whose story isn't completely consumed by it. (Indeed, City of Ulysses nicely avoids most of the artsiness writers of such stories often burden them with, while still being a serious novel on the subject.)

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 July 2017

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City of Ulysses: Reviews: Teolinda Gersão: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Portuguese author Teolinda Gersão was born in 1940.

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© 2017-2021 the complete review

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