Skip to main content

Book Review: The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa

Once in a blue moon comes a delightfully chaotic book that enchants as much as it frustrates, that heals as much as it scorches, and that soothes as much as it disturbs. Reading such a book in which thoughts, consciousness, and perceptions appear as fragments that do not combine to form a coherent whole, one is often left wondering how to make sense of it all. How should one come to grips with its determined melancholy, its breathtaking audacity, and its insistence that inaction, despair, and renunciation are the sine qua non of life? The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa is one such modern masterpiece.

The book is an aggregation of disparate diary entries that are abstract, dense, and at times, eccentric. For its entire four hundred pages it offers a philosophy of a melancholic life, a philosophy of dreaming, and a philosophy of art. The book is a disorderly collection - a fragmentary collection of tormented aphorisms, reflections, and musings in the form of diary entries found in a trunk after Pessoa’s death. In passage after passage that are at once lyrical and haunting, he bares his brooding soul while lying awake through insomniac nights when incessant rain falls on the rooftops of his beloved Lisbon where he lives in a cheap, rented room with cracked walls owned by a loathsome landlady.

“Each drop of rain is my failed life weeping in nature. There’s something of my disquiet in the endless drizzle, then shower, then drizzle, then shower, through which the day’s sorrow uselessly pours itself out over the earth. It rains and keeps raining. My soul is damp from hearing it.”

Pessoa was a compulsive writer who penned his thoughts relentlessly, day and night, on whatever he could lay his hands upon – “…in notebooks, on loose sheets, on the backs of envelops, on paper scraps, and the margins of his own earlier texts.” To add to the confusion, Pessoa wrote under different names that he chose to call “heteronyms” – fictional alter egos with their own distinct biographies, writing styles, personalities, political attitudes, and individual pet peeves. These jottings, largely hand written and mostly undated, presented a challenge to the publishers who took years to compile them together into a book structure.

The book records his meandering thoughts in which he constantly floats through flimsy boundaries that separate his real world from his dreams, his inaction from his thoughts, and his ambition from his weariness.

Pessoa’s art consisted of poetry, prose, plays, philosophy, criticism, translations, linguistic theory, political writings, and horoscopes and assorted other texts that he wrote through more than four dozen invented heteronyms.

Pessoa wrote poetry and prose both and in an insightful passage explains the difference between the two:

“I consider poetry to be an intermediate stage between music and prose. Like music, poetry is bound by rhythmic laws, and even when these are not the strict laws of meter, they still exist as checks, constraints, automatic mechanisms of repression and censure. In prose we speak freely. We can incorporate musical rhythms, and still think. We can incorporate poetic rhythms, and yet remain outside them. An occasional poetic rhythm won’t disturb prose, but an occasional prose rhythm makes poetry fall down.”

After reading a few pages a day, readers would often find themselves adrift with thoughts on renunciation or solitude or tedium because, Pessoa ensnares you, seduces you, and grips you with his flights of imagination that are mesmerizing. When he talks about giving things up it is not because he doesn’t what them, but because he does. Can there be a more intriguing Gordian knot? Consider this:

“Nothing satisfies me, nothing consoles me, everything—whether or not it has ever existed—satiates me. I neither want my soul nor wish to renounce it. I desire what I do not desire and renounce what I do not have. I can be neither nothing nor everything: I’m just the bridge between what I do not have and what I do not want.”

Although he was a prolific writer, Pessoa published merely four books during his lifetime. He left behind more than 25,000 manuscripts and typed pages that are still being deciphered and catalogued by experts. Perhaps he felt there was something noble in not being published because in a rather prescient manner, this is what he writes about an unpublished writer:

“The only noble destiny for a writer who publishes is to be denied a celebrity he deserves. But the truly noble destiny belongs to the writer who doesn’t publish. Not who doesn’t write, for then he wouldn’t be a writer. I mean the writer in whose nature it is to write, but whose spiritual temperament prevents him from showing what he writes.”

Despite Pessoa’s assertion about noble virtues of a non-published writer, we are glad that Penguin has been updating its various editions from time to time as more and more material is getting deciphered. The literary world would have been a poorer place without this effort.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Poem Summary: Where The Mind Is Without Fear by Rabindranath Tagore

Poem by Rabindranath Tagore: Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high Where knowledge is free Where the world has not been broken up into fragments By narrow domestic walls Where words come out from the depth of truth Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit Where the mind is led forward by thee Into ever-widening thought and action Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake. Short Summary: This poem is written by Rabindranath Tagore during pre-independence days, when India was a colony of the British. The underlying theme of the poem is absolute freedom; the poet wants the citizens of his country to be living in a free state. According to the poem, we see that the poet is expressing his views there should be a country, like where people live without any sort of fear and with pure dignity…they should

Book Review: The Blue Umbrella by Ruskin Bond

Among all Ruskin Bond books, The Blue Umbrella has, so far, gathered immense applaud from readers and critics alike.  This is a short novel, but the kind of moral lessons it teaches to us are simply overwhelming. This is a story of Binya, a poor little girl living with her mother and an elder brother, Bijju, in a small hilly village of Garhwal. One day while herding her two cows back home, she stumbles upon some city people enjoying the picnic in the valley. She is enthralled to see them well-groomed and rich. She craves to be one like them and among many other things of their, a blue frilly umbrella catches her attention. She begins craving for it. On the other hand, the city people get attracted by her innocent beauty and the pendant in her neck. The pendant consists of leopard’s claw – which is considered a mascot widely in the hills. Binya trades her pendant off with the blue umbrella. The blue umbrella is so much beautiful that soon it becomes a topic of conversation fo

Poem Summary: Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Ozymandias is a short poem of fourteen lines written by Percy Bysshe Shelley. The concurrent theme of the poem is that nothing remains intact and same forever in this world. Even the brightest of metal, one day decays with passage of time. The throne name of Egyptian King Ramesses is Ozymandias. It was his dearest desire to preserve himself forever by building a huge statue that he thought would never tumble down. Stanza 1: I met a traveller from an antique land Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand, Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed; Summary: The poet narrates the poem through the eyes of a traveler who seems to have come back from a remote and far-away land, referring to Egypt. The traveler r