“Literature is the most agreeable way of ignoring life.”
The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa
Finding authors in country is always a challenge unless they’ve won the Nobel Prize for Literature as Jose Saramago of Portugal did in 1998. He has many titles from which to choose. I selected the historical novel, Baltasar and Blimunda (1998), as it is set during the Inquisition.
The real find, though, in my mind, is Fernando Pessoa, enigmatic author who has been adopted as an icon. The plane we traveled on TAP (Portugal’s airline) was branded with his name. His image appears everywhere, striding confidently forward in fedora, bowtie, and long coat. A famous painting by Almada Negreiros shows him writing at a café (1934). By the way, Negreios is part of the modernist movement in which Pessoa is also a figure; the former’s Manifesto Anti-Dantes (1915) still has legs—even being adopted by a Taberna.
Pessoa authored poems such as the lines that appear above—a portion of a longer work; novels; and even a guide to Lisbon: What the Tourist Should See.
Who is Fernando Pessoa?
Born in 1888 in Lisbon, his family moved to South Africa when he was a child, so that he was fluent in both Portuguese and English. He was intensely patriotic; it’s said that he was disgusted that his schoolmates did not realize that the Cape of Good Hope and Capetown were named by Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama. He returned to Lisbon as an adult and set about rectifying the country’s reputation as it was no longer carried the status it once did as the home of Explorers who had changed the world by discovering trade routes and making the globe somewhat smaller. The sadness and nostalgia for an earlier time is termed saudade, and its most eloquent embodiment is heard in Fado music.
One of the reasons Pessoa is a man of mystery is due to the fact that he published his work under many names. Influenced by Walt Whitman—“I contain multitudes”—he used heteronyms–multiple pseudonyms. Some of have called him “the four greatest Portuguese poets of the twentieth century.” His 35 Sonnets is available for free download as an e-book.
He’s also the author of The Book of Disquiet, a novel that’s been called one of the greatest works of the twentieth century. Why isn’t Pessoa better known? In addition to the difficulty of uncovering Pessoa within so many noms de plume, there’s also the problem that much of his work was discovered in a trunk after his death in 1935. An international team of scholars set about organizing the 27,000 documents that had not yet been published, The Book of Disquiet and What the Tourist Should See among them.
Although the guide was written in 1925, it remains amazingly readable, relevant, interesting, and popular. To visit Pessoa’s haunts, go to the Largo Chiado (largo is a public square) and its art nouveau Brasileira Café, where you’ll be able to take a selfie with the sculpted Pessoa. Take in the tile-fronted buildings, enjoy a coffee, and read some of Pessoa’s words such as this delightful verse, part of a longer work.
Cat, you tumble down the street
As if it were our bed.
I think such luck’s a treat,
Like feeding without being fed.
Coda: Other authors to note include the “Bard of Portugal,” Camoes, who authored the epic poem The Lusiads to memorialize Vasco da Gama’s tremendous accomplishment in 1498 of finding a trade route to India and China. It is mandatory reading for Portuguese school children. FYI: the Romans called Portugal Lusitania, the origin of Lusiads title. Tombs for both Camoes and da Gama are in the significant landmark, St. Geronimo’s Monastery in Lisbon, near the Tower of Bellem, another prized tourist site.
Chiado and Carmo are two other well known poets. Eca de Querios (The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers; The Mystery of the Sintra Road) is a late 19th century novelist.
Although not Portuguese, one other “classic” author who addresses Portuguese is English novelist, Henry Fielding, famous for Tom Jones, and less well known for his memoir, The Journal of a Voyage to Portugal, where he was sent to regain his health. Even though he died shortly after arrival, the narrative from the mid-eighteenth century demonstrates his keen eye and biting social commentary.
Another snippet from Pessoa, in parting:
The poet is a feigner
Who’s so good at his act
He even feigns the pain
Of pain he feels in fact.