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Oct/Nov 2005 Book Reviews

The Reality of Dreams: Antonio Tabucchi and Fernando Pessoa

Discussion by Robert Gray


I do not know if I exist... it seems possible to me that I might be someone else's dream... I might be a character in a novel, moving through the long waves of someone else's literary style... —Fernando Pessoa The Book of Disquiet (trans. by Richard Zenith)

Buy now from Amazon! In a 1999 interview with the UNESCO Courier, Antonio Tabucchi said that his life altered forever after reading legendary Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa's poem, "The Tobacco Shop" (written by Pessoa's heteronym Álvaro de Campos), while on a train journey. The poem, as translated by Richard Zenith, begins:

I'm nothing.
I'll always be nothing.
I can't want to be something.

But I have in me all the dreams of the world.

Windows of my room,
The room of one of the millions nobody knows
(And if they knew me, what would they know?)

Tabucchi later studied in Lisbon and enhanced a passion for Pessoa's work and for Portugal that he has since called part of his "genetic baggage." This cross-cultural life permeates his fiction and extends to his family; he married a Portuguese woman and they have a daughter "who is more Portuguese than Italian and a son who is more Italian than Portuguese."

Not only does Pessoa's shadow fall across Tabucchi's life and work, but Pessoa himself is a tangible—and at times deliciously intangible—presence as well, particularly in the novel Requiem: A Hallucination (written in Portuguese, a further tribute to Pessoa) as well as the stories "The Backwards Game," "The Last Three Days of Fernando Pessoa" and "Dream of Fernando Pessoa, Poet and Pretender."

In Requiem, the narrator dreams of a torrid Sunday in Lisbon during which he ventures on a quest to meet the man he calls "the greatest poet of the twentieth century." He admits that, "I'm dreaming but what I dream seems to me to be real, and I have to meet certain people who exist only in my memory." The reader is lured to a place that is real and not real, its palpable existence in the mind of the narrator becoming a new definition of what it means to exist. Tabucchi sustains the dreamlike atmosphere, yet he furnishes and populates the spectral places he visits—a restaurant, a guesthouse, a museum, a train, even a cemetery—so deftly that he compels the reader to accept dream and memory without question, as we accept the world in which we appear to be sitting in a chair and reading this article.

The "reality" of the worlds created by Pessoa and Tabucchi often combines this dreamlike state with the Portuguese concept of saudade, which, according to Tabucchi, "describes the melancholic nostalgia one feels for people, things, pleasures, and times now lost." The world, real or imagined, seems just beyond reach.

In his story "The Backwards Game," Tabucchi imagines a moment of saudade that contains both Pessoa/Campos and a special window not unlike the one in "The Tobacco Shop:"

Maria do Carmos recited Lisbon Revisited, by Álvaro de Campos, a poem in which a person is at the same window as in his childhood, but it isn't the same person anymore and it isn't the same window anymore, because time changes men and things... She took my hand and said to me, "Listen—who knows what we are? Who knows where we are? Who knows why we are here? Listen—we live this life as if it were a dream."

Tabucchi is deeply enmeshed in the netherworlds of shadow and dream as well as accepted reality, exploring boundaries not merely between Portugal and Italy or Pessoa and Tabucchi, but between political engagement and creative solitude, life and death, dreaming and waking, observation and imagination. For Tabucchi, even his politically charged fiction, like Pereira Declares, has a touch of nightmarish fantasy about it, since we view Pereira through the distorted lens of his interrogators' unusually sympathetic if condescending transcription of the alleged confession.

While Pessoa consciously sought to establish a perfect world within himself, providing detailed written histories for it, and even peopling it with his heteronyms, Tabucchi is politically active. His recent novels, Pereira Declares and The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro, are unflinching explorations of political repression and state-sanctioned acts of violence based upon actual events. In addition to speaking out on issues like the military intervention in Kosovo and xenophobic violence worldwide, Tabucchi is one of the founders of the International Parliament of Writers, which protects writers and intellectuals threatened with death, persecution, or imprisonment. "It's the job of intellectuals and writers to cast doubt on perfection," Tabucchi has said. "Perfection spawns doctrines, dictators, and totalitarian ideas."

