'Oh Lisbon, my home!'


This month, Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa will be commemorated in Dublin. Caroline Walsh, Literary Editor, visits Lisbon in search of one of the 20th century's most enigmatic literary figures.

Walking through the streets of Lisbon in the steps of the poet Fernando Pessoa, it's impossible not to be haunted by the obvious question: is one retracing the steps of his multitudinous "heteronyms" - the invented individuals whose personas and names he used when writing most of his work - or his own? "Fernando Pessoa, strictly speaking, doesn't exist," said one of the three main heteronyms, Álvaro de Campos, and the habit of talking to what he called "non-existent acquaintances" went back to childhood. By the time he was an adult there were about 75.

"Who the hell was Fernando Pessoa?" asked London Independent columnist John Walsh recently, going back on what he saw as Harold Bloom's capricious selection of favourite writers in his 1994 blockbuster The Western Canon , and given Pessoa's multiple pen names and personalities, it's a forgivable question - almost.

Because Pessoa did very much exist and, once you seek his legacy out, he's everywhere in Lisbon, where he was born in 1888. There's the table still reserved in his honour in an old haunt, the Café-Restaurante Martinho da Arcada on Praça do Comércio. There's the life-size sculpture of him sitting at one of the tables outside Café Brasileira, a rendezvous for intellectuals in the 1920s and 1930s at the top of one of the steep slopes in Chiado. There's his burial place in the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, where he keeps company with explorer Vasco da Gama and 16th-century poet Luís de Camões, their cenotaphs in the main church, Pessoa's simpler, marble, tombstone in the cloister. Fittingly, it's engraved with quotations from his three most famous poetic alter egos: Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis and de Campos. Living with a fear of madness all his life, he put shape on his existence through them: "By delving within, I made myself into many." So real were they to him that he gave them astrology charts, their own handwriting and views; some, like the English heteronym Alexander Search, had calling cards.

After his father died of TB when he was five, Pessoa spent nine years in Durban, South Africa, where his stepfather was Portuguese consul.

"You would never have had Pessoa without the British education and the years in Durban. He would have been parochial if he had never left Lisbon. The Durban years were formative in the intellectual sense," says Clara Ferreira Alves, director of the Casa Fernando Pessoa.

The Casa Fernando Pessoa, at 16 Rua Coelho da Rocha, now an artistic centre, was the writer's home for the last 15 years of his life. Like the peregrinations of James Joyce's family around Dublin, Pessoa had moved about 30 times by the time he settled here. Here you'll find the memorabilia: his glasses,chest of drawers, identity card, matchbox, typewriter, minuscule notebooks, Durban High School certificate, and the only portrait of him painted during his lifetime, by the Spaniard Rodriguez Costañe. But the centre's prize possessions are his books.

In a world where writers' libraries are often broken up or sold to the highest bidder there's something miraculous about the preservation, in original situ, of Pessoa's books. Ovid, Goethe, Hardy, Milton, Shelley, Blake, Wilde, Bram Stoker, Joyce's Ulysses - the books he pored over when, after returning to Lisbon at 17 to start university, he dropped out. He was also writing furiously, though only one real book, Mensagem, was published in his lifetime, just before he died in 1935; an esoteric interpretation of the course of Portuguese history, its aim is to create an image of Portugal's destiny - in the author's view, still to be fulfilled.

Intriguingly, Pessoa's copy of Ulysses had a little piece of paper in it marking the Cyclops episode. Inês Pinto Basto, of Coimbra University in Portugal, who will speak at the forthcoming seminar on Joyce and Pessoa, says that though Joyce seems to have exerted little influence on Pessoa, there are a lot of interesting parallels. Then there was the note on Ulysses found among Pessoa's papers with his comment about its "hallucinatory delirium - the kind treated by psychiatrists - presented as an end in itself ", the phrase "hallucinatory delirium" being, says Pinto Basto, the kind of expression Pessoa also used to describe his own art.

Mention Pessoa and the book people are most likely to mention is the modernist classic The Book of Disquiet by Bernardo Soares, "assistant bookkeeper in the city of Lisbon", the alternative self recognised as being more of a semi-heteronym because he wasn't distinct from Pessoa, just a version of him .

