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

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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.

Portuguese 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.

You’ll Never Walk Alone: On Traveling the World with Books

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I can usually remember exactly where I was when I read any given book. Here’s what I mean: when I look to the shelf before me, The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram, is the title that catches my eye. It’s a hardcover with a matte black jacket and gray print on the spine.

Where was I?

An image arrives instantly: a wheely chair in the adjunct faculty office at the community college. It was winter, my first in New Mexico. Besides teaching, I waitressed in a cocktail lounge until two or three in the morning. Exhausted and homesick, unable to afford health insurance, I often wondered whether I’d made a mistake in following my heart to Santa Fe.

Next on the shelf: The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, which I read in a college dorm room strewn with empty mugs and textbooks. Rain streamed down the windowpanes for weeks on end. It was finals, but I wasn’t writing my papers — those I stupidly saved until 24 hours before they were due. I was a frantic person then, always running late.

And as for Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, I read that on a pink couch in a Cambridge apartment in summer. My boyfriend and I had just broken up; he packed his bags and moved to Alaska, and I was simultaneously fraught with grief and elated with newfound freedom.

It’s an ability I suspect many of us possess: besides plying our minds for the story’s plot, the characters’ names, and the themes presented, we can send ourselves back to where we were when we read the books we loved. Lately, I’ve been trying to pay even more attention to my journey as the reading of the book is taking place. What mark did the book leave on me, and in turn, what imprint did I impart?

Books have always helped me to find meaning in the chaos of experience. As my eyes scan the shelf, I can picture angsty teenage afternoons, Cynthia Voigt beside me offering up Dicey’s Song like comfort food. I see an October of bad job interviews, red wine, and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. I see a quick succession of flings and subsequent breakups, Jane Smiley and Joyce Carol Oates stroking my hair as I wept. I read Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich when my grandmother died. Anita Shreve, Stephen King, and Isabel Allende saw me through romantic weekends, family get-togethers, and summer road trips. Because of the books I have read, I’m a teacher, a traveler, and a chef. I am a fighter and a laugher. I am a writer.

For one bewildering moment, I wonder who I’d be without this shelf.

When I was 22, I worked at a hotel in my hometown for six months and saved up enough money to buy a round-the-world plane ticket. While members of my graduating class were accepting real jobs and renting their first apartments, I moved back in with my mom and dad. It took some convincing to get my mom to agree to put me up while I prepared to see the world alone. “I just need to do this,” I told her many times, so many that finally I actually believed it. The truth was, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do, and so traveling seemed the most logical path, because after 17 years as a student, I needed a break. I needed some culture, some eye-opening excitement. In the end, my mom pitched in for my rabies vaccine, and together we mapped out my route on the family globe.

A few days before Thanksgiving, my brother drove me to the Boston airport. I was bound for Hong Kong, and foolishly I had done very little planning and no preparatory reading. Like most other things, I had left my trip around the world until the last minute. My friends threw me a going-away party the night before, and I hadn’t slept at all. At the airport, my brother kissed me goodbye and tore off gleefully in my car — his for the next six months — and then I was alone, the morning still dark and very cold. I looked at the ticket in my hand. This wasn’t how I imagined it would be — already, a desperate loneliness, and I hadn’t even left the States.

In Hong Kong, I suffered from horrible jetlag. I woke every morning at three and tossed and turned until four, and then I sat out on the roof of my hostel and watched the city twinkle awake. I had never felt so lonesome. I had no idea what to do with myself. I couldn’t communicate, and I had terrible trouble reading my map. I didn’t know how to do the most basic things — eat at a café, find a book in the library, buy a train ticket — and I felt stupid and self-conscious trying. People looked at me strangely, and so I wandered the streets very early in the mornings when only schoolchildren were out walking. I wrote weepy emails home and wondered how I would survive six months of this.

Then I opened Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt.

Of the book itself, I only vaguely remember the plot. The main themes stand out: a desperate childhood, extreme poverty, alcoholism, and abandonment. I remember McCourt’s Limerick in stills: a dirty gray street, a freezing Sunday mass, a sour pickled dinner, a Christmas with nothing.

I can remember well the book’s humor, though, and its hope. I remember an adolescent Frank who scrimped and saved, rose in the morning, passed out in bed at night, and watched men throw his mother around. Still, he survived. By the light of a waning headlamp, I finished the book and wept. I slept deeply that night and rose with the sun for the first time in a week.

When I think of Angela’s Ashes, what I remember most is the way Hong Kong sounded and smelled. The air was muggy, winey, and fishy by late afternoon. Salt blew off the sea. My hostel smelled like cigarette smoke and old newspapers, and the curtains were always closed so that the place sat in a simmering, crowded gloom. In the very early morning, the scent of lilies blew in through the single open window. The girl in the bed next to mine came in late and slept a restless, whimpering sleep. All of this I recall as if it happened very recently. I think of Angela’s Ashes and my senses remember Hong Kong.

