Everything and Nothing

Portuguese Novelist and Poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935)

Portuguese Novelist and Poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935)

Come on, ’fess up! When was the last time you ever read any Portuguese literature?

Chances are, you probably never dipped into José Saramago, Eça de Queirós, or—greatest of all—Fernando Pessoa. The author of The Book of Disquiet, an amorphous work that is one of the masterpieces of 20th century literature, wrote under some seventy different names. Below is a sample of his poetry, which he wrote under the name of Álvaro de Campos, entitled “The Tobacco Shop.” Like all of his work, it is simultaneously about everything and nothing.

I’m nothing.
I’ll always be nothing.
I can’t want to be something.
But I have in me all the dreams of the world.

Windows of my room,
The room of one of the world’s millions nobody knows
(And if they knew me, what would they know?),
You open onto the mystery of a street continually crossed by people,
A street inaccessible to any and every thought,
Real, impossibly real, certain, unknowingly certain,
With the mystery of things beneath the stones and beings,
With death making the walls damp and the hair of men white,
With Destiny driving the wagon of everything down the road of nothing.

It is only with the fourth line of the second stanza that Pessoa mentions the tobacco shop, a prosaic place opening onto a street fronting onto the world of “stones and beings.”

Pessoa might seem to have had a weak sense of personhood, but he left behind a rich and multifarious literary reality which cries out to be mined.