Fernando Pessoa’s Lisbon of Disquiet

by Steven Hermans

I was working on a farm in the south of Portugal when the idea to visit Lisbon suddenly erupted from my brain. Just a small spark in the cerebral cortex, I thought, nothing more than a splash in a dream about the ocean. I was wrong. Like red-hot lava it spread over my mind’s day-to-day operations, filling the space between my ears with images of rigid street patterns, trams and computers, and crowds of well-dressed people. All this fresh air and healthy exercise was getting to me. I wanted something I didn’t have.

I was thinking of leaving.

In my backpack lived a copy of The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa. In three hundred-and-fifty pages of unrelated aphorisms, Pessoa describes the inner life of an assistant accountant in Lisbon. Nothing ever happens. A train trip to nearby Cascais is about as action-packed as the book ever gets, but there is a powerful, subversive energy in the accountant’s unwillingness to participate in life. Lisbon is his universe, and he has no desire to walk anywhere other than the streets of his home town. Maybe if I visited Pessoa’s Lisbon I could cure of my travel addiction, I thought, immediately realizing the irony. I knew it wouldn’t ease my mind, but I read a page anyway:

Why travel? In Madrid, in Berlin, in Persia, in China, on the two poles, where would I be except in myself and in the type and kind of my sensations? Life is what we make of it. The travels are the travelers. What we see is not what we see, but what we are.

I was gone the following week.

I hitched a ride with a black man named Jesus Schroder. Five hundred years of West African history condensed into a rather odd name and a face like a credit card. For two-and-a-half hours we listened to a CD called Caribbean Hits Volume 2 while he smoked cigars, and I looked out the window. The year was still fresh, and the fields were green, and storks were building their nests on chimneys and telephone poles. As the emerald landscape became more elevated, grey and rectangular, I said goodbye to Jesus and hello to Lisbon.

From the hill where I was standing when I got out of the car I could see almost the entire inner city. In Pessoa’s Lisbon, it is always raining. In my Lisbon, a glorious sunset spread itself over the loose clouds scattered in the sky. On the roofs of the houses I saw the last weak rays of the sun taking on shades of orange and red that didn’t belong to them, nor to the things they fell upon. Soft reflections of all colours filled the air and fled into the great blue height. Peace was coming down over the noise of the city, as it became quiet gradually. Like the windows, I reflected, and like before, I read my book:

Everything breathes with a deep, silent sigh this side of colour and sound. Everything I searched for in life, I have put away myself to look for. I am like someone who looks absentmindedly for something whereof he forgot what it was while searching for it. The gesture of the visible hands whose search becomes more real than that what’s missing, because these hands exist long and white, with exactly five fingers each.

I made my way down to the center of Lisbon called Baixa and checked into a hostel. There was a party going on, and the booze was free. I met Chen, a Chinese classical singer, Yvonne, a Swiss exchange student, Pedro, a Portuguese photo journalist, Rebecca and Morgan, Canadian cultural snobs, Massimo, Giuseppe, and Francesco, geologists on holiday, and Eric, a guy who couldn’t stop talking about Celtic rock. We all had drunk fun together. Some of the girls were pretty, but taken, and I went to bed sad.

The following days I spent wandering aimlessly, ambling through streets and imagining who lived there. A comforting ordinariness radiated from the city. Laundry hung from the balcony, a woman bought fish for dinner, two people argued on the street corner. Everyone was always drinking coffee, but it didn’t seem to give them great energy. The streets were packed with nothing, endless dance floors for winds waltzing with plastic bags. Traffic jams lived in a distant future. Life seemed to eddy by at the slow pace of the River Tague. Somehow this city was caught up in the eternal slumber of a little village, as if it had trouble waking up from an alcoholic all-nighter, as if nothing would ever change.

“Landscapes are repetition,” Pessoa said.

I wondered what he meant. Did he mean chasing after new experiences is futile, that in the end it all boils down to the same old boring story? Maybe that is why he loved Lisbon so much. It seemed to me this city had obviously mastered the secret of happiness through habit.

