Review of The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa

ISBN 0141183047 (ISBN13: 9780141183046)

A very interesting book. No plot, no realistic characters, no dialogue. It’s not strictly philosophy, or poetry, or a diary. It is a mixture, a concoction. Aside from a few topical details, it might have been written by a Chinese, or an American, or anyone.

Did you ever have a thought, during your droll daily life, which at the time seemed to sum up your state of affairs perfectly. These flitting thoughts, so profound and appropriate, occasionally visit us, and then disappear. We can never remember them, and never write them down. Pessoa conjured those contemplative miracles seemingly at will, and compiled them on scraps of paper, hidden in a trunk, like notes he was leaving for future archaeologists.

Through aphorisms and abstract reflections, Pessoa plumbed the depths of the human psyche, explored relationships between his fellow men (and only occasionally mentioning women) and the Creator, whom he does not call by name or put all of his confidence in. He discusses the Portuguese poetry he peruses with the detached air of a casual reader, though one can only assume he has read much more widely than he lets on. It is necessary to remember that Pessoa always wrote under different pseudonyms, or heteronyms, as he called them, which proliferated in his mind like real personalities, and who were responsible for the other prose poetry he produced during his odd career.

Pessoa is not partial toward humanity or the cosmos. His attitude is difficult to pin down, but the ease with which he communicates deep subtleties is continually startling. You can revisit this book endlessly, I think, as I’m sure I will. It has a way of reminding you of the power within us to create. It is a balm and a pat on the back, when the plague-sores of life get you down, when you are under the pressures imposed by laws and conventions, the freedom Pessoa strives for, the freedom of the thinking man, giving his thoughts free reign, is invaluable. This applies to everyone, because in some circumstances, this freedom is the only freedom left to us.

As haphazard as this book appears on the surface, it is a finely polished work. Wandering thoughts were never so interesting as when they touch lightly on physical objects. The narrator regards the physical world like a composition of artistic set-pieces, endless in variety, and full of meaning. The simplest moments in this book can be the most moving, can keep you up at night, regarding your past like a series of visions.

I don’t think it’s possible to read this book without feeling something. Pessoa’s words slip in through the cracks, lodge themselves in your heart. There is treasure everywhere, he seems to tell us, in everything.

One of the most quotable books of all time, encompassing oceans of loneliness and love into one-page capsules. If anyone ever doubted the value of dreaming, look no further than this book. Communicated in spine-tingling whispers, messages you have always felt but never expressed, this book is a friend, an ally, and a light in the darkness.

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