Sunday, 26 July 2015

In Search of Missing Persons


    Fernando Pessoa has always been one of my favourite poets. His theory of heteronyms - the concept that a writer could hive off different aspects of his sensibility and imagination into a diversity of poetic voices and registers - is central to the key Modernist trope of fractured identity and multiple selves. In all he invented a total of 136 heteronyms, some with their own biographies, astrological charts and visiting cards, as though his very authorial presence were a work of fiction. Indeed, Pessoa goes so far beyond related strategies such as Poundian personae or Yeatsian masks that he seems eminently post-modern, his entire work posited on the elaborate deferral of subjectivity and the unstable, arbitrary nature of poetic style and language, debunking the egotistical sublime of later confessional modes. Similarly, Pessoa's multitudinous, refractive oeuvre gives the lie to the received platitude that poets should develop a "mature voice" and stick to it, supposedly expressing autobiographical epiphanies in a simplistic traffic between lyric-I and experience recollected in tranquillity.

    Fernando Pessoa the man (1888-1935) is as elusive and self-eliding as his poetry might suggest. The biographical facts we have are remarkably few - after early years in Durban, he spent most of his life in Lisbon and never married or had children. His remorselessly bleak prose-work The Book of Disquiet (fathered by the heteronym Bernando Soares) invokes a penumbrous, liminal existence trapped between the futile tedium of office-work and the isolation of sitting in cafes or in a rented room alone, its narrator a desperate, reality-doubting marginalist combining aspects of Malte Laurids Brigge with the anti-hero of Knut Hamsun's Hunger. The shabby, uninspiring streets of Soares's Lisbon seemed a world away from the colourful, exhilaratingly sunlit city I visited the other week, where old and new architectures vibrantly offset each other and the hilly layout provides dizzying perspectives down narrow backstreets where Pessoa might once have conducted his nocturnal flaneries.

 From our hotel near Saldanha it was a relatively short walk to the Casa-Museo Fernando Pessoa or should have been, were we not distracted by such sights as the Basilica da Estrela and its garden of welcome shade (36 degrees heat that day), an indoor artisanal market and the antique-shops around Rato with their intriguing arrays of bric-a-brac and retro artefacts.

  The Casa Pessoa has the excellent policy of half-price entrance fees to teachers, no evidence asked for, and to students - again no proof needed on this occasion. We were met with a lengthy introductory lecture in English about Pessoa and the house now dedicated to him, rather over-zealously delivered by the tour-guide and a little hard to take in after our walk in the sweltering heat. It was the poet's residence for the last 15 years of his life and houses his library, which contains a high proportion of English books. What surprised me was the fact that - as the guide described it or as I understood him - Pessoa wrote so much in English, perhaps as much as "50/50 between Portugese and English". Some of the work in English remains unedited and unpublished - and is certainly little-known in the English-speaking world.
    (The next day I managed to find a little volume of selected English poems called No Matter What We Dream in a bookshop  and bought a copy. Although some of the work penned by heteronyms like Alexander Search and the Mad Fiddler prefigures the more familiar Portugese poems in its themes and imagery, a lot of the texts read like slightly wooden pastiches of English models and the editors are right to say "Pessoa's English was bookish, old-fashioned in diction and generally lacking the grace of a native speaker".)

    That the Casa Pessoa is a well-curated and important museum is beyond doubt: it incorporates interactive technology to good effect and utilises animated video-clips to draw children into Pessoa's world. It also acts as a cultural hub by having a room for poetry-readings and musical performances and as a study-centre by having the library not just as an archive of the author's book but of translations and critical works about Pessoa from many countries.
What repeatedly struck me as I walked around the museum was admiration that an original and in many ways experimental poet like Pessoa - certainly not a mainstream or populist figure - should be so amply respected and memorialised in this way, bespeaking a literary broad-mindedness seldom encountered in England. (I was trying to think of an equivalent British poet but there really isn't one.) Unknown outside avant garde circles and largely unpublished during his lifetime, Pessoa has ultimately become (alongside Saramago, bacalhau and the fado divas of the bairro alto) one of Lisbon's cultural icons - deservedly so given the distinctive quality of his writing yet strangely ironic when we consider the depersonalising, self-disguising nature of his aesthetic. Like the last line of his poem 'The Cat' (printed on the wall of the restaurant at the back of the museum where we ate lunch after our visit), Pessoa seems always to be saying " I know myself: I'm missing".

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