Discovering The Many Voices of Fernando Pessoa
By Christie Seeley
Life has a way of showing you what you must know. Like a mysterious guru, it guides you to the significant path that will enlighten you next. In 1982, my ex husband and I saw an article in Gourmet magazine about the incredible cuisine found in the Paradores, a luxury hotel system run by the Spanish government featuring rooms in castles, monasteries and other important historic buildings throughout the country. We outlined a trip that would start in Lisbon, Portugal, and continue into Spain via Ciudad Rodrigo and Salamanca through Extremadura. Covering most of western Spain, Extremadura is a dry, flat agricultural region populated with the famous cork forests James Michener describes in his books on Spain and significant Roman ruins in Merida and Trujillo, a major center of the Western Roman Empire. This area was also home to many of the so-called conquistadores, Hidalgo's or "Hijos de Algo" second sons who, without rights to inheritances from their noble families, were willing to chance it all in the new world. Our trip would continue through the exotic south, where Moorish culture played a significant role in establishing the unique atmosphere of Cordova and Granada and continue to Goya's Toledo and majestic Madrid. Little did I know when planning this itinerary how dramatically our choices would affect my life.
A handsome, green-eyed doorman greeted us as we checked into the Ritz Hotel in downtown Lisbon in the late afternoon of our arrival. A bellboy showed us to our spacious room, which spoke of yesterday's elegance. From our picture window, the city was crowned by a rosy haze as the sun descended over it and the Tagus River that plays such an essential role in the country's story. The ancient metropolis itself was resplendent with its seven hills, each offering incredible views, steep picturesque streets, trolley cars, beautiful antique buildings, and signature blue and white tiles. Lisbon is also the home of the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum noted for the extensive personal collection of the former oil tycoon by the same name.
The museum was one of our first stops. Set in luscious gardens on the edge of town, the modern museum invited us into its sleek, light-filled interior. To our surprise, we found in the lobby a humorous and intriguing exhibit by contemporary Portuguese artist Antonio Costa Pinheiro honoring the life and works of poet Fernando Pessoa. Completely unprepared and understanding no Portuguese, our curiosity led us to investigate both the artist and the poet further.
Fernando Pessoa was a strikingly complex man. Born in Lisbon in 1888, he received his early education in Durham, South Africa, where his stepfather was Portuguese Consul. He returned to Lisbon upon the death of his stepfather and never again left the city during his short life which ended in 1935. Much of his first writing was in English taking inspiration from William Shakespeare. Later, Pessoa developed many personalities or personae each possessing his particular identity and history. He called them heteronyms. Through them, he wrote significant works of poetry as well as essays, plays, and even dialogues amongst them. Alvaro de Campo, an engineer from Glasgow, was the most outspoken and unguarded of the heteronyms, often expressing shocking ideas in startling language. Ricardo Reís, a doctor, located in Brazil, was a classicist, and Alberto Caeiro, a zen-like naturalist, was admired by the others for his purity of thought. Bernardo Soares, a less proficient heteronym, was responsible for Pessoa's final tome, published posthumously, the Book of Disquiet. Fernando Pessoa "luí meme," still my favorite, was closer in style to Alvaro de Campo but certainly had his unique point of view. Walt Whitman was a writer he especially admired.
When I first began looking into Pessoa, I could find nothing written in English about him. On a trip to Paris to attend an event celebrating Pessoa in 1985, I discovered an excellent book of his poetry in Portuguese and French, Fernando Pessoa, Poete Pluriel—an excellent reason to get busy working on my French! I became a dedicated fan and read everything I could get my hands on to expand my knowledge. Much later, his works became available in English, and by now, the world recognizes him as the force that brought Portuguese literature into the modern era. Lisbon now boasts a museum and statues celebrating his life and work. Sadly, I have not returned to Portugal to sit in the coffee shop he visited or explore the places he frequented. For me, that solitary quiet man in overcoat and hat still walks the busy streets of 1930's Lisbon, fantastic ideas running through a mind full of imagination and an urgency to express them.
For information and English translations of Pessoa’s work I recommend Richard Zenith. His insightful commentary and enlightened translations will carry you away. José Saramago, a prolific and inspired Portuguese writer who, by the way, was awarded with the Nobel Prize for literature for Literature in 1998, wrote a wonderful novel about Pessoa and his heteronym Ricardo Reís, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reís.
Photos: Pessoa on a Lisbon street. Painting by Antonio Costa Pinheiro of Pessoa and his hetronyms. Lisbon in the afternoon. English language books and translations by Richard Zenith and others.