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THE BOOK OF DISQUIET BY FERNANDO PESSOA

My life outside of work has become a kind of work, full of duties and responsibilities from which I long to escape. I’m always speaking banally to someone, with a contrived smile on my face; I’m always out in the evenings doing something, the purpose of which eludes me. During the week-days I sit at my work desk and dream, but not as I once did, not about walking out of the familiar door and down the familiar street and into the familiar building that I call home, when, finally, I can retreat into the familiar self. I now dream of unknown doors and streets and buildings and selves. These dreams, which for some would be meaningless without the nail of reality upon which they can hang, are superior to any of my external experiences, because they are at least mine; they are made from me, from my wild, painful yearnings.

Before I made a begrudging commitment to the social world, I spent many frustrated hours with The Book of Disquiet. Even though I had never been able to finish it, I was sure, whenever I picked it up, that it would connect with me at last. I tried various translations, with no success. I tried indulging it, reading only two or three pages a day, as one is usually advised, but the lack of momentum irritated me and my mind – which, unlike my body, was agile and hyperactive – became sluggish. So I put the book aside, permanently I believed, satisfied that I had given it every opportunity. Then, last week I returned to it, and on this occasion my experience was different, because I am different, or at least my day-to-day existence is. In it, I met my old self again, the version of me who had the luxury of contemplation; but perhaps more importantly than that, I found that its slow pulse complimented the hectic rhythm of my life.

“I suffer from life and from other people. I can’t look at reality face to face. Even the sun discourages and depresses me. Only at night and all alone, withdrawn, forgotten and lost, with no connection to anything real or useful — only then do I find myself and feel comforted.”

The Book of Disquiet was penned by Bernardo Soares, an assistant bookkeeper and unpublished poet and writer. He is described by Pessoa in his introduction, which is the one of the few concessions to literary conventions in the book, as ‘in his thirties, thin, fairly tall, very hunched when sitting though less so when standing, and dressed with a not entirely unselfconscious negligence.’ More tellingly, there is said to be ‘suffering apparent in his pale, unremarkable features.’ What follows this introduction is Soares’ journal [of sorts]; yet he doesn’t narrate the events of his life, rather, he scrutinises himself, his thoughts and feelings, with the intensity of a jealous lover. It is, he states, ‘better to think than to live.’ And what one can glean about Soares’ activities from his writing proves that this isn’t simply a smart epigram. He is, as noted, only an assistant bookkeeper and is therefore not exactly prospering in his career. Moreover, on the few occasions he does look outside of himself, when he takes a walk for example, he is never with company. He appears not to have any friends, or even acquaintances, of note. He is, we’re told, a man who wants to be ignored, and his wish has evidently been granted.

However, there is an unrelenting atmosphere of disappointment, of fatalism, hanging over the book that is at odds with Soares’ assertion that he ‘rejects life because it is a prison sentence,’ as though it is a choice he has made happily and entirely on his own terms. So while he claims to be ‘sickened by others,’ he also admits to feeling a tenderness for the people he crosses paths with, especially those who work in the same office. In another significant entry he describes the moment when the office photographs are revealed and he is, rather comically, told that his, which he thinks makes him look like a ‘dull Jesuit,’ is a perfect likeness. This feeling of embarrassment, or shame, indicates to me that it does matter to him what others think, that he isn’t revelling in being a nothing, for if you don’t want to be a social being you would not care about your appearance.  The Book of Disquiet is not, therefore, a celebration of isolation and the pleasure of one’s own company, as some would have it. Soares is a frightened, sensitive, unhappy, and self-loathing individual, who, in my opinion, hasn’t confidently rejected life; if anything, it has rejected him.

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One of the issues with the book is that there are occasions when the entries seem less like profound soul searching and more like adolescent whining. Soares writes, for example, of the boring futility of each identical day, of feeling suffocated, of being sick of himself, and the self pity is so tangible that it can test one’s patience. It would be tempting to excuse Pessoa his lapses in the same way that some critics do with Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which is to argue that the bad is intentionally bad, but it seems like a stretch to me. Soares is, remember, a poet and a writer, and it is said that Pessoa made him such in order to explain his ability to write so impressively [for the greater part of the book]. However, one should not overlook the fact that The Book of Disquiet was never completed to the author’s satisfaction. It was, so legend has it, put together out of various bits and pieces of prose found in a trunk after his death, and therefore some of them may not have made the cut had Pessoa been in charge of proceedings.