Found Kafka-like in a trunk after Pessoa died, the angst-ridden, unfinished text that makes up this "factless autobiography" wasn't published until 47 years after his death and can be read, among many other things, as an odyssey through his native city - "Oh Lisbon, my home!". He may be wracked by anxiety but he's anxious in Lisbon; down by the Tagus on the wide open space of the Terreiro do Paço. He loves the river because of the big city that strides it. "There are no flowers for me like the variegated colouring of Lisbon on a sunny day," he writes.

When once or twice he makes the 10-minute trip across the river to Cacilhas he's nervous the whole way and only sets foot on dry land when he's back in Lisbon.

But what did it matter to the author of The Book of Disquiet when as well as Hells and Purgatories, he has Heavens inside him and knows that it's all about how you look at things: "There's infinity in a cell or a desert. One can sleep cosmically against a rock."

Lisbon is the familiar backdrop to the air of resignation, the belief in abdication and the exultation of renunciation and obscurity that Soares endlessly embraces.

"Tomorrow I too will vanish from the Rua da Prata, the Rua dos Douradores, the Rua dos Fanqueiros. Tomorrow I too - I this soul that feels and thinks, this universe I am for myself - yes, tomorrow I too will be the one who no longer walks these streets, whom others will vaguely evoke with a 'What's become of him?'," says the intensely human narrator of The Book of Disquiet, but the reality is that once you have Pessoa in your head he's to be found at every turn in Lisbon.

Pessoa worked for firms that needed letters written in English and French and was well known in Lisbon as an intellectual and contributor to various magazines, but the abyss never seemed far away . . . "One of my mental complications - horrible beyond words - is a fear of insanity, which itself is insanity,"; fracturing himself into alter egos, writing away on envelopes, scraps of paper and the backs of other manuscripts, proved one way out. Among the heteronyms there was just one woman, though Pessoa did have a real liaison of sorts with a woman, Ophelia Queiroz. Still, his translator, Richard Zenith, says it's probable, though not provable, that he died a virgin. Masturbation and, to a greater extent, alcohol were the release.

In keeping with Pessoa's multiple personalities, the Casa Fernando Pessoa seeks to be more than just a Pessoa archive. It's a multifaceted space for all artistic expression. Running there at the moment (until April 30th) is a light installation by artist Margarida Sardinha with allusions to Pessoa's esoteric pursuits: Rosicrucianism, freemasonry, theosophy. Casa Fernando Pessoa also publishes the literary periodical Tabacaria, which recently carried a paper by the contemporary Portuguese writer, João Lobo Antunes, about the Pessoan heteronym that fascinates him most, naval engineer Álvaro de Campos. It is de Campos's themes of death, the repose of the dead, sleep, insomnia and night-time vigils that attract Antunes, who reads the work as a poetry about the curse of intelligence.

If at a certain time

I had turned to the left instead of the right.

If at a certain moment

I had said yes instead of no, or no instead of yes

We live in a crass - andnow frightening - era which values so much of what Pessoa eschewed. He is the perfect icon for a fractured age. His fatalistic acceptance, his at times Zen Buddhist-like outlook seem perfect for the times we live in. "There is," said American poet W.S. Merwin, "nobody like him."



A literary seminar, The Mirror and the Mask, on the work of Fernando Pessoa and James Joyce takes place on April 23rd at the Irish Writers' Centre, 19 Parnell Square, Dublin 1, from 2.30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Speakers include Inês Pinto Basto, from Coimbra University; author and translator Richard Zenith; and David Butler of the James Joyce Centre, whose translation, Selected Pessoa, is published this month by Dedalus Press. This will be followed, from 6.30 p.m., by a musical recital linked to the work of the two writers, at the James Joyce Centre, North Great George's Street. An exhibition on Pessoa, which opens on April 22nd at the Irish Writers' Centre, will run until May 7th. All events are open to the public and free of charge. Details from the Embassy of Portugal (tel: 01-2894416; e-mail: embpordub@yahoo.co.uk)

Essay: Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935)