The City of Lost Things: Rediscovering Fernando Pessoa’s ‘The Book of Disquiet’

September 23, 2015 | 3 books mentioned 7 7 min read


The first thing to notice about Lisbon is its relative quiet. The people tend to walk soundlessly through the streets, and the cars silently creep their way up and down the many hills. The most jarring noise comes from the ancient “eléctricos,” the name for the creamy yellow trams that screech up the hills. Lisbon’s charming sleepiness, I discovered, was not unique to me:

In the light morning mist of mid spring the Baixa comes sluggishly awake and even the sun seems to rise only slowly…A few passers-by signal the first hesitant stirrings of life in the streets and high up at a rare open window the occasional early morning face appears. As the trams pass, they trace a yellow, numbered furrow through the air, and minute by minute the streets begin to people themselves once more.

Thus observes Bernardo Soares from his café table on a sidewalk esplanade in The Book of Disquiet, the largely forgotten modernist classic by seminal Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa.

For my first trip to Lisbon, I knew I wanted to immerse myself during my four-day jaunt to the beautifully tiled, outmoded, and wholly Romantic Portuguese capital, which was how I found myself poring over Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet at his former café haunt, A Brasileira, several yards from the bronze statue that bears his likeness. Pessoa, often considered a writer lost to time, was a transformational Modernist who still has a strong presence in Lisbon — at least in the form of statues and prominence of place in the windows of Bertrand’s (one of the world’s oldest bookstores) on Rua Garrett. He is often compared to Franz Kafka: Both men are strongly associated with one place, be it Prague or Lisbon, and both died in obscurity, with much of their writing being discovered after their respective deaths. Pessoa felt himself a permanent outsider looking in on life in Lisbon, and much of these meditations were found on scraps of paper in an old trunk in his room, later turning into collections of poetry or The Book of Disquiet, as narrated by Bernardo Soares.

Bernardo Soares would become Fernando Pessoa’s favorite and most prolific pseudonym, but Soares quickly grew from a name into its own life and person. The existence of Soares, as well as Ricardo Reis, Alberto Caeiro, and 70 other of Pessoa’s identities are known as “heteronyms” for their expansive individual lives and personalities. For Pessoa, Soares, Reis, and Caeiro were people with desires, dreams, personalities, histories, and styles all their own. To say that Fernando Pessoa wrote The Book of Disquiet is disingenuous. Fernando Pessoa became Bernardo Soares, channeling each scrap of paper making up The Book of Disquiet through his alter ego.

The Book of Disquiet is much more philosophical quandary than it is a novel, and retroactively engineered at that, where various editors and translators arranged the hundreds of fragments and diary-type entries. As a result, no two editions are truly the same in order or content (my edition by the British publisher Serpent Tail Classics was on the slender side, only 272 pages, whereas the Penguin edition is 544 pages). Throughout the course of the “novel,” Soares documents his days as a bookkeeper on Rua Douradores and the heavy ontological and existential musings that weigh down his hours, particularly the disconnect between the vivid world of the mind and the monotony of a daily, work-driven existence. As Soares writes, “my soul is a hidden orchestra; I know not what instruments, what fiddle strings and harps, drums and tambours I sound and clash inside myself. All I hear is the symphony.” What makes Pessoa’s creation of Soares so effective is the way that these feelings tap into the unspoken truths that most people feel, on those lonesome, idle days where it seems that the other seven billion people on this planet are automatons and that only you, standing in line at the grocery store or at the DMV, are perhaps the sole original spark in the universe — an undisprovable treatise.

There is something uncanny in how approachable Lisbon is as a city and in Soares’s writing. Despite its confusing and cramped streets, endless hills, and shabby buildings, when the wind blows off the Tagus you can smell the ocean. From the summit of most hilltops you can see the wide stretch of the river as it heads out to the Atlantic, and from this it is simple to see how an entire culture could be so tied to the sea as the Portuguese are. Perhaps there is an antiquated magic in the air and a certain ancestral kinship in the city’s layout. Soares notes it, too: “I love these solitary squares that are dotted amongst the quiet streets and are themselves just as quiet and free of traffic. They are things that wait, useless clearings amidst distant tumults. They are remnants of village life surviving in the heart of the city.” Lisbon, at times, feels caught in amber. From the top of the old Moorish quarter of Alfama, the medieval castle of São Jorge still stands sentinel over the city. The little trams, the only really rational way to negotiate the steep hills, still wind up Alfama as they have done since the 1930s. When you ride one, you can see where the brass handles have been worn clean from the thousands of hands that have clung to them. Soares, too, rode the tram:

I’m riding a tram and, as is my habit, slowly absorbing every detail of the people around me…I sense the loves, the secrets, the souls of all those who worked just so that this woman in front of me on the tram should wear around her mortal neck the sinuous banality of a thread of dark green silk on a background of light green cloth.

Alfama was spared the worst of the apocalyptic 1755 earthquake that reshaped the city, and since Lisbon has avoided the terror of world wars and civil wars alike, Alfama is a look hundreds of years into the past, a place, like Soares, that the Portuguese always seem to be looking. While the fade of imperialism struck blows to all European powers, none have seemed to land in the same strange cultural stasis as Portugal and her former colonies.

covercoverPortuguese is the sixth most spoken language in the world and, according to UNESCO, the fastest-growing European language after English. Yet despite the over 250 million speakers, the cultural and literary influence of the Lusophone — or Portuguese-speaking — countries has dwindled to nearly nonexistent. This in itself is rather baffling; after the United States, the largest country and economy in the western hemisphere is, unexpectedly, Brazil. Yet Brazil has been notably minor in the “Latin American Boom” that made Spanish-language authors like Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Mario Vargas Llosa household names in the United States. In most American bookstores, the most prominent and well-represented Lusophone author is the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho for his parable, The Alchemist. A coarse equivalent would be like having The Bridges of Madison County be the sole emissary of American letters to non-English-speaking countries.

