Dreaming the Book: The Works of Antonio Tabucchi and Fernando Pessoa

These writings evoke a powerful, hypnagogic imagery, presenting possible scenes from Pessoa’s impossible dreams.

Spiritually linked to the works of Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, Antonio Tabucchi’s novella Requiem: A Hallucination is mainly an experiment in narrative transitions. In the illusory world described by the story’s protagonist, passages melt into one another with the lucidity of dreams.

Detailing a typical day in which the narrator has an appointment with a friend, the reader is taken around a Lisbon, which constantly morphs, depending on the emotional shift. Characters are either recalled memories from the narrator’s past or ghosts. Lengthy conversations of a philosophical nature ensue. From time to time, we are in a cab, a restaurant, a cemetery, or on the streets.

It’s difficult to review a work that’s entirely restricted to a very specific psychological subjectivity. Tabucchi intends for a perfectly claustrophobic experience of communication. Since there are no reliable characters or dependable sources of information throughout, there’s a hefty amount of self-reflexivity on the reader’s part. In the deeply personal schematics of Tabucchi’s world, all objectivity is obliterated.

This is meant to parallel the ideas and philosophies of Portugal’s arguably greatest poet Pessoa, who invented a sort of manifesto on the nature of human indifference. Pessoa’s most famous contribution to literature, The Book of Disquiet, introduced the speculative dreamer Bernardo Soares, who toils away in an office job while watching the world on the peripheries of life. Soares is, in fact, a heteronym for Pessoa, which is essentially another facet of one’s personality acting as a separate identity.

Indeed, Pessoa had many heteronyms he wrote under, many different literary personas that explored the various aspects of his beliefs. Tabucchi’s work seems to be an exploration of these heteronyms; his characters appear to be incarnates of Pessoa’s literary personalities and they often espouse very similar philosophies discussed in the Portuguese’s work.

Through translator Margaret Jull Costa (Tabucchi is Italian but wrote the book in Portuguese), Requiem’s text is delivered impressionistically through stylish ellipses. The book is chaptered, but flows like a slow fever dream, so that action and thought merge in the most amorphous of ways. Especially noted is Tabucchi’s knack for a parallelism of external atmospheres and psychic space; the narrator’s dream is a coffer of suffocating heat, reflected in the concrete imagery of the sun-bleached streets.

The story is, at turns, beautiful and darkly charming. When the narrator meets the ghost of Pessoa himself (the story’s spiritual nucleus), there’s the clear self-referential comment Tabucchi makes upon his own work as the mirror to Pessoa’s soul.

It’s impossible for those English-speaking natives not fluent in Portuguese to decide on a most accurate translation of Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. Whether or not Penguin Books’ edition is precise in its rendition of the work, it cannot be denied that the translation is utterly beautiful. Richard Zenith has managed to transform the soul of the text in such a way that its poetry is needled into the center of the reader’s heart. Many passages carry with them the heaviness of studied thought delivered with an airiness of drifting clouds.

The Book of Disquiet is neither novel nor memoir. It exists in its own realm in which Pessoa’s own spiritual and psychic anatomy is very much a part of the fictional biology of his heteronym Bernardo Soares. There isn’t a beginning, middle, or an end (much like a dream itself). Rather, it’s a series of naval-gazing confessions about the desires for emotional estrangement. The book needn’t be read from beginning to end; like a river (and, again, a dream), one can step in anywhere, only to return later and learn it is never the same twice.

Penguin Books’ Modern Classics edition of Pessoa’s Selected Poems is not as nearly as satisfying as Disquiet. Pessoa has a gentle lyricism in his stanza structures and each poem is a word painting of his life in Lisbon. Selected Poems continues the writer’s tradition of using heteronyms; the book is sectioned into four different heteronyms, with each quarter exercising a distinct perspective on the matters of life. It is indeed an interesting look into how the author designed each personality, and reveals the multitude of beliefs and ideas he carried in his work.

Often, however, they never reach the profound insights of his work in Disquiet. The narratives here are far more personal and while they look deeply inward, they never project outward like the musings of Disquiet’s Soares. Still, Pessoa’s poetry mines a numinous elegance, which is to be wholly appreciated by those well acquainted with his works.

Jonathan Griffin provides the translations for Selected Poems and they flow crisply on the page, whether the poetry is angled like a diamond or spreads long and streaked like stratus clouds. There’s a genuine attempt to capture each heteronym’s voice with clear expression. It may be of little consequence, but the book covers are beautifully designed; the Portuguese’s writing evokes a powerful, hypnagogic imagery and each cover presents just one fragment of a possible scene from one of Pessoa’s impossible dreams.