Saturday, November 26, 2011


10. Bearding the Poet in His Den

When Ricardo Reis, one of Pessoa's alter-egos, returns to Lisbon from Brazil in the Saramago novel, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, after receiving the following telegram from another alter-ego: "Fernando Pessoa has died Stop I am leaving for Glasgow Stop Alvaro de Campos", he goes on the tram to find the tomb in the Prazeres Cemetery in the Campo de Ourique barrio of the city, the same barrio in which Pessoa lived from 1920 until his death in 1935 at the age of 47 at Rua Coelho de Rocha Number 16, in a room on the first floor right of the stairs facing the street.

The cemetery is the same cemetery visited on a very hot Sunday when an old gypsy woman sends Tabucchi's narrator in Requiem in search of his best friend, after telling him that he cannot continue living in two side, that of reality and that of dreams, because it provokes halllucinations. Tadeus' grave is number 4664, while Pessoa's is 4371.

Since I have never had much luck finding graves in cemeteries, I am disinclined to have a go at finding Pessoa's, but I did visit the house where he spent the last 15 years of his life, as it has been a cultural center since 1993.

I decided to arrive there by taxi and walk back, and the taxi driver found the house without difficulty--a plain, four-storey white house on a very ordinary street.

Just inside the entrance, I avail myself of a brochure to read what it says about Pessoa's room: "Some of Pessoa's furniture is there, which he kept with him throughout his various changes of residence--16 in all. This includes the chest of drawers where, on the night of March 8th, 1914, the poet wrote three of his greatest works: "The Keeper of Sheep" by Alberto Caeiro, "Oblique Rain" by Fernando Pessoa, and "Triumphal Ode" by Alvaro de Campos.

In the ground floow exhibition space there was a show of color photographs accompanying some quotes from letters Pessoa wrote to Ofelia Queiroz, apparently his only romantic partner. The photos are not too large, but are in the style of the eye-popping photo collages of David La Chappelle. They are easily dismissable--by me, anyway--and my eyes focus instead on the quotes from Pessoa's love letters. Unfortunately, my eyes stop early on, when reading the English translations, they hit upon the word "rattletrap", but spelled "ratletrap", and as I skim through the rest of the English version I notice quite a few more errors in spelling and syntax.

The English versions are quite unfortunate, I advise the museum staff, as they contain many errors. Although speaking in English is a bit uncomfortable for me, hence I am speaking to you in Spanish, nevertheless I am a native speaker of English, and as I am a "fan" of Pessoa's works, I would be happy--more than happy--in the future to make corrections to any translations from his writings if you send me the texts in both languages by email.

One man is skeptical, and wonders why I dislike speaking in English, in which he claims fluency, if I am a native speaker, and I simply advise him that I have lived for nearly 20 years now in Mexico, where people speak Spanish.

That seems to satisfy him. Meanwhile a woman on staff who only speaks Portugese, but claims to understand a lot of Spanish and I have begun one of those syncopated and highly animated conversations in two languages, which ends with an exchange of kisses on both cheeks before I proceed up the stairs to see Pessoa's room.

The room is small, and very reminiscent of my room at the Geres pension, except that his bed is individual size and mine is matrimonial. The rest of the furniture primarily consists of two chests of drawers and a wardrobe. I am taken by the plain white linen panels curtaining the windows--certainly not at all what would have been used in the 1920s and 30s, but which I decide I want to replicate in beige for the french doors in my mini-loft in Mexico (and I did find a wonderful linen a few days later in the Baixa, and even for half price.)

In the hallway outside the room is a settee, with a telephone table on one end holding a 1920s style black rotary telephone, and a coffee table in front with a large ashtray containing perhaps a dozen and a half butts, as well as an open black lacquer box containing several unflitered cigarettes of dubious origin.

Also in the Pessoa House is another exhibition space on the top floor, as well as a library and administrative area on the east side of the ground floor and floors 1 and 2.

The other visitors are a young man and his son, and as the man sends a text message on his cell phone I ask the boy if he would like to have a telephone like Pessoa's, from the epoch of my great-grandmother. Either he is not sure if he wants one, or he is unsure of my question in Spanish.

The walk back to the Rossio is a bit long, but it is largely downhill and my bag of camera equipment is not all that heavy. On the way I stop in several parks to rest in the sun on benches, have several conversations about politics with shopkeepers (who clearly don't receive much foot traffic this time of year), pause for a toasted cheese and serrano ham sandwich llike I make frequently at home and finally climb aboard the funicular Elevador da Gloria, which takes me rapidly down from Bairro Alto to Restauradores, a few blocks from the pension.

Despite my fairly extended visit to Pessoa's digs, I felt very strongly that he was not at home.

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