We should not, however, assume that Pessoa was unworldly. While less than capable of sustaining lasting relationships, ("Are you in love with the me that I am or the me I am not?" he once asked the only woman he came close to loving) or many deep friendships (he never quite recovered from the suicide of his friend and fellow poet Mario de Sá-Carneiro), he was often a sympathetic observer and chronicler of the everyday people ­ barber, shopkeeper, fruit vendor, office worker ­ he encountered in his neighborhood. Of course, these were by definition people with whom he could maintain a cordial but aloof relationship. Thus, looking out his apartment window in "The Tobacco Shop," Campos/Pessoa feels compelled to observe, not participate:

You open onto the mystery of a street continually crossed by people,
A street inaccessible to any and every thought,
Real, impossibly real, certain, unknowingly certain,
With the mystery of things beneath the stones and beings,
With death making the walls damp and the hair of men white,
With Destiny driving the wagon of everything down the road of nothing.

Two verses later, he states it more plainly:

Today I'm torn between the loyalty I owe
To the outward reality of the Tobacco Shop across the street
And to the inward reality of my feeling that everything's a dream.

Toward the end of this poem, Campos/Pessoa is finally seduced from the world of his imagination when he notices that someone has entered the Tobacco Shop:

And plausible reality suddenly hits me.
I half rise from my chair—energetic, convinced, human—
And will try to write these verses in which I say the opposite.

I light up a cigarette as I think about writing them,
And in that cigarette I savor freedom from all thought.
My eyes follow the smoke as if it were my own trail
And I enjoy, for a sensitive and fitting moment,
A liberation from all speculation
And an awareness that metaphysics is a consequence of not feeling very well.
Then I lean back in the chair
And keep smoking.
As long as Destiny permits, I'll keep smoking.

Here is the border again, described as no more than a trail of smoke from Pessoa's cigarette that offers him a tangible if shadowy connection to the world below. And why is Tobacco Shop capitalized like Destiny, Nature, and God? And who then, we wonder, is the Tobacco Shop Owner?

Pessoa may be the patron saint of detachment for writers; he even tried to detach himself from Pessoa ("The strangest case is that of Fernando Pessoa, who doesn't exist strictly speaking," writes heteronym Campos in "Notes for the Memory of My Master Caeiro."). He doesn't deny reality; he redefines it to include imagination, which may be a higher form by his calculation. As he writes in "Aspects:"

The author of these books cannot affirm that all these different and well-defined personalities who have incorporeally passed through his soul don't exist, for he does not know what it means to exist, nor whether Hamlet or Shakespeare is more real, or truly real.

Tabucchi's fascination with dreams, which permits him to redefine his own reality, is particularly apparent when he is dealing with Pessoa. Two stories featuring Pessoa appear in a collection titled Dream of Dreams, and a dream atmosphere suffuses Requiem. In Pereira Declares, which is in essence a recorded confession, the one aspect of Pereira's life that he consistently refuses to divulge to his interrogators, even under the threat of torture, is the content of his dreams: "Pereira prefers not to say how it went on because his dream has nothing to do with these events, Pereira declares."

Tabucchi is also intrigued with multiple personalities and Pessoa is, if nothing else, the high water mark for any discussion of multiples, having created more than 70 heteronyms.

In a review of Pereira Declares by Patrizia Napoleone for Psychosynthesis Institute Magazine, the reviewer cites the Ribot/Janet theory of "confederation of the souls," as a profound influence on Tabucchi's work. Napoleone mentions Pereira's effective creation of a new, better version of himself through something more complex than an act of will. Another personality emerges from within a person who was never a single entity in the first place. Napoleone quotes Tabucchi (Repubblica 1994, the year Pereira Declares was first published) to support her claim:

The hypothesis... is very creative, I would say that it is the same principle of fiction: in each book in the leading character we find expressed a hegemonic I of the author that the writing helps to emerge from the hidden depths within us. Personally I am absolutely convinced that each person is a multiplicity of persons.

