He called himself a "nullity" and predicted he'd be famous only 50 years after his death. Now he is considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Another translation into hebrew of Fernando Pessoa is being published

Fernando Pessoa, by Almada Negreiros

Will the real Pessoa please stand up

PUBLISHED IN |  Jul 6, 06

They can pray over my coffin in Latin if they want to:
they can dance and sing around it if they wish.
I have no preference for a time when I shall no longer be able to have preferences

– Alberto Caeiro (Transl. Hubert D. Jennings)

At 11 A.M. on December 2, 1935, a large number of poets were buried in a common grave in the “Cemetery of Pleasures” in Lisbon. No one knows exactly how many there were. Some say 72, others say more, still others maintain that we will never know the exact number. Among them were Alberto Caeiro, Alvaro de Campos and Ricardo Reis. They were not opponents of the regime who had been executed. Nor did they die of a mysterious disease which suddenly afflicted Lisbon. In fact, they were all imaginary characters who were lowered into the grave clinging to one another and crammed into the body of their father and progenitor, the “real” poet, Fernando Pessoa.

It all started as a joke. One day, while riding in a Lisbon tram, Pessoa saw a pharmacy bearing the name “Caeiro.” He jotted down a few lines on the tram ticket, and when he met a friend, told him that he had met a talented young poet named Alberto Caeiro. With his fertile imagination and well-developed sense of humor, Pessoa did not make do with the name alone; he invented a birth date, curriculum vitae, place of residence and physical build for Caeiro. He also created a literary genre for him. And a horoscope.

Indeed, Pessoa fathered a few dozen others like Caeiro. He dubbed them “heteronyms” (alter egos), a literary form that he invented. For Pessoa they were far more then imaginary characters who existed only in writing: They were present during every moment of his life. Effectively, they were him. On one occasion a friend knocked on his door. Pessoa, who wanted to be alone, opened it, looked at his friend and said: Fernando is not home. I am Alvaro de Campos. Then he added: When Fernando gets back, I will tell him you were here.

Lunatic? Genius? Mental case? It’s a bit hard to know, because this panoply of characters came to light only after Pessoa’s death in 1935, in a large trunk in his home. Pessoa put 27,000 poems and fragments in the trunk, some written on elegant paper, others on tickers or small scraps. He called himself a “nullity” and published only a few poems in his short life. “I will be famous only in another 50 years,” he wrote his mother.

He seems to have been right. In recent decades, interest in Pessoa has grown apace, to the point where he is now considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, along with James Joyce, Pablo Neruda and Federico Garcia Lorca. His poems have been translated into 37 languages, including Vietnamese and Latin, and a collection of poems by the heteronym Alvaro de Campos, entitled “What Did I Do with My Life?” has just been published in Hebrew by Carmel, translated by Rami Saari and Francisco da Costa Reis.

No importance or worth

A sculpture of Pessoa in Lisbon (photo: Maria Bonita)

A sculpture of Pessoa in Lisbon (photo: Maria Bonita)

I’m beginning to know myself. I don’t exist.
– Alvaro de Campos (Transl. Richard Zenith)

“I am also a total nullity,” says the translator da Costa Reis. “It is possible that over the years, my digging into Pessoa gave rise within me to the understanding that I am a nullity. I am a normal individual, an average person who is no different from other people. It may be getting into the realm of pathology, but I feel myself to have no importance or worth. A total nullity and that’s that.”

Da Costa Reis uttered these words – which could also have been spoken by Pessoa or written by one of his heteronyms – in fluent Hebrew. This 73-year-old “nullity” learned Hebrew by himself, first from a booklet he bought in Lisbon, called “Hebrew in Pictures,” and then from the Bible. Over the years he forged ties with Israelis, corresponded with them, and eventually hooked up with the translator, critic and essayist Yoram Bronowski. He then started to translate from Hebrew to Portuguese and from Portuguese to Hebrew. Having learned the language from books, da Costa Reis speaks a high-flown, archaic Hebrew that is rarely heard today.

“I voice my words with formidable lucidity,” he says, “but Pessoa was a great faker. In the recesses of his heart, he knew he was a genius. Because of a type of insanity he told himself that he was not worth anything. But in my eyes he was one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. His work contains everything. He is universal and he talks about questions that the common man can ask.”

