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The Book of Disquiet


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A better title might be The Books of Disquiet . Each entry in this fictional diary of one Bernardo Soares represents an attempt to create a distinct biography, for Soares lives according to the maxim: ``Give to each emotion a personality, to each state of mind a soul.'' Through every rumination he records Soares longs to father someone because he is ``nobody, absolutely nobody.'' His monotonous work as a bookkeeper in a Lisbon office and his solitary, celibate existence have contributed to the dissolution of his identity. Yet this grants him the ultimate imaginative freedom: ``Because I am nothing, I can imagine myself to be anything.'' One effect of this freedom is a sense of exhaustion before the sheer number of possibilities for being. Another is a sense--at once paternal and disturbingly erotic--of intimacy with the whole human race. Of sleep Soares muses: ``When someone sleeps they become a child. . . . I experience an immense, boundless tenderness for all of infantile humanity.'' More elegantly translated here than in the recent Pantheon edition, this novel presents paradoxes of identity that are more than just an occasion for meditation for Pessoa (1888-1935), one of Portugal's greatest writers and among this century's most enigmatic. They parallel Pessoa's own lived experience. He created several distinct personalities--called ``heteronyms''--through which he wrote in an astonishing variety of styles and even in different languages. Soares represents a ``semiheteronym,'' perhaps closest of all to the ``real'' Pessoa. Whoever Pessoa was, he managed to address through Soares's abstruse, at times excruciatingly precious musings the essential condition of human identity as represented in Western literature. Soares's separation from a common order might be the stuff of tragedy but for the fact that ``my self-imposed rupture with any contact with things, led me precisely to what I was trying to flee.'' For all his quixotic tilting at windmills, Soares admits: ``Whenever I see the figure of a young girl in the street . . . I wonder, however idly, how it would be if she were mine.'' Yet Sancho Panza's suit never hangs on Soares's skinny bones, and this is his dilemma. He is stalled between the poles of tragedy and comedy: ``I can be neither nothing nor everything: I'm just the bridge between what I do not have and what I do not want.'' And herein lies the reason for the multifarious forms of his--and our--disquiet. (Mar.)

Recognized as Portugal's greatest poet since Camoens, Pessoa (1888-1935) wrote poetry under various heteronyms to whom he attributed biographies different from his own. Likewise, this rich and rewarding notebook kept by the solitary, celibate, and semi-alcoholic Pessoa during the last two decades of his life, is written under yet another heteronym (Bernardo Soares), a Lisbon bookkeeper with a position that is like a siesta and a salary that allows him to go on living. Soares knows no pleasure like that of books, yet he reads little. Like Camus, he is irritated by the happiness of men who don't know they are wretched, and his main objective is to perceive tedium in such a way that it ceases to hurt. There are no gossipy details in this heteronymous memoir, only the cerebral workings of a first-rate thinker on the dilemma of life. Full of fresh metaphors and unique perceptions, The Book of Disquiet can be casually scanned and read profitably even at random.-- Jack Shreve, Allegany Community Coll., Cumberland, Md.

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