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'Book Of Disquiet' Reveals A Reclusive Author's Soul

I love eccentric writers whose neuroses make me seem well-adjusted in comparison, and no writer — not one — was more neurotic than Fernando Pessoa.

Pessoa's work The Book of Disquiet is one of life's great miracles.

Even though every edition of the book lists Pessoa as the author, he didn't write it — one of his creations did.

Pessoa invented numerous alter egos. Arguably, the four greatest poets in the Portuguese language were all Pessoa using different names. One invented writer was a doctor and classicist; a second was an unlettered genius, a paesano who lived in the country; a third was a naval engineer and bisexual dandy who traveled the world. The fourth was "Fernando Pessoa," another invention, according to the author.

Each of Pessoa's writers was distinctive and different. He created poets who wrote in French and in English, one of whom wrote sonnets that were described by the Times of London as more Shakespearean than Shakespeare.

Pessoa not only created poets; he also gave them their champions. He invented a prolific critic, whose writings in English promoted Portuguese literature. He didn't stop there. His creations critiqued each other. Pessoa invented short-story writers, translators, philosophers, an astrologer, a baron who committed suicide, and a hunchbacked, lovelorn woman by the name of Maria Jose — more than 72 creations, by some accounts.

The poets themselves may have been Pessoa's best creation, but his greatest literary achievement is The Book of Disquiet. It is a "factless" autobiography, filled with observations, aphorisms, ruminations, haphazard musings, dreams, moods and the keenest revelation of an artist's soul. What makes this book — this fictional diary — transcendent is that it deals with the eternal quests: the meaning of life, of death; the existence of God, good and evil; the questions of love, reality, consciousness; and the disquiet of the soul. It quenches the thirsty mind and floods the arid heart.

A book tells you quite a bit about its author; a great book tells you quite a bit about you. When I first encountered Disquiet, I felt like laundry — the book dunked me in pristine water, then battered and wrung me and hung me out to dry in sunshine, rejuvenated. I was forced to examine the choices I'd made, the beliefs I'd held, the loves I'd forsaken and the gods I'd worshipped.

The Book of Disquiet manuscript, as well as most of Pessoa's work, was found in a trunk after his death — he hardly published anything while alive.

Pessoa, the man, was a bookkeeper. A loner. He had no friends, no loves, no family. He lived most of his life in a single room in Lisbon; his literary alter egos, and their writings, his only companions. He died in obscurity, a recluse, in 1935.

The Book of Disquiet tells you the truth and comforts you. It enfolds you. Pessoa might have died a recluse, but if you read his book, he'll be your good friend. He certainly is mine.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rabih Alameddine