Portrait

A visit to the Lisbon apartment of polymath activist António Serzedelo. By Simon Webster.

António Serzedelo, revolutionary

António Serzedel
Credit: Supplied

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.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 3, 2018 as "Revolutionary’s road". Subscribe here.

Simon Webster
is a Perth-based lawyer.