Portugal is the theme of this year's Frankfurt book fair but it has produced few writers of significance. C A R Hills explains how the work of Fernando Pessoa has sparked a Portuguese renaissanceby CAR Hills / October 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Portuguese is one of the great languages of the world. From its small country of origin, it has spread through half the South American continent. It is also widely spoken in Africa, and was formerly a lingua franca in Asia. As we approach the millennium, it has almost 200m native speakers. Because of the growing population of Brazil, it has a potential for expansion shared by no other languages save Spanish and English.
But this hold on the world has not been matched by a corresponding literary or cultural impact. “The Portuguese language is the graveyard of thought,” wrote the early Romantic, Alexandre Herculano; the following two centuries seem to have proved him right. There have been no Nobel prizes for literature in Portuguese.
One or two writers have been on the edge of breaking through: E?a de Queiroz, the late 19th-century novelist, and Machado de Assis, his “modernist” Brazilian contemporary. But the boom in Latin American literature in the 1960s omitted Brazil.
In the last decade, however, one Portuguese-language writer has emerged as a world figure. He is the poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), whose surname is the Portuguese word for “person.” In him, Portuguese culture has found its Mr Person, unknown during his lifetime, yet of startling originality.
In his Western Canon, Harold Bloom named Pessoa as one of the 26 most significant western writers since the middle ages. Bloom says that what links the 26 writers is, above all, strangeness, “a mode of originality which either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.” This indeed applies to Pessoa.
Pessoa was born into the Portuguese elite, but the circumstances of his life conspired to turn him into an outsider. His father died when he was still a child, his mother remarried, and the family went to live in South Africa. Pessoa’s education was thus entirely in English, and it has been said of him that he combines an Anglo-Saxon intellect with a Portuguese sensibility. Although a brilliant student, he had few friends at Durban High School, and at the age of 17 returned alone to Lisbon, rarely to leave it again.
His university studies foundered, a publishing venture failed, and he settled down as a commercial translator from English and French. It was not prestigious work, but it allowed him a certain freedom. Those who knew him remembered him,…