Tag Archives: Portuguese literature

Just Another Lover

“[…], and normality, needless to say, means, purely and simply, dying when our time comes. Dying and not getting caught up in arguments about whether that death was ours from birth, or if it was merely passing by and happened to notice us.”
—José Saramago, Death With Interruptions (79)


Poor death, she just can’t get it right. But in José Saramago’s lyrical book Death With Interruptions she is a character with whom the reader can not help developing a feeling of deep sympathy. The novel opens when she impulsively decides to suspend killing people which causes endless chaos and palpitations within the government and religious institutions, not to mention the undying and living. The philosophers are the only ones that get any satisfaction from the predicament, as is usually the case, I think.

“It’s called metamorphosis, everyone knows that, said the apprentice philosopher condescendingly, That’s a very fine-sounding word, full of promises and certainties, you say metamorphosis and move on, it seems you don’t understand that words are the labels we stick on things, not the things themselves, you’ll never know what their real names are, because the names you give them are just that, the names you give them,” (76)

Saramago takes his time describing the consequences of death’s whim. The story is told from a narratorial voice of an omniscient we. It’s unnerving. And so it shouldn’t be surprising that when death finally makes a personal appearance as the protagonist heroine of the story, the reader, or at least this reader, is happy for the intimacy.

When death comes to understand the complications that have ensued from her decision to put an end to her work, she resumes her defining job, but with the small added curtesy of notifying each individual with a week’s notice of their impending end. Her endearing attempts to be polite and get it right are not appreciated, alas. But what does death know of the livings’ attachment to life?

“Meanwhile, in her hotel room, death is standing naked before the mirror. She doesn’t know who she is.” (229)

How death comes to be in a naked body standing in front of a mirror is the second half of the story. And it is a love story. Death’s awkwardness and insecurity as a lover is pure Saramago genius, speaking to the awkward insecure lover in us all. Saramago’s scenarios are Borges-like, but his temperament is his own: gentle, unassuming, and heart-achingly sweet.

Death With Interruptions is a tender and moving tale which centers life—life which we of course understand is always already a sort of dying—on love. It is love, Saramago whispers into our ears, that interrupts death.

Out of the Deleatur

What torments people have to go through when they leave the safety of their homes to become embroiled in mad adventures.
—José Saramago, All the Names, (88)


Anyone who is familiar with the writing of José Saramago will know that he has a distinct style and tone. All the same, as I read All the Names I was struck by the very strong similarity to a children’s book of his that I read to my youngest son a few years back, The Tale of the Unknown Island. The stories are of course different, but the phrasing and word choice is very like. I became convinced that they must have been written in proximity to each other and, how exciting! I was right—as it turns out, Saramago wrote both stories in the same year—1997.

That’s what has happened to me, he added, inside my head, and probably inside everyone’s head, there must be a kind of autonomous thought that thinks for itself, that decides things without the participation of any other thought (52)

Saramaga eschews quotation marks altogether, marking a change of speaker by a comma and a mid-sentence capital letter. His prose come practically paragraph-free (a typesetter’s dream my good friend and typesetter tells me—now that I think of it, he is the one who suggested I read this book—we share a love of Saramago). Saramago’s books take place in the interior of his character’s minds and standard punctuation has no place there. Once you are in his books there is an undisturbed flow to it all—you are next to the narrator, falling in love with his patient, wry, and kind voice.

“It is well known that the human mind very often makes decisions for reasons it clearly does not know, presumably because it does so after having travelled paths of the mind at such speeds that, afterwards, it cannot recognise those paths, let alone find them again” (12).

Both The Tale of the Unknown Island and All the Names deal with the same subject in the same way. In All the Names the protagonist is a man named José. He works in the kafka-esque atmosphere of the register’s office in all its magisterial pettiness and labyrinthical paper trails. Rather than embarking on an escapade to the unknown island, José is led, by himself—by the unfathomable mystery of his own mind’s logic— on an investigative search for the unknown woman. Why? he hardly knows. Why search for the unknown island when everyone knows it doesn’t exist? Why find the unknown woman when her existence is merely a clerical matter?

The phone book’s in there, I don’t feel like going into the Central Registry just now, You’re afraid of the dark, Not at all, I know that darkness like the back of my hand, You don’t even know the back of your hand, If that’s what you think, then just let me wallow in my ignorance, after all, the birds don’t know why they sing, but they still sing, You’re very poetic, No, just sad (55).

