The Garden of Forking Languages: Portuguese Saudade

When thinking about any language I have studied, I find it crucial to remember when and how I made the active decision to start learning it. In my experience, there is always one precise moment that triggers someone’s final choice to engage in this sort of project, a moment that really sets the tone for their attitude towards the language in question. 

My triggering moment, as far Portuguese is concerned, happened in a train station in Perth, Australia, when I was living there as an exchange student at sixteen. I was waiting for the train to get to school when I noticed in the crowd an outstandingly tall man who looked extremely engrossed in the book he was reading. What caught my attention was not just that he was reading whilst standing up, despite the crowded and unpleasant environment, but the facial expression that he wore whilst he read. It was the unequivocal expression which excellent, life-changing books produce in hungry readers, when reality fades away and respectfully lets the story take over. I saw him for many days in a row, always reading the same book. In the end my curiosity prevailed and I managed to catch a glimpse of the title. It was The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. That was the moment that I decided I had to learn Portuguese, and eventually read that specific book.

Although my decision was already final, I was only given the chance to start studying Portuguese years later upon entrance to my first year at the University of Glasgow. I had assumed, at first, that my ability in this language would be instinctive and intuitive due to my knowledge of Spanish, Italian and French. However, the more that I engaged in it, the more fascinated I was by this peculiar language: the language which looked extremely similar to all the other romance languages I knew but which had extremely different pronunciation rules from all of them.

Not only is the study of the Portuguese language itself an extremely enriching experience, but it also gives you access to the beautiful culture of Portuguese-speaking countries, which has some real gems to offer for anyone who appreciates the arts. Of course, my very first approach to lusophone literature consisted of purchasing The Alchemist.

Having just made the crucial choice of moving abroad for good, I was naturally full of doubts and worries concerning my decision. However, there could have been no better moment for me to read Coelho’s book: a strongly inspirational, spiritually charged fable about a journey filled with difficult choices and reflections on life and its challenges. In its remarkable simplicity, this book offers an interesting portrait of human existence in general, and the lusophone mindset in particular. As I have noticed during my short exposure to the Portuguese-speaking world, its literature is characterised by a constant seeking of the good in life, even in the face of adversity, which Coelho’s protagonist’s search for treasure is a clear metaphor for. 

However, this attitude is far from being blind and obtusely optimistic; underneath it there always lies a feeling of melancholy, or longing for this element of good which cannot be achieved. This is also known as ‘saudade,’ one of the most relevant and intriguing themes of Portuguese literature which was initially embraced by Fernando Pessoa.

Another artist who managed to portray this combination of a profoundly melancholic attitude and an optimistic mindset is the Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. After spending his life taking highly realistic and voluntarily disturbing pictures that denounced human tragedies and injustice from all over the world, Salgado decided to dedicate his last album, Genesis, to the marvels of nature and humanity that are untouched by modern civilisation.

Not only has this man managed to capture some of the most wonderful and remote corners of the Earth in his photographical work, his entire life, with that of his wife, Léila, is a message of hope and longing for a better future. This is perfectly narrated in the moving documentary The Salt of the Earth, which was directed by Wim Wenders and Salgado’s son, Juliano Salgado. The film ends on the happy note of how Léila and Sebastião have given their own contribution to the environmental issues they felt so strongly about by reforesting a small area of Brazil, where they opened the environmental institute, Instituto Terra.

Despite the fact that my Portuguese studies only lasted for one year, I still feel a special connection to this culture and literature as I am convinced that saudade is not a strictly lusophone concept. It’s a human one. It is our melancholy, our constant longing for something we lack, that saves us from inertia and keeps us moving towards new stimulating ideas and experiences.

[Viola Ragonese – she/her]

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