December 2, 2023 | Rome, Italy

The Book of Disquiet

By |2018-03-21T18:58:18+01:00December 6th, 2013|Recent Reviews|

By 1982, 1991 (2010) Fernando Pessoa, edited by Maria José de Lancaśtre, translate from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull

Serpent's Tail, 1982, 1991 (2010). 262 pages.


ernando Pessoa is a gentle assassin of sorts. He spends most of his ruminative diary-novel — “The Prince” for dreamers, as it were —rewriting metaphysical grammar so that “the grand aristocratic gestures” of individuality, of commonplace introspection, of personal industry are exposed as a sham, part of the “grubby everydayness of life” that should be set aside in favor of banquets made from sleep and dreams. Speaking through desk-bound accountant and raconteur Bernardo Soares, a gladly defeated man, son of a father who committed suicide, Pessoa hisses at all that which is indiscreet and atomic, shoving aside brash, Walt Whitman-style modernity — “The horror of making the soul a fact, material and external…” The challenge at hand, he insists, is perfecting the art of self-effacement and subtraction: to slow down time and examine its molecules as if under slide, to see self from the vantage point of an “ironic spectator” and to accept that action unhinges the perfectness of longing. His accountant wanders Lisbon a “passer-by in everything, even my own soul.” He is a “halo of ice that repels others.” Since a woman, and lust, represents a rich source of dreams, his advice is typical: “Never touch her.”

Portuguese poet Pessoa (1888-1935) was a peg that fit into no known literary hole. Born in Lisbon, he spent formative years in South Africa, later returning to the Portuguese capital where he worked as freelancer and critic, dabbling in Modernism and starting literary journal. He published little and remained far from the madding crowd.

This sometimes unbearably sad, wholly mystical narration, “my book of random impressions,” represents hundreds of random slivers — “lost, lazy words, random metaphors, linked to the shadows by vague anxiety…” — jotted down between late 1920s and the year of his death. The manuscript was discovered posthumously and conferred with an arbitrary order based on its themes, most of which juxtapose the mundane and the universal so deftly that they defy the gap between bromide and deeper truth, attaining a rare and, yes, disquieting, wholeness of purpose. It is a confession, a diary, a fiction, and a chameleonic autobiography — since Pessoa was prone to assuming shifting narrative identities, here taking the part of “pale, unremarkable” Soares, a timid man he claims to have met in a restaurant. The majestic ramblings solve nothing because nothing is solvable, with metaphysics acknowledged as a “prolonged form of latent madness.” But in the folds of the madness, its “man of inaction” is affords insight into being and meaning as keen and compelling as any published in the 20th century.

About the Author:

The Book Staff represents a series of authors who review books for the magazine on a regular basis.