What prevents The Book of Disquiet from being itself too suffocating is the beauty, and sometimes positivity, one encounters in Soares’ writings about the power, richness and scope of his own imagination. It is there, inside himself, that he is free. In fact, the ‘splendour’ of his inner life is not only in direct contrast to the tedium of his external experiences, it is, he claims, actually a consequence of it. It is his being a ‘nonentity’ that allows him to dream so extravagantly, because these dreams are ‘a negation of and a flight from’ the monotony of his daily existence. Often when people use the words ‘dream’ or ‘imagination’ they are referring to mere memory, to mental recreations of existent places, people and things. However, the paucity of Soares’ experiences, his lack of meaningful memories upon which to draw, allows, or encourages, him to create, rather than reproduce. ‘I have passed through more cities than were ever built,’ he writes, ‘and the great rivers of impossible worlds have flowed, absolute, beneath my contemplative gaze.’

TOO LOUD A SOLITUDE BY BOHUMIL HRABAL

This is not a love story. It was once, but my relationship with books has soured. Reading is, these days, like swallowing a cheap broth, one that contains the occasional scrap of meat, but which is, for the most part, thin, watery and bitter. Yet as a child I would avoid school and every day take myself to the local library. I would stand before the shelves in awe, almost afraid to touch, as I was so unused to things offering themselves to me. The rows seemed endless, unconquerable; and yet I perhaps now own more books than that library ever contained. I own so many; too many. But really they own me, and they oppress me. What was once my passion has become my prison. In my room I am surrounded on all sides by shaky towers of books. It is as though I am trying to wall myself in, when in fact I want to break out. I fantasise about giving them all away or creating a huge pyre and setting fire to it. Yet books, I’m told, do not burn. So picking up Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude seems, at best, like a form of masochism. Not only is it a book, but it is a book about the value of books and the pleasures of reading. The value of books and the pleasure of reading? I am convinced that one day my towers will fall and crush me. They are crushing me already, slowly but surely. Too Loud A Solitude is narrated by Haňt’a, a man who for thirty-five years has been compacting wastepaper, smearing himself with letters until, he says, he has come to resemble an encyclopaedia. As a character, he is the Hrabalian archetype, which is to say that he seems naive, perhaps at times even something of an idiot, but is, simultaneously, unassumingly, capable of great insight or displays of great intelligence. He is a man, a drunk you might say, who, for example, will sit dreaming at a bar and when he moves to open his wallet will fling upon the counter a mouse or let fall one from his trouser-leg. Yet he also quotes Nietzsche, Hegel, Rimbaud and Kant. Although lacking in formal education, Haňt’a is well read, having received an ‘unwitting education’ from the books he saves from destruction, from the jaws of his press, and takes home. In this way, I am reminded again of that child, myself as a child, standing before the seemingly endless rows of books, timidly reaching out my hand. Where would I be without the activity that I now so disparage, which gave me my own unwitting education? At least Haňt’a has the good grace to feel gratitude. He writes, lovingly, lovely lines about popping a sentence into his mouth and sucking it like a fruit drop, lines about thoughts that dissolve within him, infusing his brain and heart. Am I so bitter these days that I cannot acknowledge how beautiful that is? For Haňt’a education allows, or gives birth to, thought; without access to profound ideas, one cannot have profound ideas of one’s own; one’s brain remains foetal. Yet, for me, education was a means of escape from a situation I found intolerable, from an environment that was harmful. My mother, bless her, cried at the station as I boarded the train that was taking me away to university. She cried, I’m sure, because she understood that I had dug my way out, which is something she had once hoped for herself but never achieved; and books had been my tools, books it was that had broken the earth; without them I would have exhausted myself frantically clawing at the hard surface without making an impression. Haňt’a, however, is much less demanding of life than I was. One does not get the impression that he has ambitions to be elevated above his current station; and yet books allow him to escape too. He is so good-natured that it would be easy to take lightly how heavy-hearted a man might feel deep in a mouse-infested cellar, compacting wastepaper, day in and day out, for thirty-five years; all while living in a police-state; a police-state that doesn’t look too kindly upon books, to boot. It is no surprise, therefore, that he drinks; and it is no surprise that this underground man values, and takes pleasure in, the printed words that transport him to another, better world. Our world, Haňt’a repeatedly informs us, is not humane; and he, furthermore, provides the reader with numerous examples of this inhumanity, such as the working girls who draw the insides from still living chickens and his gypsy lover who is murdered in a concentration camp. Yes, there is a cellar-deep strain of melancholy running through the book, although it is easy to miss it, to be seduced into missing it by the soothingly good-natured, and unassuming, voice of the narrator. Indeed, Too Loud a Solitude is a book of contrasts of this sort: Haňt’a, the wise fool, the intellectual simpleton, who decorates his bails of wastepaper with art and rare books, like flowers in the barrels of guns; Haňt’a, the ‘refined butcher’, the cultured artist and the destroyer of culture. Doesn’t this topsy-turviness, this two-facedness, sum up human existence? The supreme and the inhumane, the good and the bad, love and hate, creation and destruction, suffering and joy, etc. Just look at Manka, poor Manka, the pretty girl who, when at her most divine, her most winning, twice falls foul of faeces. And Haňt’a too, who takes pride in his work – which is itself a kind of shitting, what with paper going in one end and lumpy bails coming out the other – to such an extent that he wishes to purchase his press for his retirement; Haňt’a, poor Haňt’a, who falls foul, not of faeces, but progress, inhumane progress. Ah, how beautiful the world’s hands are, but how dirty its fingernails. Bohumil Hrabal, as much as any writer, understood this; and I can’t help but love him for it, even now. So I guess that this is a love story, in the end. Yet it is the worst kind of love, the kind that flickers with life, that occasionally reminds you of what you once had, that tricks you, for a short time, into thinking that you will have it again.

