POR­TRAIT:

The Saturday Paper - - Contents | The Week - Si­mon Webster

As you climb the stairs to An­tónio Serzedelo’s apart­ment, the walls be­gin to thicken with the bric-a-brac of bo­hemia. By the time you reach his floor, they, as well as the stairs, the handrails and the land­ing, are strewn with creep­ing plants, odd sculp­tures, dec­o­ra­tive masks and prints of fa­mous paint­ings, among them Pi­casso’s Guer­nica and Hierony­mus Bosch’s The Gar­den of Earthly Delights. Chances are An­tónio will an­swer the door with­out pants on. At the very least, in the sum­mer­time, ex­pect him to be shirt­less.

I have come to speak with An­tónio about Par­que metro sta­tion in Lis­bon, an im­mense sub­ter­ranean work of art that dou­bles as a train sta­tion. An­tónio has been, at var­i­ous times, an ac­tor, a scholar, a lo­cal his­to­rian, a ra­dio broad­caster and a hu­man rights ac­tivist. If we are charg­ing by the let­ter, it might make sense to sim­ply call him a sto­ry­teller. Dur­ing our in­ter­view, An­tónio would be­come an­i­mated when talk­ing of the im­por­tance of open-mind­ed­ness, of try­ing to un­der­stand the habits and cus­toms of oth­ers, of be­ing sol­idaire with them.

What bet­ter way to achieve these things than through story? When telling a story, An­tónio’s eyes sparkle, and his en­thu­si­asm is matched only by his re­mark­able pow­ers of re­call, for de­tails (names, dates, di­a­logue) and for emo­tions (fear, re­lief, joy). To lis­ten to him is to be trans­ported, but it’s best to hold loosely to your an­tic­i­pated des­ti­na­tion. At 73, An­tónio is ras­cally in a way that only 73-year-olds can be, and it’s not long be­fore my ques­tions about pub­lic in­fra­struc­ture start to feel nar­row and dull. Get to the real story, I sense him think­ing. And to An­tónio, the real story is rev­o­lu­tion.

Lis­bon, April 24, 1974

About mid­night, An­tónio was on his way home from a re­hearsal – “I was train­ing for a theatre show, uh, about chil­dren” – when he no­ticed the con­spic­u­ous pres­ence of sol­diers out­side the Rá­dio Clube Por­tuguês. Un­known to An­tónio, an hour ear­lier, at 10.55pm, João Paulo Diniz, a pop­u­lar ra­dio DJ, had sent the first coded sig­nal to the rebels that the coup was on, when he broad­cast “E De­pois do Adeus,” Por­tu­gal’s en­try into that year’s Euro­vi­sion Song Con­test. An­tónio asked one of the sol­diers what was go­ing on. He was told to be calm, and to go home. “I knew al­ready it was a coup,” An­tónio tells me. “The only doubt I had was if it was right-wing or left-wing.”

There was good rea­son for An­tónio’s un­cer­tainty. Some weeks ear­lier, a num­ber of high-rank­ing fas­cists had held a meet­ing at the army head­quar­ters. An­tónio, who was work­ing in the in­tel­li­gence ser­vice at the time, was or­dered to “be at the dis­posal” of the fascist brass dur­ing this meet­ing. “I had to hang out my hand and say, ‘Do you want wa­ter? Do you want tea?’ But I was not al­lowed to lis­ten to what they said.” Con­cerned, An­tónio alerted a pro-democ­racy ma­jor, and to­gether they hatched a plan: An­tónio would pro­vide each of the fas­cists with a stack of loose pa­per, and a “crayon num­ber 1, be­cause crayon num­ber 1 was very strong, and what they would write on the first page would go to the sec­ond page”. Then, once the meet­ing was over, he would sneak into the room and steal each of the in­dented pages. As pre­dicted, those with writ­ing on them had been taken away. An­tónio marked the in­dented pages so that they could be matched with the peo­ple who had sat be­hind them, and then de­liv­ered them to the ma­jor. For a week, An­tónio was too afraid to ask the ma­jor whether his ac­tions had been help­ful. When he fi­nally did ask, the ma­jor told him, “Very much. Very much.”

Still, on the night of the coup, An­tónio wasn’t sure which side had made the first move. He made his way home as in­structed, but only to pick up a hand­ful of coins. He then walked from pay­phone to pay­phone, calling his friends, telling them, “The army is on the road!” be­fore hang­ing up, afraid the se­cret po­lice would be lis­ten­ing. One of his friends, a jour­nal­ist, pressed An­tónio for his name. An­tónio kept mum, told the jour­nal­ist, “Come out! Come out! See the army on the road!” He called the jour­nal­ist two more times, want­ing him to act on the in­for­ma­tion, and on the third call, the jour­nal­ist’s re­quests for An­tónio’s name un­abated, he cracked.

“It’s me! An­tónio Serzedelo!”

“You son of a bitch!” the jour­nal­ist re­sponded. “You shouldn’t give your name!” An­tónio laughs as he tells this story, and it dawns on me how many times he must have told it be­fore, and in how many lan­guages. He brings it to its pol­ished end: “And then he went im­me­di­ately to his news­pa­per … It was the first news­pa­per com­ing out with the story.”

The next morn­ing, An­tónio walked to the army head­quar­ters. He ar­rived early, and watched as the high­est rank­ing of the fas­cists, who had been present at the meet­ing weeks be­fore, ar­rived in his “great black Mercedes-Benz”, driven by a chauf­feur. When, later that day, he saw the same man leav­ing, now in a very small car and with­out his chauf­feur, An­tónio knew it was over, the dic­ta­tor­ship had fallen. “Still, on my mem­o­ries, they are the best days of all my life,” he tells me. “It was maybe for 10 days, 20 days, one month – I don’t know ex­actly – but they were the best days of my life, be­cause we started feel­ing and liv­ing with free­dom, af­ter 50 years of fas­cis­mos.”

As I go to leave, I ask An­tónio whether he got to per­form the play that he had been re­hears­ing on the night of the coup. “No,” he says laugh­ing. “Two days later, af­ter the

• rev­o­lu­tion, it was al­ready old.”

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