Lisbon In Books: The Two Hotel Francforts

It was actually quite a coincidence that I picked up this book… Wandering into the lovely Daunt Bookstore in London, which orders books by the place they are set in, I stumbled across The Two Hotel Francforts. The cover was intriguing, as it showed a couple in the 1940s on Rossio Square – a time that I find quite fascinating for all sorts of reasons (including the fact that my mother happened to be living in Lisbon at that time). Not knowing too much of the book (and the cover not being much of an enlightenment), I decided to give it a read – originally thinking it would be some sort of detective story or spy story, which seemed quite appropriate given the time it is set in.

Well.. I was pretty wrong: what the cover doesn’t give away is that it is actually very much a gay story, albeit of two married men, set in Lisbon. This came as a bit of a surprise to me – although the author has previously written extensively about this (and maybe I should read a review next time before starting to read a book… or does that spoil the fun?).

The basic premise is that two American couples meet in Lisbon. They are refugees fleeing the Nazis via the last open port in Europe – and by coincidence end up in the same café, though living in two very different, but named the same, hotels in Lisbon (yes, there actually were two hotels Francfort in Lisbon – see here for more information and pictures [in Portuguese]).
Just when I wondered where the plot was heading (still expecting a few spies to pop up), on a “boys night out”, the two husband start an affair – all against the backdrop of both couples trying to secure passage out of Lisbon and to America with their wives – and not entirely happy to leave the old continent behind.

I’m not trying to give too much of the plot away, only to say, it does take a lot of unexpected turns. But it is not just the love (or sex?) story that is intriguing and well written… it is also the backdrop of 1940s Lisbon live among people trying to escape – and the description of the atmosphere surrounding this extraordinary situation and time in this city.

As you might expect, this book is not much about Portuguese – nor does it venture much beyond the refugee circles and their life, as none of the characters interacts with locals. Of course, this is very much the story line, and although this could be read as somewhat disappointing, it would only be so if you expect a character study of the Portuguese. Don’t expect much in terms of local habits or local psyche… even Salazar and his policies only appear in very small doses. If you see the book as an atmospheric description of life as (very wealthy) refugees in this strange neutral country – then you will love it… if you happen to read it in Lisbon, you’ll be even more intrigued as it talks about some of the places which are still here, taking into account how they were at that time. For example, there is a lot of talk about Pastelaria Suiça… the way the author talks about it is very much how my mother talked about it. If you look at what I’d call one of the worst tourist traps on Rossio square today, you wonder why anyone would want to be there – but those were different times, and the author does well in reviving them.

Overall, if you are interested in any of these:
– Lisbon in the 1940s
– wealthy people fleeing the Nazis
…or just want to read a gay (I’m not sure I’d call it love-)story…
this is your book. If all three interest you – you’ll have trouble putting the book down.
And although it had no murders and spies, as I originally thought, I definitely enjoyed reading it tremendously.

David Leavitt (2013), The Two Hotels Francfort, New York: Bloomsbury USA

Film: The last time I saw Macau

The last time I saw Macau ( A Última Vez Que Vi Macau ) is a “film essay”, following a man’s  return after thirty years of absence to the ex-Portuguese colony – this time to help a friend in need. Co-Directed by João Rui Guerra da Mata together with João Pedro Rodrigues of O Fantasma and To Die Like a Man fame.

A última vez que vi Macau / The last time I saw #Macau – #portuguesecinema … review coming soon

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I always had a bit of a soft-spot for Macau, this little sibling of Hong Kong, that somehow combines the worst and best of (post-)colonial China, that packs together the lure of far East with the traditions of Europe. A place I experienced as strange yet familiar when visiting from Hong Kong. Needless to say, the title of the movie already intrigued me. Added to this that the movie was made by the Portuguese director who directed To Die Like A Man and O Fantasma (review coming soon), just fueled the anticipation (and expectation) I had to finally watch the movie.

Let’s be clear here: It is not a gay themed movie. The only “LGBT”-reference is a transvestite (Candy) who is the  reason for the protagonist (Guerra da Mata) to return to Macau. as far as the story goes, Candy, who left Europe seeking an easier life in Asia, is in trouble – and Guerra da Mata is the only friend she can can rely on to help her. Thus begins the journey of Guerra da Mata to find and help Candy, and his rediscovery of Macau, where he spent his youth.
It is also not a thriller. In fact, the story is mostly the canvas upon which the film builds a portrait of Macau: Away from the glitzy casinos and swish shopping malls – and dives into the underbelly of this “not quite Chinese”, and “never really quite Portugal” city state. A bit like Candy, Macau is something “in between”. What follows is very much a “city symphony”, images of Macau in bright neon light in the run down back streets of the city.

This “in between” is, what made the movie intriguing and fascinating for me: A bit like my experience of Hong Kong: a different place, where nothing is quite what it seems and a different story lurks behind every corner. Seedy, grotty, beautiful, poor and intriguing. That is the impression of Macau I’m left with after watching the movie (and very much like the real life Macau I experienced). Not the sort of glossy place the Chinese Tourist Board would like to portray, but a place with dark secrets, mystery, promises and bright lights in equal measures.

If you haven’t been to Macau, I can imagine the film being quite strange. For me, it resonates a lot with the city. And yes, the story line is holding the film together, but it isn’t the main actor here: the main act for me is played not by Candy or Guerra da Mata, it is the city itself, and the sights and feelings of Guerra da Mata as he tries to find Candy. Overall, the movie reminded me a lot of “London” and “Robinson in Space” by Patrick Keiller,  with a more “exotic” twist. Not just because of the near invisibility of the main character and narrative, but the way the film explores “the other”, unseen side of this Asian metropolis. Definitely a movie I highly enjoyed watching, and I would recommend it to anyone trying to get a glimpse of this fascinating “special administrative region”, stranded somewhere “in between” China, European theme park, glitzy Las Vegas of the East – and the dark sides of sex, crime and gambling.

Film: Aya Arcos

A middle aged writer falls for a young hustler… Both embark on a shaky, mismatched relationship… A highly sexually charged, Brazilian film, with lots of potential.

#AyaArcos #gaymovie #brazil … review coming soon

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Yesterday I managed to watch Aya Arcos, a Brazilian film about a writer (Edu) who falls for a young hustler he meets on the streets of Rio (Fabio). Against the backdrop of the two very different characters, the relationship develops – unsurprisingly shaky. While Fabio couldn’t care less about what tomorrow may bring, Edu, deeply stuck in an emotional and creative crisis, constantly tries to get Fabio to grow up – and become a stable relationship partner. In addition, Edu is terrified about becoming infected with HIV, although he soon finds out he is positive – something that doesn’t seem to bother Fabio.

There is lots of passion in the relationship between the two, but also lots of things that remain unspoken or unclear. Sadly, the film doesn’t always help in this aspect, as it seems to jump sometimes from one topic to the next. The other issue that somehow distracted from the big story line of the relationship was the HIV issue, which somehow seemed to be different and unconnected, though maybe symbolic of what was going on (at least to a point). Overall, I feel more focus could have been given to the emotional turmoil of the relationship, and a clearer development of the characters would have helped the film tremendously.

That said, the film was enjoyable –  not only because it contains some handsome actors/scenes. In some ways the topic of the film is difficult, and given the limited budget and considering it is a first film for the director, I think it is definitely a worthwhile film to watch.