Thusly, José conducts conversations with himself throughout the story. The Tale of the Unknown Island is of course a tale about Love. Love is the unknown island that others scoff at and hold snide doubts about its very existence. The unknown woman of All the Names is the object and subject of Love. Saramago touches on the universal quality of Love that strikes like lightening individually. All the names of the unknown hoards of people deserve, want, and need Love. To deny that fact is to perform a depraved sort of deletion. Some delete themselves. And then, institutions, even those of record keeping—in their maniacal effort to keep track of individuals—erase the actual individual.

It doesn’t seem a very good rule in life to let yourself be guided by chance, Regardless of whether it’s a good rule or not, whether it’s convenient or not, it was chance that put that card in his hands, And what if the woman is the same one, If she is, then that was what chance offered, With no further consequences, Who are we to speak of consequences, when out of the interminable line of consequences that come marching ceaselessly towards us we can only ever distinguish the first (34)

In my lunch hour at my summer internship at the Met this past week, I happened upon one of the smaller shows that is currently on exhibit, About Face: Human Expression on Paper. The photo above is part of the exhibit. The photograph was taken by Hugh Welch Diamond in the mid-1800s. It is of a patient of the Surrey County Lunatic Asylum. At the time it was thought that insanity somehow presented itself in the physiognomy of the face and all manner of strange experiments, sometimes involving electrodes applied to various muscles of the face, were rather callously conducted. I find the photograph to be quite beautiful. Given the early-photgraphic era when it was taken, it is perhaps strange that she has a smile on her face, but if we didn’t know she was in an asylum one could invent entirely different circumstances around her life.  She is an unknown woman to me. But the connection that crosses the decades from the smile on her lips to mine is what makes us all feel alive to one another—it is Love writ large. That smile is not unknown to me. One of the most meaningful qualities of art and literature is that it fosters a feeling of human connections to one another. Art stands witness to our longing to connect and for not deleting ourselves or our desire to Love.  For the briefest moment I know and love that unknown woman. And, I know that I too am the unknown woman.

* title from p. 13: “it would not be the first time in the history of the deleatur that this had happened.”  Deleatur, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the proofreader’s mark that looks like a drunken Y and is from the Latin meaning “let it be deleted.”

That’s Not My Name

The fictions of my imagination (as it later developed) may weary me, but they don’t hurt or humiliate. Impossible lovers can’t possible cheat on us, or smile at us falsely, or be calculating in their caresses. They never forsake us, and they don’t die or disappear. – Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet (142)

nhIt’s such a nice day that I don’t even feel like dreaming. I enjoy it with all the sincerity of my senses, to which my intelligence bows. (128)

The pressure of always having to explain ourselves is immense. This is a constant struggle in my life. Fernando Pessoa is a man that rejected the premise and yet embraced the challenge. The Book of Disquiet, which has quite captured me,  is a book of internal concerns, but whose? The more I read the more I am curious to know the man- Pessoa. Not the projected heteronyms that he is famous for, but the man. I have the feeling he would be impossible to know, and would start to make one doubt knowing anything at all.

And yet, I know that feeling. There is the me here, and the me there. The me that my friends see, and the me that wants to be. Late at night, as I struggle with my covers and contemplate whether or not I am cold or have to pee, there is sometimes-  just me. The ridiculousness of this situation, which is essentially life,  is what Pessoa perfectly captures.

My God, My God, who am I watching? How many am I? Who is I? What is this gap between me and myself? (187)

Perhaps because I am a woman who has had more than one name, I am more keenly sensitive to the point. There are four that accompany me. But if I only take the first, Jessica- there are many variations. I am Jessica, and yet that is the name that I associate with being in trouble. Jess is short and somewhat dismissive. Only one person ever called me Jessie, I could have loved him just for that, but he did not press the point. I think if Fernando Pessoa had been named Frank he would not have been capable of the identity shifts that he excelled in.

And since I now know beforehand that every vague hope will end in disillusion, I have special delight of already enjoying the disillusion with the hope, like the bitter with the sweet that makes the sweet sweeter by way of contrast. (169)

I’m not at all sure who wrote this book. It’s that voice inside you that is a water tap left on- the one that wants to retreat so far from it all that it is not even a matter of wanting or not wanting to have hope. It is the space above where there is no wanting or not wanting: that is the feeling that is fully articulated in this mesmerizing compilation of  musings.