THE WOMAN IN THE DUNES BY KOBO ABE

One of my favourite topics of conversation is the relationship between man and the natural world. We are, where nature is concerned, both lovers and fighters, protectors and conquerers, but the mountain, the desert, or whatever, is, amusingly, entirely indifferent to us. The natural world cares not a fig for man and his intentions and desires. Yet this does not prevent us from being almost completely at its mercy; we are helpless in the face of the big wave, the punishing sun, the labyrinthian forest…the deluge, the drought…the snowstorm, the earthquake.

Despite being the indoor type, there have been a few times that I have been exposed to this power. For example, I was once caught out in a rainstorm, which came with a force I was unaccustomed to and unprepared for. The rain beat down; it cudgeled me. Within seconds my entire body was soaking wet, so that touching myself was like immersing my hand in a cold river. I could have hailed a taxi, but I had quickly descended into a state close to madness. I took the rain to be my enemy, to be something I had to overcome. I cursed the sky under my breath; I cursed a God I don’t believe in. And I plodded on, in shoes that now had the consistency, and protective capacity, of cardboard. My hair fell into my eyes, grasped at my face. My glasses were useless. I couldn’t see. One downpour and I had stopped being able to function; I had been brought to my knees.

All of which puts me in mind of Kobo Abe’s claustrophobic classic The Woman in the Dunes. The novel begins with a kind of preface concerning the disappearance of Jumpei, an ordinary man, a teacher, who, we’re told, having a keen interest in the natural world, had set out one August day in order to study insects in a sandy region of Japan, and had not returned. A few theories are floated – another woman? Suicide? – but we soon find out that he has, in a sense, been kidnapped, that he has been tricked into staying in a house at the bottom of what is essentially a large, unstable hole in the ground.

“What in heaven’s name was the real essence of this beauty? Was it the precision of nature with its physical laws, or was it nature’s mercilessness, ceaselessly resisting man’s understanding?”

The layman perception of sand, or this layman anyway, is that it is relatively hostile to life. Indeed, Jumpei – who is, if not an authority on the subject, at least fairly knowledgeable – acknowledges that is an ‘unfavourable environment’ in which only certain, especially adaptable, creatures, such as flies, can thrive. So, from the earliest stages of the novel, even before the teacher is captured, one is left in no doubt that it is not compatible with man. In fact, Abe, impressively borrowing from the horror genre, makes it seem almost sinister. At one point Jumpei sits down for a cigarette, and the sand, the ever mobile sand, starts to encroach, to cover his trousers, to almost devour him like a malevolent, hungry beast.

However, it is when he finds himself in the hole, and is denied almost all manmade comforts, that he is forced into a true, dire confrontation with the substance, with, essentially, the natural world. It is interesting, in this regard, that Jumpei is a teacher, a pedagogue, because one generally sees them as logical and assured. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Abe chose to pit such a man against something – sand – that cannot, of course, be reasoned with. Moreover, numerous times the sand does not conform to Jumpei’s expectations, suggesting that it cannot be predicted or worked out either.

