I recently returned from a visit to Lisbon, the capital of Portugal and one of the oldest cities in the world. It's a beautiful, modern city with much to recommend: mild weather, friendly people and great cuisine.
Visitors to Lisbon encounter a series of images that celebrate the city's culture over and over again: trolley cars, sardines and a bespectacled figure with a mustache and a hat who looks like a cross between Charlie Chaplin and James Joyce. This is Portugal's great poet Fernando Pessoa.
That's a question that has dogged scholars and critics since Pessoa's passing in 1935. Although Pessoa is beloved in Lisbon he is largely unread outside of it. While there's a great deal that is known about the writer, there is even more that remains shrouded in mystery.
Following the death of his father when he was five, Pessoa moved to South Africa where he became fluent in English and gained an appreciation for English literature. Upon his return to Portugal ten years later, he entered literary life as an essayist, poet and translator and helped launched the short-lived literary magazine, Orpheu, which was years ahead of its time and brought Modernism to Portugal.
But Pessoa's literary work didn't pay the bills and for the rest of his relatively short life he worked for various business concerns in downtown Lisbon as an accountant, clerk and translator. When he died he was an alcoholic and close to penniless and had published just one book of poetry, Mensagem , in his native tongue.
So how did an unknown poet become synonymous with a city the way that James Joyce embodies Dublin and Raymond Chandler animates Los Angeles?
When Pessoa died he left behind a massive trunk that contained more than 25,000 pages of various manuscripts that has produced some fascinating discoveries.
Pessoa (whose name in English means "people") employed scores of heteronyms for his work. He didn't just make up pseudonyms: He invented identities who wrote in distinct styles.
For instance, Alberto Caeiro was a poet who authored a number of books and held views that sharply contrasted with Pessoa's, Ricardo Reis was a poet and a critic who specialized in the work of Alberto Caeiro, and Bernardo Soares was a prose writer whose moody meditations on daily life in Lisbon were posthumously collected under the title of The Book of Disquiet:
"After the last of the rain had fallen from the sky and come to earth—leaving the sky clear and the earth damp and gleaming—the world below grew joyful in the cool left by the rain, and the greater clarity of life that returned with the blue of the heavens furnished each soul with its own sky, each heart with a new freshness."
With lines like that it's easy to see how Soares/Pessoa captured the hearts of minds of Lisboans. Here was a man who walked the same streets and marveled at the same stars, returning to his humble apartment to pen his thoughts without hope of seeing them published only to return to work the next day to do it all over again. But his message was not always so uplifting.
"Everything is us and we are everything, but what is the point if everything is nothing? A ray of sun, a cloud whose own sudden shadow warns of its coming, a breeze getting up, the silence that follows when it drops, certain faces, some voices, the easy smiles as they talk, and then the night into which emerge, meaningless, the broken hieroglyphs of the stars."
While sifting through the dozens of disparate personas that both populate and author the pages of Pessoa's trunk has been a challenge for scholars, it continues to produce surprises. In 1992, Pessoa's guidebook for Lisbon, What the Tourist Should See , due to Lisbon's great character, remains a popular and useful guide—even though it was unpublished during his lifetime.
Pessoa was also interested in the occult. He translated a number of theosophist texts, cultivated a relationship with Aleister Crowley, and composed meticulously thorough astrological charts for select friends and even his heteronyms, which prompts an interesting question: did Pessoa believe he was channeling Caeiro, Reis and Soares when he was composing their poetry and prose?
When Walt Whitman famously wrote, "I contain multitudes" in Song of Myself , he was speaking metaphorically. But Fernando Pessoa, Lisbon's everyman, truly did contain a multitude of personas, and you don't have to go all the way to Portugal to discover them.