The book kept me from giving up, I realize now. It kept me from getting on the next plane home, and it forced me out of the relative safety of my hostel. If Frank could survive, you can do this, I told myself, setting out. I took a ferry to Lantau Island and then rode a bus for hours through a tiny fishing village and a silver city built into cloud forest. On Lantau, standing beneath the largest Buddha sculpture in the world, I couldn’t believe where I was.

Thailand was my next stop. I made my slow way up and down the country, riding buses toward Burma and then back to Bangkok. In the daytime the buses were always crowded, four or five to a seat and people standing with animals and children in the aisles. There would invariably be a toddler on my lap. The heat would rise and the hours would lengthen, and yet there was always something so calm about those rides. The heat, the long light, and the good-natured Thais all made for easy traveling.

I read The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith on one such journey. We were traveling down Thailand’s narrowest passage towards the Malaysian border, having left Bangkok early that morning. We were due in the city of Trang by midnight, and all the while I read. The sun was warm through the windows, and a gentle breeze blew. A little girl sat perched on my lap, her hair in braids, her hands folded across her body. Eventually, she closed her eyes and slept against me. I read about a grassy Botswana savannah, a friendly community, and a no-nonsense lady detective called Hetty who sings to herself, “O, Botswana, my country, my place.”

I can still remember that line exactly. I was a continent away from home on a bus in Asia, and yet I also felt, however temporarily, to be in my place. The words somehow matched exactly the Thailand that stretched alongside me, yellow and green beneath an amber afternoon sky. There came an occasional glimpse of the sea. I was content, flung, and anonymous. I had never felt so free. We jostled along in the fading afternoon, the passengers’ heads lolling in sleep.

A man in a beach hut on the island of Ko Chang gave me his copy of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist in exchange for a piece of cake wrapped in foil and two lukewarm Chang beers. Of that book, I remember round pebbles and a wandering boy, spare prose, a search for treasure, and a long journey home. But I cannot think of The Alchemist without also thinking of that man’s beach hut, his dreadlocks, the jam-packed ashtray by his bed, and his sandy kitchen floor. I remember a white-sand beach, creaking palms, shells lined up on the stairs, a jagged painting of birds and water. I can still hear the man’s deep, quiet voice. Our feet were bare. He was born on the beach, he told me. Without The Alchemist, I might not have remembered him at all.

I spent my last months in India, where I felt it my duty to read E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. I expected to slog through the book, published three-quarters of a century ago, but in the end, I couldn’t put it down. Everything I saw matched the texture of the book: the sounds of the streets and markets, the smells of burnt sugar and sweat, and the rocking of the trains. I noticed caves the color of clay, and my train once passed through a desert strewn with bones. I saw the marshes of Goa and the Karnataka coast; I turned the pages.

Still, India shook me. It shakes most anyone, I imagine, especially if you’re used to orderly streets and personal space. The clamor was jolting. The trains were late and crammed, and people slept on cots in rows on the sidewalks. I saw sick people, hungry people, and dead people. I was overwhelmed and afraid, and people stared at me constantly.

In the end, it was, of course, a book that saved me. I distinctly remember sitting on a train in a busy aisle seat, deep into A Passage to India. Mrs. Moore was watching from the deck of a ship as India shrank away. She had had a bad go of it, and she was ready to go home to England. On a train pulling through neighborhoods of sprawling Mumbai slums, I read Forster’s description of Mrs. Moore’s departure:
…Presently the boat sailed and thousands of coconut palms appeared all around the anchorage and climbed the hills to wave her farewell. ‘So you thought an echo was India; you took the Marabar caves as final?’ they laughed. ‘What have we in common with them, or they with Asirgarh? Goodbye!
I put down the book, looked out into mad Mumbai, and laughed out loud.

I heard Forster’s coconut palms everywhere after that: So you thought one bad night was India? One bad meal? One crowded street? India is beautiful, you see. Give it time!

Their whispers strengthened me. In freezing Manali, I did what I could to stay warm, eat well, and exercise. By Haridwar, I had stopped noticing the stares. I learned to look instead for the beauty each place offered: In Rishikesh, I stayed for free in an ashram, practicing yoga in the mornings and walking by the glacially blue Ganges in the afternoons. Jaipur held an ancient fort, a raucous flea market, and an organic farm at the end of a dirt road where, for three weeks, I weeded vegetable gardens with a group of Israeli hippies. Rajasthan was a city of blue roofs, golden sunsets, and cream-colored walls, a color palette I will remember for the rest of my life.

Nowhere else, I suspect, could I have read so closely or loved so dearly A Passage to India.

That year, only the books in my hands knew where to find me. They were my guides, my teachers, and my friends. Thailand will always resemble Botswana in the afternoon light, and my Hong Kong is Lantau, silent mornings, and Frank McCourt as a rugged little boy, finding laughter in a gloomy room. For readers, I have discovered, there will always be two journeys, and if we forget one, we’re bound to lose both, for each sustains the narrative of our lives.

Photos by Katie Thebeau.

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