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Generally speaking, I avoid descriptions, certainly in list form, of situations, important action or plot, but in this instance I believe it is necessary to fully understand the teacher’s brutal relationship with such apparently innocuous ‘stuff.’ Jumpei finds that it sticks to his face, to his body; it inflames his eyes; it gets into his mouth, and a ‘brownish scum’ oozes from the corners of his lips; and when he pulls his packet of cigarettes from his pocket there is sand there too. It gets, without exaggeration, everywhere, and it is not, as noted, friendly. Even the house, it is said, is being rotted by the sand, so that it unceasingly pours through the roof. In one of the novel’s most absurd, and funny, scenes Jumpei eats his food while the woman holds an umbrella over his head. Meanwhile, there is always the threat of a fatal avalanche or sandslide.

In this way, The Woman in the Dunes is significantly different from the work of Kafka, or certainly his two major novels, to which it is frequently compared. Kafka’s protagonists are oppressed by man; they are thrown into absurd situations and try to get answers, try to make headway, but find that other people, in their irrationality, ignorance or stupidity, prevent them from doing so; they are symbolically, not literally trapped. You see something of this in Abe’s work, for Jumpei is forced to remain in the hole by the villagers, despite his protestations, but their behaviour is not irrational, it is done, perhaps unfeelingly, but for a very specific, logical, reason. Therefore, Dunes actually has more in common with Fowles’ The Collector, or with films such as The Human Centipede or the more recent Room. Moreover, although there is snow in The Castle, it does not act as K.’s oppressor, he does not enter [willingly or otherwise] into battle with it.

“The barrenness of sand, as it is usually pictured, was not caused by simple dryness, but apparently was due to the ceaseless movement that made it inhospitable to all living things. What a difference compared with the dreary way human beings clung together year in year out.”

I have not, so far, much concerned myself with the woman of the title. I imagine that you have guessed already that she lives in the house at the bottom of the hole, that it is her home. There was, for me, something amusing about this set-up. Not only is Jumpei kidnapped, and forced to live and work in a sandy hell, he is supplied with what is essentially a wife, one not of his own choosing. For anyone who suffers from intimacy, or commitment, issues this will no doubt cause a few shudders. The woman is referred to by the villagers as ‘granny,’ even though she apparently looks around thirty, one would assume as a way of suggesting that the environment has taken a toll on her, and as a way of making Jumpei’s situation seem even more grim [one thing being locked up with a sexpot, another with a grandmother] and to emphasise her lack of sexual appeal.

The woman is, moreover, consistently submissive. One wonders if this is a tactic she employs in order to disarm the teacher, and keep him calm, in the same way that one might freeze in the face of an agitated animal. Yet, as the novel progresses, it struck me that it is more suggestive of her status as a victim. One tends to immediately sympathise with Jumpei because he has been taken out of his ‘natural’ environment, he has more obviously lost something, been denied something i.e. his freedom. But I came to view the tragedy of the novel to be the woman’s, not his. She is resigned to her fate, to living in such awful conditions; she doesn’t desire anything, it seems, except company, if not from a man then from a radio or a mirror, at least. She, and indeed all the villagers, are, in a sense, social outcasts, they are Japan’s poor, forgotten and abandoned. There was, and perhaps still is, a caste system in the country, and one might see the villagers as representative of the lowest order, called Burakumin.

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Numerous times throughout the novel Abe points out that sand is never stationary, in other words it is free, which is ironic because Jumpei is not, of course. It is hardly a surprise that freedom is the central theme of the book, but it extends beyond the kidnapping. First of all, Jumpei’s holiday, his going to the dunes, is clearly a form of escape. It is something that he does in order to take a break from his unsatisfying existence. So, in essence, he swaps one form of slavery, one unfree mode of living, for another. Moreover, to be imprisoned is, without question, unpleasant, but it is more unpleasant, one would imagine, if your ‘cellmate’ cannot, or will not, acknowledge that you, and she, are actually in prison. I thought that was a clever, subtle twist.

Yet what is most important, most moving, is what Abe has to say about the nature of freedom, about what it consists of. Throughout the book Jumpei is looking for ways to get out, to return to the surface, and he also, at times, refuses to work, to clear away the sand. However, by the end of the novel, he discovers water, or a way of extracting water from the sand, and this discovery delights and stimulates him, to such an extent that he doesn’t want to leave, he wants to stay and work on it. Therefore, the ultimate message of The Woman in the Dunes seems to be that freedom is not about being able to go where you want to go, it is to be free from repetitive action, from mind-numbing work. To live, to be free, is to be fulfilled; it is hope, it is meaningful preoccupation. Which is, all told, a lovely sentiment.

The pictures in this review are stills taken from the 1964 film adaption of the book, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara.