The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

The Book of Disquiet

by Fernando Pessoa, translated by Alfred Mac Adam
Pantheon, 278 pp., $25.00

Pessoa means “person” in Portuguese and Fernando Pessoa seems to have played every conceivable variation on his name: he was a person; he was not a person; he wrote books under the names of several persons; he unraveled the notion of personality; reconstituted it; became someone, as he says of a mythological figure in one of his poems, because he was no one.

We are used to being told that personality is a fiction, that each of us is a multitude, a “prolixity of selves,” in Pessoa’s phrase, that our biography is merely the story of someone we might have been. The thought is both frightening and attractive, and probably an exaggeration—as one of Pessoa’s characters suggests, we no doubt resemble ourselves more than we like to confess. Pessoa however acted on the thought with astonishing literalness, making himself not one but four poets.

He was, first and last, Fernando Pessoa, born in Lisbon in 1888, educated in South Africa. He returned to Portugal in 1905, abandoned his university studies, made a living as a commercial clerk and translator, published essays and poems in magazines, two slim books of verse in English, but no volume in Portuguese until Mensagem in 1934. He had however already been hailed as a “master” of the new Portuguese poetry. He died in 1935. But he was also three other poets, and his mastery was a complicated affair. He wrote as the austere and calm Alberto Caeiro, the classically minded Ricardo Reis, the futurist Alvaro de Campos; and invented biographies to back these performances up.

Caeiro, a frail, modest man, had only an elementary education, lived in the country, died of tuberculosis; Reis, educated by the Jesuits, was a doctor and a monarchist, emigrated to Brazil in 1919 after the failure of a royalist uprising; Campos was a naval engineer with a degree from Glasgow and had traveled in the East. Pessoa saw these figures as if he knew them: Caeiro was blond, medium height, had blue eyes; Reis was shorter, dark-complexioned; Campos was tall, thin, tended to slouch, wore a monocle. It is important to remember that the poems came first, that the biographies are a form of sober mischief, fragments of the novel that Pessoa was turning his life into. But the names are not pseudonyms, mere disguises for the writer Pessoa. Pessoa called them heteronyms, reacted to them as contrasting, even rival personalities, rather than as extensions of himself. He produced their works but in them was writing not under another name but in another person, outra pessoa.

The Book of Disquiet has a chronology that inserts the fictional births of these poets among the events of Pessoa’s life: 1889, birth of heteronym Alberto Caeiro; 1891, Sá-Carneiro, poet and friend of Pessoa, born; also birth of heteronym Alvaro de Campos; 1893, the poet’s father dies, etc. This playful gesture helps to confirm the “reality” of the imaginary poets, but may baffle the reader, particularly since Ricardo Reis’s birthdate is given as…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.