Inside, things are different than they appear outside. Pessoa uses a single stream of focus to drive this point home. If I take a little bit of me and run, run, run away with it- but would I have the nerve?  I could not be so selfish to devote myself to the absolute fleshing out of all my facets. I am sure they are not that interesting, not even to me. But Pessoa insists they are. His, mine and yours. It is our parts that join us. I am all these things and none of them too.

Today I was struck by an absurd but valid sensation. I realized, in an inner flash, that I’m no one. (227)

Time for a Dolorous Interlude:

Reductio ad absurdum is one of my favorite drinks. (252)

Oh, I’ll drink to that.

* Penguin Classic edited and translated by Richard Zenith

Indifference or something like that

Solitude devastates me; company oppresses me. The presence of another person derails my thoughts; I dream of the other’s presence with a strange absent-mindedness that no amount of my analytical scrutiny can define.
– Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet


I have a very pretty copy of Marcus Aurelious’ Meditations. The stoic message has  provided some succor to my mind over the course of my adult life. Although, lately I found the philosophy wanting; the insupportable  prejudices and limitations that we are all suppose to approach with the long view of historical relativism makes me impatient, and the connotations of a philosophy that is rational to the point of emotionlessness leaves me cold as I labor to seek warmth in my life.  I think I prefer to feel this life, this body, this day.

This is of course a gross simplification of Aurelius’ philosophy, which still resonates with me on many levels, I only bring it up to explain why I am so intrigued with the Portuguese poet and writer, Fernando Pessoa. As I read his strange and fascinating musings The Book of Disquiet, I am constantly brought back to Aurelius. There seems to me a direct connection and conversation between the two thousand year span. Pessoa’s meditations are of the disquieting push-pull of disconnection. Yet, as much as it might annoy Aurelius, if he debased himself enough to feel annoyed- which he wouldn’t, they read similar to me:

The truly wise man is the one who can keep external events from changing him in any way. To do this, he covers himself with an armour of realities closer to him than the world’s facts and through which the facts, modified accordingly, reach him. – The Book of Disquiet (94)

Among the truths you will do well to contemplate most frequently are these two: first, that things can never touch the soul, but stand outside it, so that disquiet can arise only from fancies within; and secondly, that all visible objects change in a moment, and will be no more. – Meditations (Book IV, 3)

It’s like a street corner philosophy slam. Pessoa agrees with Aurelius that one shouldn’t confuse body with imagination, but Pessoa then says- to hell with body, your imagination is preferably sufficient. Live there. It seems to me a logical conclusion of Stoicism. Nothing can touch your soul. But wait -I forget, why don’t we want our souls to be touched? Aurelius might just ignore me and think I was a womanly pain in the ass for asking such a question. Maybe I am. But Pessoa is a pain in the ass too. He might look up from his inner reverie and see me for a moment.

Pessoa’s beautifully rendered “factless autobiography” in which he outlines his proud yet regretful removal of himself  from the physical world is similar to Meditations, but Pessoa’s meditations are of a modern profound disgust.

All this stupid insistence on being self-sufficient! All this cynical awareness of pretended sensations! All this imbroglio of my soul with these sensations, of my thoughts with the air and the river – all just to say that life smells bad and hurts me in my consciousness. All for not knowing how to say, as in that simple and all-embracing phrase from the Book of Job, “My soul is weary of my life!” – The Book of Disquiet (77)

Yet the capacity for sensation belongs also to the stalled ox…- Meditations (Book III, 16)

Where Aurelius is sublimating, Pessoa depresses the exaltation. But they end up near the same place. Somewhere on the arch they overlap. In a way, Pessoa is more honest in the inevitable difficulties and contradictions of any strict ideology.

There’s more subtlety in my self-contradiction (115)

Pessoa’s prose are so relentlessly sad and capitulating, I find them very uplifting and amusing. I accept that that just may be my macabre sense of humor- I can not compete with his haughty revolt against the physical world. Pessoa wins. But I do love him.

I’m one of those souls women say they love but never recognize when they meet us – one of those that they would never recognize, even if they recognize us. (101)

And he mocks me. That’s okay, maybe I’m one of those souls that men say they love but don’t, so we are equals, Señor Pessoa and I.

*Title from chapter 124 (Chapter on indifference or something like that)

Penguin Classics edited and translated by Richard Zenith