Somewhere along the way, Portugal, and her fellow Lusophones, lost the path of literary influence. The apathy towards reading and writing seems particularly dire in Brazil, as Vanessa Barbara, one of Granta’s “Best Young Brazilian Writers,” noted in an opinion piece for The New York Times titled, “Brazil’s Most Pathetic Profession.” “And yet, despite all this fanfare, when in Brazil, do not tell anyone you’re a writer. Not only will they deny you credit at the grocery store, but almost certainly they will laugh at you, asking right away: ‘No, seriously. What do you do for a living?'” The paucity of Portuguese writing is a global deficit, for Portuguese is an undeniably beautiful language to the ear and wonderfully varied, from the lovely sing-songy rhythms of Rio de Janeiro to the muffled notes of Lisbon, where the ends of words become puffed from lips like a ring of smoke that so perfectly fits their mournful folk music of fado. Fado is one of Portugal’s strongest cultural touchstones, and, much like the blues in America, it is an ode to the mourning and melancholy days of a people and their history.

In Lisbon’s Bairro Alto stands Tasca do Chico, a famous little bar that seats perhaps 20, shoulder to shoulder, with another 10 or so hanging out the windows. When the mood is right, the guitar and lute are plucked off the wall and the old owner with his pipe hushes the crowd, asking for silence as the two young men strum away and he begins to sing a melancholy tune about a girl he once knew. Soares describes fado, the wistful Portuguese folk music, as,

through its veiled words and its human melody, the song spoke of things that exist in every soul and yet are unknown to all of us. He was singing as if in a trance, standing in the street wrapped in a sort of ecstasy, not even aware he had an audience…The song belonged to us all and sometimes the words spoke to us directly of the oriental secret of some lost race.

Loss is a central part of life in Portuguese culture, particularly in Lisbon, where the gentle patina and crumble of an empire seems to hang in the air. The patron saint of the city is Saint Anthony, the patron saint of lost things. Empire, culture, literature all seem just out of reach in Lisbon, which in many ways is the most Portuguese feeling of all. Soares notes a longing for a past moment in Lisbon, for an unnamed soul who he has missed. “I love you as ships passing one another must love, feeling an unaccountable nostalgia in their passing.” The Portuguese have a special word for this “unaccountable” feeling or longing to reach back into the past and capture a moment lost to the stream of time: saudade. Here, the translator Margaret Jull Costa translates it as “nostalgia” for the sake of simplicity. The original second clause reads as “há saudades desconhecidas na passagem,” which might also be, “there are unknown saudades in the passage.” Saudade is untranslatable into English and only really done by approximations like “nostalgia,” but what Soares feels is keenly different throughout The Book of Disquiet, and his examples serve better than any definition. “With the aid of a cheap cigarette I can return, like someone revisiting a place where they spent their youth, to the time in my life when I used to smoke. The light tang of that cigarette smoke is enough for me to relive the whole of my past life.” Saudade is the vividness of that past as well as the simultaneous reality that it is gone forever.

To call Lisbon a “city of lost things,” is to say it is a place where those losses can be felt in the cafés and the streets and with each “Bom dia” you might say to a garçom on the esplanade, just as Fernando Pessoa did. You can feel the loss of power, the loss of culture, the loss of self, and the loss of time, the quiet aging happening to everything going around you: the bougainvillea hanging from the window box, the cracked tiles of the apartment across the way, or the people at the next table down. For Soares, the past is unforgettable and loss is a most palpable thing, and so is Lisbon.

But I love the Tagus because of the great city on its banks. I enjoy the sky because I see it from a fourth floor window in a street in the Baixa. Nothing in the countryside or in nature can give me anything to equal the ragged majesty of the calm moonlit city seen from Graça or São Pedro de Alcântara. For me no flowers can match the endlessly varied colors of Lisbon in the sunlight.

has written for The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and other publications. He currently lives and writes in Boston. Read more at


  1. Mike Broido has written a heartfelt appreciation of Fernando Pessoa, so I hope he will be pleased to learn that The Book of Disquiet is nowhere near being “largely forgotten.” The edition of Pessoa’s book shown for this essay is a Penguin Classic–far from obscure! In fact, Pessoa’s reputation has never diminished in the Portuguese speaking world, and in recent decades, translations of his work–particularly in English by Richard Zenith–have only increased his audience and presence as a major poet of the 20th century. One small example: every year, an international literary conference, Disquiet–named after Pessoa’s book–meets in Lisbon.
    And because Mr. Broido is a lover of the Portuguese language, I’m delighted to be able to assure him that there is no “paucity of Portuguese writing,” and that literature in the lusophone world is thriving. The great José Saramago is a recent Nobel Prize winner, for instance, while the prolific post-modernist Gonçalo Tavares is widely regarded as a major contemporary writer, and his work has been published in 20 or more countries world-wide. Mia Couto, a Mozambican who writes in Portuguese, is also widely translated, and recently has won a number of major awards, including, most recently, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. This is just the tip of the literary iceberg.
    So, not to worry! There’s much great Portuguese writing out there awaiting the interested reader. One way to find them? There are so many Lisbon streets and parks named after writers, so many statues of writers as well–follow the street signs, write down the names, and then look up some great literature . . .

  2. May I also mention Antonio Lobo Antunes? And also, of course (although I don’t exactly palate his prose) the Brazilian Paulo Coelho. And I agree: the interest in Pessoa hasn’t dwindled all these years. On the contrary, he has grown in popularity, especially in the English-speaking world.

  3. I’m disappointed not to see Jorge Amado mentioned – in the ’70s and ’80s his books were widely available in the U.S.

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