Perhaps it was the very recognition of his unimportance that made Pessoa such a towering poet, a person it is so easy to identify with. It was none other than the deconstruction into dozens of personae that created such a total being, one who subsumes all feelings simultaneously. As Pessoa writes under the name of Alvaro de Campos in “Poem in a Straight Line”:

I, so often without patience to take a bath,
I, who’ve been so ridiculous, so absurd, (…)
I’m convinced no one’s better than I at this sort of game

(Transl. Edwin Honig)

Fernando Pessoa was born in 1881 in Lisbon. When he was five his father died and his mother married a Portuguese diplomat, who was posted abroad in South Africa when Pessoa was eight. Pessoa returned to Lisbon at the age of 17 and hardly ever left the city again. He lived very modestly and avoided taking full-time jobs. He translated commercial publications on a part-time basis and spent most of his time at home, involved in a constant search for himself.

This is actually quite amazing, because the poems of Alvaro de Campos describe the seashore and the waves, the ports of Singapore and Port Said, the landscapes of India and China, even though the poet never visited any of these places. The best way to travel, he wrote, is to feel. His rich inner world seems to have been enough for him; socially he was considered an abject failure. Like a lone theater actor, without makeup and without a stage, Pessoa sat himself down at his desk, alone in the room, and slipped in and out of identities.

He had one known relationship with a woman, Ophelia Queiroz, whom he met in late 1919 or early 1920. In press interviews she gave in the 1980s she related that she participated with him in his sophisticated identity games. On one occasion he addressed her in writing as Alvaro de Campos and asked her to stop seeing Fernando Pessoa. Their relationship was terminated at the end of 1920. The relationship was renewed eight years later for a brief period, at the end of which he wrote her, “My life revolves around my literary work, whether it is good or bad. All the rest in life is merely of secondary importance. I love you very much … If I marry, it will be only with you.”

Depressive person

Pessoa (photo: Grafiti Land)

Pessoa (photo: Grafiti Land)

I am nothing.
I shall always be nothing.
I can only want to be nothing.
Apart from this, I have in me all the dreams in the world.

– Alvaro de Campos (Transl. Suzette Macedo)

“Pessoa is a unique case in world literature,” says Dr. Jose Blanco, an eminent authority on Pessoa who owns one of the largest collections of the poet’s works. “He emerged from nowhere and was barely published in his lifetime, even though he wrote all the time. To this day not all of his texts have been published, and new texts of his are still being discovered. A first annotated edition of his writings came out 10 years ago. To me it seems as though he is continuing to write from heaven, maybe by fax.

“He was quite well known in literary circles,” according to Blanco, “but during his life he published only one book. After returning from South Africa he left Portugal only once, to visit the Azores. Apart from that, he barely left the precincts of himself. Nor do we know of any connection he had with other writers elsewhere.

“He wrote his heteronyms concurrently. It’s not that there was a certain period in his life when he was Alvaro de Campos and another in which he was Ricardo Reis. He was simultaneously all those people. Sometimes he wrote in the name of 30 or 40 heteronyms on the same day. So people thought he was schizophrenic, mentally deranged. But clinically, the key diagnosis is whether the person is in control of all these personae, or whether they erupt from him contrary to his will and beyond his control. In Pessoa it was clearly under control, as though by invitation.”

In any event, Pessoa was considered a very depressive person. In 1907 he experienced a profound mental crisis and wrote to a few of his friends in South Africa as a psychiatrist seeking information about Pessoa’s mental condition. In 1914 he suffered from serious depression while writing “The Book of Disquiet,” a prose work. A year later his condition worsened, and he wrote to a friend that he felt depressed and in the grip of terror. Another year passed and he wrote to the friend that he was “at the bottom of abysmal depression.”

Blanco believes that one of the reasons for Pessoa’s permanent state of melancholy was his separation from his mother, along with her serious illness and then her death, in 1925. His death, at the age of 47, is attributed to his alcohol addiction.

One of the fascinating aspects of Pessoa is his late blooming – mostly post mortem. “Objectively,” Blanco says, “Pessoa is the greatest poet of all time. He is the inventor of modernism and postmodernism. You have to remember that technically his texts were published late, because he never bothered to publish them and [because of] the difficulty of identifying them. Even Bernard Pivot [host of a renowned French cultural program] asked with ridicule 10 years ago, ‘Who is Pessoa?’ and afterward apologized on a special program in Lisbon, saying he agreed with the categorization of Pessoa as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century.

“But Pessoa was also far ahead of his time. His writing has something of Kafka, of Joyce and of Borges, but it is very difficult to define him. He is an existentialist, a surrealist, a postmodernist. One can find in his work literary phenomena which appeared much later. His poems are read as easily at the end of the 20th century as they were at its beginning. [The Italian writer] Antonio Tabucchi, who translated some of Pessoa’s poems into Italian, said once that at the far end of Europe, alone in a room, sat a man who foresaw the future.”

