Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Antonio Tabucchi's "The Last Three Days of Fernando Pessoa" - with bonus lobster recipe

How could I resist the Tabucchi book with Fernando Pessoa right there in the title?  The Last Three Days of Fernando Pessoa (1994) is really a short story, only about thirty little pages in the City Lights volume, where it accompanies Dreams of Dreams.  The Pessoa story is a good companion since it is really just another fictional dream (“A Delirium” is the story’s subtitle), another way for the author to play with his most beloved literary toys.

This delirium is the sanest, least delirious delirium I have encountered.  Pessoa is in the hospital and receives a series of visitors, poets, mostly, all great admirers of Pessoa.  The visitors are all imaginary, Pessoa’s heteronyms, the characters he created in a wild burst of creative activity circa 1914 that resulted in the ingenious and perplexing body of writing I have been reading and messing around with off and on over the past year:  the pastoral poet Alberto Caeiro, the energetic Álvaro de Campos, the skeptical neo-pagan Ricardo Reis, the prosaic Bernardo Soares, and the mad philosopher António Mora, who I have not really read.  I am not sure that he got much down on paper.

Each heteronym makes his farewell to his creator, poignantly, sometimes, as when Caeiro gives Pessoa a final poem, or more comically, as when Soares brings Pessoa a bowl of his favorite tripe soup, likely knowing that Pessoa had no appetite and he would be able to eat the soup himself.  Reis is given permission to write more poems:

But they will be apocryphal poems, Ricardo Reis replied.

It doesn’t matter, said Pessoa, the apocryphal does no harm to poetry, and my work is so vast that it accommodates even apocryphal poems.

Is this a nod to José Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis?

Tabucchi, in each episode, is interpreting Pessoa.  The story is a covert form of literary criticism.  Caeiro, for example, the poet who inspired all of the others, is revealed to be Pessoa’s father who died when Pessoa was five.  Or, really, a self-generated psychological substitute for his absent father:

The fact is that I needed a guide and coagulant – I don’t know if I’m making myself clear – otherwise my life would have shattered into pieces.  Thanks to you I found cohesion, it’s really I who chose you to be my father and master.

Not that any of this is necessary to enjoy Pessoa’s work.  It is all play.

Soares brings not just soup but a recipe for lagosta suada, sweaty lobster.  How this does not by itself bring a dying man back to life is a mystery of existence:

You need butter, three onions, tomatoes, and a bit of garlic, oil, white wine, a little aged aguardente, which I know you like [a little joke about Pessoa’s alcoholism], two wine glasses of dry port, a dash of hot pepper, black pepper, and nutmeg.   First, you steam the lobster, just a little.  Then you add the ingredients I gave you and put it in the oven.  I don’t know why it’s called “sweaty,” probably because it produces a very tasty broth.

What any of this will mean to a reader unfamiliar with Pessoa and his creations is beyond me.

Many thanks to Caroline for declaring Antonio Tabucchi week!  Many more Tabucchi books should be appearing at her site and scattered around book blogdom.


  1. A delirium. It's interesting how he gives his dreams and hallucinations very precise and very different subtitles. I'm sure a second reading - for me- would reveal more of the differences between his imaginations. I don't think he chose those subtitles lightly.
    Thanks for another great post and this time with a recipe that sounds nice even to me. No offal or pork!
    I start to see Tabucchi as my entrance to Pessoa as I failed to join your readalong.
    I think something I really appreciate in Tabucchi's work is this opening of doors. He will always mention something or someone that one wants to explore afterwards.

  2. Based upon your commentary Tom, as well as commentary from Miguel over at his blog,as well as the connections with Tabucchi, I too am now interested in Fernando Pessoa. I have not yet read him but hope to soon. I agree with Caroline's comments about opening doors. I find that this is true with so many books and authors.

    Focusing on the last three days of another author's life like this is another intriguing concept. Tabucchi seems to be bursting with these good ideas.

    1. The best start is The Book of Disquiet, existentialism with lots of humor.

      Tom, I really don't like the idea of Alberto Caeiro being a substitute father, especially after what I wrote you about the Caeiro/Carneiro connection. It seems like facile biographism and psychoanalysis.

  3. An advantage of reading, and for Tabucchi writing, about Pessoa is that the concept of the heteronyms is so conceptually clear that it may not matter much whether you have actually read Pessoa. I seem to have written about this before, in a post titled "Conceptual Pessoa - no need to read him; just read about him."

    I mean, read Pessoa because he is good! But one can get the concept independently.

    Miguel, I cannot take the Caeiro-father equation seriously either. But: as self-psychoanalysis performed, perhaps deliriously, by a dying Pessoa, it is not so bad.

    I only half agree with The Book of Disquiet as a starting place. There are several good Pessoa collections available now, each offering a rewarding path through the maze. Caeiro and Campos are so good, Reis intensely interesting, the arguments among them often hilarious. If you cannot tell, I am looking back at the poems I put up in my earlier posts and having a good time.

    Some people just don't read poetry for some reason. For them, yes, The Book of Disquiet.

  4. It's difficult for me to come up with a writer who is so invested in another writer the way Tabucchi is with Pessoa. It's not that he's an imitator (easier to think of many cases like that), but that he seems to have absorbed Pessoa's interest in the fluidity and multiplicity of identity and taken it in intriguing directions. The Last Three Days of Fernando Pessoa is probably the lightest and most direct homage, a pleasing and nearly inevitable exercise, all one's multiple selves coming together to bid adieu.

    One of these days, for a special occasion, I am totally going to make that lobster recipe. You and all your heteronyms are invited.

  5. Scott, you exactly identify what I find so interesting about Tabucchi. It is a sort of inverted Pessoan idea - Tabucchi wills himself into becoming a Pessoan heteronym.

    I recently made a dish, with crab and fish replacing the lobster and cider replacing the port, that is a second cousin of the sweaty lobster.

    1. When I went through the thickest part of my Tabucchi mania last year and read everything I could get my hands on, what struck me was how different each of his books were from one another despite having a lot of similar themes and motifs. I began to think of his books themselves as the heteronyms.

      Good heavens I'm getting hungry.

    2. That's good, the books as heteronyms, better than my "becoming a heteronym" fantasia.

  6. Wow, guys, your discussion is absolutely fascinating. Next up on my reading list is The Book of Disquiet, and you're really making me look forward to it. Maybe afterwards I'll read this story by Tabucchi? I suppose I should start with Pessoa himself...

  7. Start with Pessoa himself, maybe. Maybe.

    Instead I recommend starting with these 20 posts on Pessoa, plus - these go first actually - these 4 posts on the Alberto Caeiro heteronym. The wisest thing would be to print them out, put them in order, and send them to an artisanal book binder. Tip: red leather with gilt lettering is timeless.

    Or perhaps spare yourself the grief and expense and try these two posts at of Scott's.