Well kept secrets of the Portuguese people – Saudade

Well kept secrets of the Portuguese people – Saudade

I like to consider myself a curious, willing to learn type of person. During my childhood, I used to spend my time and money buying and reading books while other kids my age still played in parks or whatever. I was not surprised when relocation changed my daily habits, maybe a bit my personality and perception of the world, but I did not expect it to make me question my general knowledge and some facts that I took for granted.

Portuguese people are relaxed, they like to drink a glass of beer on the esplanada, enjoy the beach and the sun. Therefore, they almost have it all to be happy. Still, you can notice deep inside most of the Portuguese people the longing for the places, moments or people far away in space or time.

Almost from my first days here in Portugal, I picked up a concept not commonly found in other languages. From Portugal to Brazil, Cabo Verde and beyond, the term saudade is recurrent in literary works or songs’ lyrics. Considered to be almost untranslatable, saudadehas a bunch of definitions. Maybe the shortest way to explain it is: “the presence of the absence”, but my favourite one was given by one Portuguese writer, Manuel de Melo, in the 17th century: “a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.” For Melo, saudade represented the energy that connected all universe, balancing the opposite.

Just the fact itself of considering the term untranslatable places the Portuguese soul in a limited boundary: the conscience of the whole nation in just one word, saudade – an authentic feeling only for Portuguese speakers.

There is even a legend about a young king, Sebastiao I (1554-1578) who just vanished on the battlefield, in today’s Morocco, who will one day return. For many people, this Sebastianism was and still is an image of a foretold resurrection, a personification of Portugal’s own spectacular revival. 

Even if they probably are not aware of it, most of the Portuguese identify themselves with Eduardo Lourenco’s theory, the éminece grise of Portuguese identity. He wrote about the pessimistic self-characterisation of the Portuguese and he considered that they have constructed for themselves a split personality, thanks to the disparity between the nation as it projects itself to the world, and the nation as it really is. 

And of course, we cannot talk about saudade without talking about fado, the Portuguese urban folk music, typical of the city of Lisbon. Fado was born at the beginning of the 19th century and it usually sings about the sea or the life of the poor, infused with a sentiment of resignation, fatefulness and melancholia. Its execution took place indoors or outdoors, in gardens, bullfights, retreats, streets and alley, taverns, cafés de camareiras and casas de meia-porta. Singing the daily narratives, fado is profoundly related to social contexts ruled by marginality and transgression in a first phase, taking place in locations visited by prostitutes, faias, sailors, coachmen and marialvas. During the Salazar regime, fado acquired corrupt associations – cancão nacional, being used as a form of propaganda.

From my experience with this word by now, the prototypical object of saudade is a feeling, a personal experience and not the person or the place. The magic of this word lies in its ambivalence – saudade is both a memory and a feeling; pleasure and pain.

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