Wednesday, November 30, 2011


15. The Post-Mortem Antics of Fernando Pessoa

Pessoa, clearly, is one of the more active dead poets running around these days.

When I first read José Saramago's The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, in which Fernando shows up for visits with his alter-ego Ricardo first in his hotel room shortly after his return to Lisbon from Rio, then knocks on the door of the apartment he rents in Bairro Alto, and also occasionally appears in the street where Ricardo would surely be passing by sooner or later, Pessoa seemed like a highly singular character in an extraordinary novel, as I had never read any of his works.

I believe I read the novel in 1996 or 1997, not long after the Sunday literary supplement of the Mexican newspaper La Jornada had devoted an entire issue to Pessoa--including a narrative by either a Mexican or Spanish poet (my memory fails me here) who was pursuing Pessoa in Lisbon a bit like I have been doing, but sticking more closely to Pessoa's poetry and that of the three heteronyms who wrote poetry in Portugese. I do recall that there was a photo of the famous trunk, left in Pessoa's room and bursting at the seams with mostly unpublished works.

There were what have become the usual speculations about the origin of Pessoa's multiple writer personalities, as well as to why it wasn't really until the 1980's--50 years after his death--that Pessoa publications reproduced like rabbits, subsequently resulting in a number of fans.

For a while, when post-modernism was the catch of the day, Pessoa dangled from the critics' pens (or computers) like an entire boatload of postmodern sardines. Mercifully, postmoderism has pretty well passed into the archives of badly-concieved banalities, and Pessoa has held his ground--possibly due to his post-mortem predilection for prowling around the streets of Lisbon at night in some damned good novels (but I do not believe for a moment that he is part of the current craze for bedroom-eyed teenage vampires), first in the above-mentioned Saramago and then in Antonio Tabucchi's 1992 novel Requiem, where he only makes one nocturnal appearance (after all, the novel takes place from late morning on a summer Sunday until about 2 a.m. of the following day, so his presence from midnight is limited to a couple of hours).

Both novels are Pessoan in their philosophical underpinnings, with no distinction between dreams and "reality" and none between the dead and the living, either. In Tabucchi's novel, they are not only Pessoa, but the archetypal best friend (Tadeus) who slept with the narrator's partner (Isabel), but the narrator's father, and Isabel herself (who, in the film version, indicates that she was depressed and killed herself because she was not sure who father the child she was carrying).

In The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, Saramago pulls off a philosophical and literary tour de force, given that he makes Ricardo Reis credible as the novel's protagonist, and in many aspects (especially in his relationships with the women Lydia and Marcenda) much more alive than he was for 48 years--especially considering that he never was alive at all, but was one of Pessoa's heteronyms and therefore had to have died when Pessoa died, 76 years ago today.

The explanation given by Pessoa's character in the novel for his post-mortem walkabouts is that at least for some cases of the dead, they get to roam around for about 9 months after physically dying--a bookend image of their 9 months in the womb before being born.

The final turn of the novel's screw comes on the last page, when Pessoa comes to say that time has run out, and to say goodbye to Ricardo Reis, and Reis suddenly makes it clear that he knew all the time that he was not separate from Pessoa, and that he had been playing a game with himself:

"As they left the apartment, Fernando Pessoa told him, You forgot your hat. You know better than I do that hats are not worn where we are going. On the sidewalk opposite the park, they watched the pale lights flicker in the river, the ominous shadows of the mountains. Let's go then, said Fernando Pessoa. Let's go, agreed Ricardo Reis...." (p. 358)


Saramago, José. The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. Harcourt Brace & Co., Orlando, Florida, 1992

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