‘Music to my ears’

Pessoa (photo: Colares&Arte)

Pessoa (photo: Colares&Arte)

All lovers have kissed one another in my soul,
All vagrants have slept on me for a moment,
All the scorned have leaned for an instant on my shoulder …

– Alvaro de Campos (Transl. Richard Zenith)

Alvaro de Campos, Rami Saari writes in the introduction to the new Hebrew collection, is “the middle, and in a certain sense also the central work, among the three works of the main heteronyms Pessoa created.” De Campos, as described by Pessoa, is an individual without constraints, who has traveled widely – a kind of international dandy, who smoked opium and sniffed cocaine and consumed alcohol and morphine, and had affairs with men and women. His poems contain existential pain, sadomasochistic fantasies and a deep awareness of man’s feeble ability to modify the reality around him. De Campos wrote about his feelings of alienation, loneliness and separateness, which are all perhaps summed up in the straightforward, but painful question: What did I do with my life?

“All the virtues of the translation must be credited to Rami Saari,” says da Costa Reis. “I am no more than an apprentice translator. I did targilumim” – a Hebrew word coined by da Costa Reis, yoking together the words for “translations” and “exercises” – “meaning translation exercises, raw translations. I engaged in a literal translation as close as possible to the original. After that the responsibility for the translation ceased to be mine. Rami turned the raw material, by means of a comparison with the Portuguese original, into a correct translation. I am quite aware of my limitations in the Hebrew language, and I left the truly important work to him. I tried my hand at rhyming, but it seemed awkward, so I stopped. My knowledge in Hebrew is sketchy and superficial.”

The source of da Costa Reis’ connection to Hebrew and to the Jewish people lies in World War II. His father helped the children of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a Portuguese diplomat who saved Jewish children in the war. “The connection with Mendes generated within me an affinity for the Jewish people,” he explains, “and it deepened afterward, with the knowledge of what happened to the Jewish people in the Holocaust and the Zionist enterprise of the people of Israel in its homeland. Then came an interest in the deep and magnificent history and in the spiritual treasures – Bible, Talmud, Midrash, and all the way to Eliezer Ben Yehuda [reviver of the Hebrew language] and Haim Nachman Bialik [Israel’s “national poet”]. All this fused together to forge in me a close and deep bond with the Jewish people.”

He spent most of his adult life teaching biology in schools in the Portuguese provinces. “There are no Portuguese that I know who are capable of expressing themselves in Hebrew,” says da Costa Reis. “Only rarely, when I meet staff of the Israeli embassy in Lisbon, or a tourist who chances to visit the city I live in, Leiria, a remote city in the center of Portugal, can I exercise my profound desire to speak in Hebrew.”

He says of the language that its “sound is absolutely music to my longing and attentive ears,” and he is trying with all his might to improve his Hebrew. He is quite pleased with his guttural het, which he took from Spanish, but does not yet feel he has achieved the correct enunciation of a guttural ayin. “I asked a few people how to pronounce the letter ayin as it should be, and did not receive a satisfactory reply.”

He is also trying his hand at Hebrew slang, though without much success, he admits. “In a regular everyday conversation, my interlocutor speaks fluent Hebrew, and I cannot understand everything he is saying. I received as a gift a dictionary of current Israeli slang. Much of the slang is a literal translation from the English, and I do not dare utter the words in decent circumstances. I must say that when it comes to abuse and reviling others, you have a very well-developed vocabulary, which would make the most avowed hooligan in Portugal turn green with envy.”

Da Costa Reis has translated Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua into Portuguese, and notes that, paradoxically, he finds it easier to translate from Portuguese into Hebrew, rather than the opposite. “Portuguese is very developed in terms of its vocabulary,” he explains. “Therefore, it is easier for me to translate into Hebrew, because Portuguese has so many synonyms and you have to make a choice. In Hebrew the choice is very limited, so the translation is easier. In Portuguese one has to choose very carefully in order to convey accurately the original meaning.”

No, he says, he is far from feeling that he too is a kind of Pessoa heteronym. “Maybe a shabby character in one of his poems, no more. I do not purport to be anyone worthy.” But da Costa Reis does identify a line of resemblance between him and Pessoa: the ongoing sadness of every Portuguese.

“We have a very widespread sense of sadness in Portugal,” he notes. “After the sea route to India was discovered we remained jobless in history. We are a marginal nation, albeit with a culture that is not marginal in the least. We are well aware of the disparity between the advantages of the literary level of Portugal and our poor economic situation, and we have shed quite a few illusions along the way. We in Portugal are very pessimistic about our future and about our economic situation. In the end, we never left the rubbish heap of Europe.”

“I belong to those in Portugal who after India’s discovery were left without a role. Only death was and is and will go on taking its toll.” In Portuguese, da Costa Reis says, it sounds better.