When Pereira consults with Dr. Cardoso, the "confederation of souls" theory is spelled out for him as a way to explain Pereira's surprising, sudden desire to become more politically active:

[T]o believe in a "self" as a distinct entity, quite distinct from the infinite variety of all the other "selves" that we have within us, is a fallacy, the naïve illusion of the single unique soul we inherit from Christian tradition, whereas Dr. Ribot and Dr. Janet see the personality as a confederation of numerous souls, because within us we each have numerous souls, don't you think, a confederation which agrees to put itself under the government of one ruling ego... What we think of as ourselves, our inward being, is only an effect, not a cause, and what's more it is subject to the control of a ruling ego which has imposed its will on the confederation of souls, so in the case of another alter ego arising, one stronger and more powerful, this ego overthrows the first ruling ego, takes its place and acquires the chieftainship of the cohort of souls..."

Pessoa echoes, and of course amplifies, this a hundredfold in his creation of heteronyms. For Tabucchi this "confederation of souls" is ruled by an ego that is actively engaged in the world, even as he acknowledges, by his fascination with Pessoa, the possibility of other egos in potential ascendance.

Tabucchi is also aware of the dangers lurking in excessive influence on the part of a master over his disciple, and seems to have been putting those fears to rest in "The Last Three Days of Fernando Pessoa" and Requiem, both of which deal with Pessoa's death. "Last Days" finds Pessoa on his deathbed, receiving heteronymous visitors who pay their last respects. Requiem, as the title suggests, is a meeting with and parting from Pessoa's ghost, if not his influence. As Napoleone writes in her review of Pereira Declares:

Pessoa is almost an alter ego of Tabucchi, from whom the author wants to distinguish himself with a High Mass in honour of the dead, a "requiem," this is also the title of a short novel written by Tabucchi in Portuguese in 1991, a type of "re-elaboration of mourning" where, through the meeting with a ghost, with whom anxieties and past remorse are renewed, the leading character expresses the idea of a farewell, a taking leave that is also a liberation: the acceptance of death for a new birth.

Tabucchi may have used his more recent fiction to elude Pessoa's shadow, but it is not a clean escape. Even before confronting his master in Requiem, Tabucchi acknowledged the challenge of their relationship in "Dream of Fernando Pessoa, Poet and Pretender." Here Pessoa visits his own mentor and primal heteronym, Alberto Caeiro, who is also the acknowledged master for Campos and Ricardo Reis.

"You are my master," Pessoa says, and Caiero, rather than denying this, agrees in the somnambulant voice of a hypnotist:

I am you... I am the deepest side of you... your dark side. In this I am your master. You must follow my voice... You will listen to me in waking and in sleep. Sometimes I'll disturb you, and sometimes you won't want to hear me. But you must listen to me, you must have the courage to listen to this voice if you want to be a great poet.

In an essay on the genesis of his heteronyms, Pessoa described the birth of Caiero:

I wrote some thirty poems, one after another, in a kind of ecstasy, the nature of which I am unable to define. It was the triumphant day of my life, and never will I have another like it. I began with the title, The Keeper of Sheep. What followed was the appearance of someone in me whom I named, from then on, Alberto Caeiro. Forgive me the absurdity of the sentence: In me there appeared my master.

For Pessoa, this poetic voice may have arrived from Caiero, but it was dispersed in many directions as poems by heteronyms Reis, Campos, Caiero, and Pessoa himself ("I tried— instinctively and subconsciously—to find disciples for him.").

Perhaps Tabucchi's relationship with Pessoa is equally nebulous, yet affecting, poignant, and even unsettling in the best sense. In Requiem, when the narrator finally meets his "great poet, perhaps the greatest poet of the twentieth century," he expresses his concern about his obsession with Pessoa, his Guest:

All right, said my Guest, as you wish, let's not argue, let's just say I'd like to know what your intentions are. In relation to what? I asked. In relation to me, for example, said my Guest, that's what interests me. You don't find that a little egocentric? I asked. Of course, he replied, I am egocentric, but what do you want me to do about it, all poets are egocentric, and my ego has a very special center, indeed if you wanted me to tell you where that center is I couldn't. I've come up with a few hypotheses myself, I said, I've spent my life hypothesizing about you and now I'm tired of it, that's what I wanted to tell you. Please, he said, don't abandon me to all these people who are so certain about everything, they're dreadful. You don't need me, I said, don't talk nonsense, the whole world admires you, I was the one who needed you, but now it's time to stop, that's all. Did my company displease you? he asked. No, I said, it was very important, but it troubled me, let's just say that you had a disquieting effect on me. I know, he said, with me it always finishes that way, but don't you think that's precisely what literature should do, be disquieting I mean, personally I don't trust literature that soothes people's consciences. Neither do I, I agreed, but you see, I'm already full of disquiet, your disquiet just adds to mine and becomes anxiety. I prefer anxiety to utter peace, he said, given the choice.

