The narrator, perhaps a stand-in for Pessoa himself, is clearly a distant literary relative of Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Eliot’s Prufrock. He is a man of inaction, excessively and perhaps obsessively analytical. He is beset on all sides by the ills of modernism–fragmentation, cynicism, paranoia, spiritual emptiness. Due to the personal, first-person perspective, it is difficult for the reader to avoid the resonance of these same ills, particularly the fragmentation.
Pessoa writes, “Each of us is several, is many, is a profusion of selves. So that the self who disdains his surroundings is not the same as the self who suffers or takes joy in them. In the vast colony of our being there are many species of people who think and feel in different ways.” Sounds beautiful, yes, but after only a few pages one realizes this “profusion of selves” is also problematic. It is the paradox of choice in terms of self. Who should I be, and when, and why, and how? The narrator is frustrated, and consequently, frustrating, but that does not make him any less sympathetic.
The writing itself is the book’s best quality. Pessoa is a stylist. Like Nabokov his prose sparkles like a multi-faceted diamond bathed in light. But he is not a storyteller; he is a thought-teller, and therefore this book is not for the adventurer, but rather the contemplator. He is, in a sense, Hemingway’s exact opposite. If we can accept that then we can appreciate not only what Pessoa has written, but also how he has written it–marvelously. Below are some excerpts over which you may marvel, but I recommend you read the entire book for yourself.
1. …and from the majestic heights of my dreams, I return to being an assistant bookkeeper in the city of Lisbon.
But the contrast doesn’t overwhelm me, it frees me. And its irony is my blood. What should theoretically humiliate is what I unfurl as my flag; and the laughter I should be using to laugh at myself is a bugle I blow to herald–and to create–a dawn into which I’m transformed.
2. And at this table in my absurd room, I, a pathetic and anonymous office clerk, write words as if they were the souls’s salvation, and I gild myself with the impossible sunset of high and vast hills in the distance, with the statue I received in exchange for life’s pleasures, and with the ring of renunciation on my evangelical finger, the stagnant jewel of my ecstatic disdain.
3. And I wonder if my apparently negligible voice might not embody the essence of thousands of voices, the longing for self-expression of thousands of lives, the patience of millions of souls resigned like my own to their daily lot, their useless dreams, and their hopeless hopes.
4. I feel a religious force within me, a species of prayer, a kind of public outcry. But my mind quickly puts me in my place.
5. To heed the present moment isn’t a great or lasting concern of mine. I crave time in all its duration, and I want to be myself unconditionally…Inch by inch I conquered the inner terrain I was born with. Bit by bit I reclaimed the swamp in which I’d languished. I gave birth to my infinite being, but I had to wrench myself out of me with forceps.
6. Whether or not they exist, we’re slaves to the gods.
7. Absurdity is divine…Let’s buy books so as not to read them; let’s go to concerts without caring to hear the music or to see who’s there; let’s take long walks because we’re sick of walking; and let’s spend whole days in the country, just because it bores us.
8. Sadly, or perhaps not, I recognize that I have an arid heart. An adjective matters to me more than the real weeping of a human soul.
9. Whenever I see a dead body, death seems to me a departure. The corpse looks to me like a suit that was left behind. Someone departed and didn’t need to take the one and only outfit he’d worn.
10. I want to raise my arms and shout wild and strange things, to speak to the lofty mysteries, to affirm a new and vast personality to the boundless expanses of empty matter.
Bonus – My march of triumph didn’t get as far as a teapot or an old cat. I’ll die as I’ve lived, amid all the junk on the outskirts, sold by weight among the postscripts of the broken.
– from The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, translated by Richard Zenith, published by Penguin Books, 2001.