Foreword by William Boyd
“O homem nâo é um animal
É uma carne inteligente
Embora às vezes doente.”
[Man is not an animal
Is intelligent flesh
Although sometimes ill.]
Something of the baffling, beguiling, disturbing appeal of Fernando Pessoa is contained in these three lines of poetry taken from a short poem he wrote in 1935, the year of his death, called Love is the Essential. Pessoa was obsessed by the schism between our ‘concrete’ and our ‘abstract’ natures — summed up here in the concept of carne inteligente. Sometimes he wished he were a simple unreflecting animal, untroubled by self-consciousness, but he saw in our uniquely human ability to reflect on and analyse ourselves the source of all our pleasures in life (he described sunsets as ‘an intellectual experience’) – and its pain. Hence the wry rejoinder – ‘although sometimes ill’ – a very Pessoa-esque note to strike. The comedic aspects of our short, troubled existences also entertained him. The hilarious absurdity of the human predicament was as obvious to him as its inherent, melancholy pointlessness.
Fernando Pessoa (1888 – 1935) is one of the great figures of 20th century European modernism. The most exotic portion of his life occurred in his youth. At the age of seven he left Lisbon for Durban, South Africa, where he lived with his mother and step-father until he was seventeen. This sojourn provoked in him an enduring anglophilia (his first poems were in English) and a sense of being a permanent outsider. It is perhaps helpful to see him as a Portuguese cross between Franz Kafka and T.S. Eliot – a maverick, unclassifiable spirit wrapped up in a carapace of petit-bourgeois conformity. Like Kafka (insurance) and Eliot (banking), Pessoa earned his living on his return from South Africa in a humdrum professional world. He became a commercial translator, writing business letters in English and French for Portuguese companies. In the many photographs we have of him in his adult life he looks the perfect dry functionary: moustachioed, dapper, always with a hat and a tie — l’homme moyen sensual — as if the rectitude and tedium of his daily job were in some way necessary to curb the teeming, abundant life of the mind within.
Intriguingly, Pessoa’s literary fame is entirely posthumous. During his life he was a very minor figure on the fringes of the Lisbon artistic and intellectual scene, an obscure footnote in the annals of 20th century Portuguese poetry. He published hardly anything and it was only the discovery of a vast trunk of manuscripts after his death that has provided us with the copious poetry and other prose writings – of which The Book of Disquiet is by far the major element.
What makes Pessoa extraordinary in a modernist-literary sense is his invention of what he called ‘heteronyms’. Pessoa published poems under his own name but also under the names of other identities. Possessing a disguise far more complex than mere pseudonyms, these heteronym-poets had styles, biographies and personalities of their own, as if they really were distinct individuals who were born, lived and died apart from their creator. There are 72 distinct heteronyms in the Pessoa oeuvre but four predominate: the poets Alberto Caiero, Ricardo Reis, and Alvaro de Campos and the author of The Book of Disquiet, Bernado Soares.
Pessoa regarded Soares as the closest to himself — a minor clerk whiling away his life in rented rooms — describing him as a ‘mutilation of my personality’. The Soares heteronym evolved earlier and lasted far longer than any of the others and his life’s work – the fragmented journal and collection of philosophical musings that make up The Book of Disquiet – was both incomplete and unorganised when Pessoa died in 1935 (of hepatitis, in fact: Pessoa was also a dedicated but discreet alcoholic). Indeed, the form that the published book takes is something of an estimation — so random and confused were Pessoa’s plans for the finished volume. But, fittingly, the mystery and disorder of the jottings and pages somehow suit the book’s tone and atmosphere. Pessoa has been described by Octavio Paz as a ‘solemn investigator of futile things’, the epitome of an empty man who, in his helplessness, creates a world in order to discover his true identity. It’s in this spirit that we should read The Book of Disquiet, not only to locate the echo of our own disquiet about our life and the world we occupy, but also to go on a mesmerizing journey with one of the most fascinating minds in European literature.