Existential Nausea, Anyone? A Book Review for Our Time!
Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa was a man of many voices. Throughout his life he created “heteronyms,” alternate selves who had their own distinct set of beliefs and backstories. A large trunk of unfinished and unpublished writing was left behind upon his death in 1935.
Among the contents of this trunk was a collection of writing that would make up Pessoa’s postmortem opus, The Book of Disquiet.
First published fifty years after the author’s death, the book is attributed to Bernardo Soares, a humble assistant bookkeeper in Lisbon, and one of Pessoa’s many alternate selves. This book has no set storyline, no references to outside events. Rather, the contents of the book are short passages on philosophical topics with a few story fragments spaced here and there. Think of it as the hybrid between a journal and a collection of prose poems united by brief ideas.
Pessoa uses Soares to convey his own thoughts on mortality and the brevity of life, along with issues such as loneliness and anomie. Pessoa is brilliant at capturing and describing the existential nausea that Soares feels as he tries to desperately search for meaning and purpose in life. Dreams and imagination are consistently present throughout the book, as Soares often dreams wildly inventive fantasies to escape the boredom of his life.
The book, while exponentially sad, is also life-affirming, and filled with hope. The author concentrates on what is essential in one’s life, that being our emotions and beliefs—the traits that truly make us who we are. In a way, the book is about the writing process, and how literature is a distinctive art form.
This work is also a powerful reminder of the trials and tribulations that all of us face in our day to day lives as we fight the forces of boredom, loneliness, and alienation. There’s often the stigma surrounding solitary people that they are troubled, and that there have to be solutions to fix that problem. But perhaps there isn’t any solution; perhaps we just need to accept it as what it is. For anyone interested in art, or the whole human condition, I strongly recommend they check it out.