Despite the requiem for his master, Tabucchi still turns to him when he needs nourishment. Pessoa is always in some sense perched on Tabucchi's shoulder, despite their presumed parting of the ways in Requiem. "Good night, or rather goodbye," says the narrator in the final pages of that novel, but Pessoa has already disappeared and cannot, or will not hear him. The master cannot be so easily dismissed.

Even in Pereira Declares, Tabucchi's first novel after this parting of the ways, the author couldn't resist a cameo appearance by Pessoa in the form of a brief anniversary piece that Pereira struggles to compose for his newspaper. The first draft is suitably patriotic, meant to please the Salazarian censors:

"Three years ago died the great poet Fernando Pessoa. By education he was English-speaking, but he chose to write in Portuguese because he declared that his motherland was the Portuguese language. He left us many beautiful poemsscattered in various magazines and one long poem, Message, which is the history of Portugal as seen by a great artist who loved his country."

"Nauseating" is Pereira's critical assessment of his own work. He tries again:

"Fernando Pessoa died three years ago. Very few people, almost no one, even knew he existed. He lived in Portugal as a foreigner and a misfit, perhaps because he was everywhere a misfit. He lived alone, in cheap boarding-houses and rented rooms. He is remembered by his friends, his comrades, those who love poetry."

Perhaps Tabucchi turns to his master not when he needs to be nourished or calmed, but when he needs, despite his protestations to the contrary in Requiem, to be disquieted. Pessoa has had an unsettling effect upon Tabucchi for many years, and made him fully conscious of the fact that there are multiple Tabucchis just as there are multiple Pessoas. In Pereira Declares and The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro, Tabucchi has channeled his disquiet and faced harsh political realities squarely yet imaginatively. As he said in the UNESCO interview:

[D]emocracy isn't a state of perfection. It has to be improved, and that means constant vigilance. I thought I had to go beyond the actual event and talk about it through a novel—to give fictional treatment to this violent occurrence. In a novel, my feelings and sense of outrage can find broader means of expression which would be more symbolic and applicable to many European countries... If a politician's job is to soothe people, to show that all's well because of his or her presence, mine is to disturb people, to sow the seeds of doubt."

Politics, however, is just part of the world, and ultimately as much a game of shadow and fantasy as anything else. Tabucchi knows this, just as he knows that the dreams of an early twentieth-century Portuguese poet are tangible, even immortal. He needs both worlds, and while he must physically live within the confines of this one, his mind has infinite mobility. In his imagination, he meets his master on even ground.

Where do they meet? Why not where they first met, in "The Tobacco Shop"?

Imagine Pessoa in the chair of Alberto de Campos, writing "The Tobacco Shop." Imagine Tabucchi, as the customer Esteves, who has entered the shop. Pessoa looks out his window.

The man has come out of the Tobacco Shop (putting change into his pocket?).
Ah, I know him: it's the unmetaphysical Esteves.
(The Tobacco Shop Owner has come to the door.)
As if by divine instinct, Esteves turns around and sees me.
He waves hello, I shout back "Hello, Esteves!" and the universe Falls back into place without ideals and hopes, and the Owner of the Tobacco Shop smiles.

 

For Further Reading:

Antonio Tabucchi.
Requiem: A Hallucination.

Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
New Directions. 2002.
ISBN 0811215172

Antonio Tabucchi.
Pereira Declares.

Translated by Patrick Creagh
New Directions. 1997.
ISBN 0811213587

Fernando Pessoa & Co.
Selected Poems.

Translated by Richard Zenith
Grove Press. 1999.
ISBN 0802136273

 

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