By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet could be the only book I've ever come across that is less interesting than the story behind how the book ultimately came to be. Intrigued? You should be. Pessoa has been called five of Portugal's best Modernist poets. If you are interested in learning how the hell that sentence even makes sense, read on.
The book begins with a brief introduction, which is entitled "Bernardo Soares." Here, Pessoa speaks of observing and eventually meeting a man who frequented a restaurant that he also enjoyed in the Baixa neighborhood of Lisbon. This man is, of course, Bernardo Soares. From the description, we learn that Senhor Soares is a clerk in a nearby office, and that he has a morose, but intelligent demeanor. He also has an interest in poetry.
This introduction lasts for two pages. The next 262 (in the Maria José de Lancastre edition) is comprised entirely of diary entries, some dated, most not, that are the musings, ravings and philosophical meanderings of Senhor Soares. If you think this sounds like a derivative of Notes From Underground or a minor variation on the confessional, you would be wrong. It turns out that Senhor Soares was not merely a character that Pessoa made up. He was what Pessoa called one of his heteronyms. At the time of this death, in 1935, Pessoa had created 72 such personalities, each one with a unique biography, temperament, style of writing, portfolio and list of publications. Four of them, Soares being one, are considered to be among the five best modern poets to write in the Portuguese language. The other poet that is usually lumped into this group is Fernando Pessoa himself.
Again, you may be thinking, that sounds pretty interesting. It gets stranger. These diary entries that make up The Book of Disquiet were created over a time frame of twenty years. This is not a fictional twenty years. Pessoa, the actual person, wrote occasional diary entries for Soares, the heteronym, over the course of twenty years. Unlike somewhat normal writers, who try to keep their work in some degree of order, Pessoa housed these entries, which were either written in a notebook or typed on loose pieces of paper, in a big, domed chest in his home. After his death, the chest was opened. It contained over 25,000 pieces of paper. This trove included bits of poetry, metaphysical musings and snapshots of life in Lisbon that were written by one of Pessoa's heteronyms. Among these 25,000 pages, which were not in any semblance of order, were the fragments and shards of Soares diary. To this day, scholars are still combing through the 25,000-page collection and trying to figure out who wrote what and which, if any, of the entries were intended to be part of The Book of Disquiet.
Once these entries are extracted and confirmed to be the work Soares, editors then try to arrange them into a narrative that makes some kind of sense. There's not any degree of consensus about the order of the various passages, which means that multiple editions of the same book exist, but none of them are even remotely the same. These editors cannot put the entries in chronological order (few entries are dated, and Soares is unconcerned with world events, even though he was writing during the Depression and the rise of fascism throughout Europe), nor can they manufacture some kind of plot (which would be entirely impossible). Instead, the entries are bundled together around vague themes, and the narrative saunters from one to the other. In the case of the de Lancastre edition that I read, the flow was relatively seamlessly.
And there you have it: The Book of Disquiet is the intimate diary of a person who didn't actually exist and, had he existed, would have been the kind of person who you walk by on the street without noticing. It contains no characters or plot. It abides by no chronology or teleology. It was also recently ranked as the 72nd best book of all time by The Christian Science Monitor.
The reason for this is because it is one of the most beautifully written books that you'll ever come across. There is a nakedness to it that isn't tender or vulnerable, but brutally honest in a way that few confessionals really are. This is because the rawness of the language has nothing to do with love or lust or a crime of passion. Instead, Soares is consistently focused on questions of a more metaphysical nature, but he does not resort to using his intellect as much as he does a strange kind of rational sensitivity that was more common in works from the nineteenth century. As Pessoa said of Soares, he was "a semi-heteronym because, although his personality is not mine, it is not different from but rather a simple mutilation of my personality. It's me minus reason and affectivity."
Certain passages are the poetic mutterings of a mind on the verge of sleep. The tone is dreamy, and the substance virtually nonsensical. "Far better to write than dare to live," begins one particularly biting line, "Even if living means no more than buying bananas in the sunshine, as long as the sun lasts and there are bananas to sell." It's as though Zarathustra is talking in his sleep or Solomon is rambling on his deathbed after completing Ecclesiastes.
Soares can also assume the kind of acerbic tone that befits both a poetic genius and a broody teenager. At these times, he sounds like the protagonist in Jean Paul Sartre's Nausea—but with the petulance of Holden Caulfield. As a reader, you can feel yourself being bludgeoned by melancholy. Not only do these entries address the existential; they reside entirely within it.
For this reason, it can sometimes be difficult to get through. This is not an uplifting book, nor is it the type of book that you always feel like reading. Sometimes you don't like Soares, particularly when he silently berates those who have not voluntarily withdrawn from having a social life, and writes lines like, "Abdicate from life so as not to abdicate from oneself"; or "Every revolutionary, every reformer is an escapee. To fight is proof of one's inability to do battle with oneself"; or "I reject life because it is a prison sentence, I reject dreams as being a vulgar form of escape."
Though it is a horrible cliché to speak about the human condition, largely because everything addresses the human condition in one way or another, there are few works that not only examine the gloomier facets of such a condition, but confront them with such boldness. More than its beauty or its profusion of extremely clever lines, this is why The Book of Disquiet feels like such an important book.