I went to the Archeological museum. It was housed in the ruins of a convent overlooking Rossio, the beautiful main square of Lisbon. Inside, ancient stone sculptures taught Portuguese history. All alone, looking at old rocks, I started to understand. The convent itself had no roof, only large, high arches spanning the empty space between the walls. To walk here was to walk inside the skeleton of a whale that had swallowed the past. The roof had caved in during the big earthquake of 1755, and it was never rebuilt; the people of Lisbon found the convent was prettier without one.

The Portuguese romantic taste for ruins was also visible in their economy. As a tourist, I felt obliged to chat with the whores, the beggars, and the dealers, but soon, I became jaded. Browsing the magazines at a newsstand, I saw pictures of the earthquake in Haiti. One showed a man lying down with his head in a puddle of blood next to a big rock. About thirty people were standing in a half circle around him; they looked angry, serious, upset, unpitying, ashamed. I didn’t know how to feel about that. Blue?

Maybe I was naive to see only the good side of this city. Everyone knows in Portugal, beneath the surface of friendly faces and pretty facades lies saudade, an inexplicable mixture of longing for things past and friends far-away. In the evenings, I went to the quay where Vasco Da Gama set sail for America. When the night fell my melancholy soared, as fado music streamed out of the backdoors of neon-lit establishments. On the trees lining the streets hung oranges that were sour. Pessoa knew:

Is there any city which cultivates sadness more lovingly than Lisbon? Even the stars only ‘feign light’.

As it was right near my hostel, I walked the Rua dos Douradores at least five times a day. Fernando Pessoa worked as an accountant there for most of his life, as did Bernardo Soares, one of Pessoa’s alter egos to whom he ascribed The Book of Disquiet. In fact, the whole book takes place in this simple street. When I had first seen it, in a black-and-white picture, it had been straight and empty. It still was. The houses all had five floors, with the ground floors usually housing some kind of small shop or restaurant or a garage door. The colourful patterned tiles that adorned the facades were beautiful and interesting. Pessoa’s house had become a wine shop. A plaque on the side wall said simply, ‘House of Fernando Pessoa’. Across the street stood a snackbar, advertising two-for-one hamburger bargains.

There was nothing more ordinary than this street. For me, it was a miniature Lisbon, and for Soares (Pessoa), it was a miniature world. Here he found enough inspiration for all his writings, here he saw the whole world reflected, here moved before his eyes the mundane, everyday life he himself led, even if he knew he transcended it in his head. He did not need to travel. In fact, he wrote that he loathed the idea of travel.

Everything I had never seen, I had already seen. Everything I haven’t yet seen, I have already seen. To travel? To exist suffices. As from station to station I ride daily in the train of my body or fate, bent over streets and squares, gestures and faces, always the same and always different, as landscapes are in the end. When I fantasise, I see. What do I do more when I travel? Only an extremely weak imagination warrants that one needs to transport oneself to feel.

“To dream about Bordeaux,” he writes, “is not only better but also truer than stepping out of the train in Bordeaux.” To travel is to travel in the mind. The whole universe is reduced to the head of Bernardo Soares, and thus expanded to the infinite. To him, every physical experience one can have is inferior to dreaming about it.

I felt he was right. We were all bounded by our own horizon, but it seemed so dull to just stick to one place. Wasn’t there some middle ground we could agree upon between me, the travel-sick nomad, and Bernardo, the steady-as-she-goes type? No. Apparently, it was either one or the other.

In front of cafe Brasileira on Chiado square in the heart of Lisbon sat a bronze, pensive man, neatly dressed in a suit, a bow tie, and a fedora. I sat down on the empty seat next to him.”‘You know, Fernando,” I said in a debonair tone, “you and I, we are two of the same. We’ve both got a dyspeptic soul. We desire the unattainable, like any good romantic should. We just have different ways: I am a legless bird, you’re a tree that’s all roots, but we’re always looking for ways to nurture our disease. I feed mine with sights and photographs, and I revel in foreigner attention. You have your musings from the fifth-floor window where you wallow in the joy of being a nobody. Point is, we have to keep it alive. If we are cured of our disease, we are no longer ourselves — we would become just like the others. You’re a narcissist too, and you know it.” Then I took his book and I read aloud:

Although I am constantly looking for myself, I am afraid to find me, to not have the chance that I discover I am somebody else.

I got up and mumbled a quick goodbye. I had to get going. I had a train to catch.

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