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Brazzil - Literature - September 2004

Brazil Celebrates Pessoa. Woe the Poet!

In the last decades, literature studies have been the major propeller—
not in literature—for tourism. A large literary conference is always
a party for airlines, travel agents, and hotel and restaurant
businesses. The one to profit the least is literature itself; after all,
conferences generate a lot of hullabaloo and zero literature.

Janer Cristaldo

Picture 2007 will be the year of Fernando Pessoa in Brazil. That's what newspapers announce and the intentions of the Casa Fernando Pessoa (Fernando Pessoa House), the Portuguese institution responsible for promoting the works of the poet-writer.

Poor man! From obscure poet, drunk and cirrhotic, averted to tributes and even to the publication of his poems, he will become an official poet, the school reading requirement type, to the horror of students.

I came in touch with Pessoa's poetry around 65 or 66, when only a few privileged were aware of him in Brazil. I got to know him through Freire Júnior, a theater man in Santa Maria, who enchanted our evenings reciting "A Tabacaria" (The Tobacco Shop), "Poema em Linha Reta" (Poem in Straight Line), "Gato que brincas na rua" (Cat that plays on the street).

In 69, a girlfriend of mine gave me—straight from the oven—an elegant bible-paper edition of Obra Poética (Poetic Work), by the publishing house Companhia José Aguilar Editora, which at the time presumably contained the complete works by Pessoa.

A gift that to this day I keep with much affection, one of two books I brought along when fleeing for Sweden, without which I might not have kept myself above waters during those silent glacial nights in Stockholm (the other was Martín Fierro).

Sad fate that of great poets. They die penniless and wind up being named for jobs havens. Without crossing the ocean, we here, in Porto Alegre, had Mário Quintana. He died nearly destitute. Today, his name is an endorsement to perks that provide a living to dozens of paper shufflers, who earn in a month what Quintana never made in a year.

Last week, the director of the Casa Fernando Pessoa, Clara Ferreira Alves, was in São Paulo for some preliminary meetings in order to make the project viable. "We hope to strengthen the ties between Brazil and Portugal, and nothing better than the language, the most valuable tool we have," she said.

On behalf of the last of the Latin born languages, uncultured and beautiful, in 2007 we will have joyous flockings of critics, scholars, and bad poets, in Brazil, Portugal, and beyond the two professed sister nations, throughout the rest of the world; after all, the obscure and humble poet Pessoa must be made known urbi et orbi.

We'll have comparatists flying from Porto Alegre to Tokyo, in today's Internet era, to issue a twenty-minute communiqué as to the use of relative pronouns in Pessoa's work. Fat purses in Paris, funded by tax payers, toward in-depth analysis of heteronyms.

There'll be some leftovers even for astrologists, since Pessoa—a confessed pretender—also navigated these waters. So this is the great advantage of literature in this age, at least for those who manipulate it: free travels, nice hotels, good wines, and quality food, for sagacious analysts of authors who died in poverty and oblivion.

To the critics who will go to Lisbon to discuss the complexities of Pessoa's work, allow me a few suggestions: the best codfish is at João do Grão and Vai-e-Volta. Obviously, the illustrious intellectuals can't go without a toast to the poet at Martinho da Arcada and Brasileira do Chiado , the latter being the café in Lisbon where the Tabacaria author became monument. But don't forget Presidente, the most sumptuous restaurant in Lisbon. The poet deserves.

During her stay in São Paulo, Clara Ferreira Alves met with organizations that may become partners in the project, such as Sesc (Social Service for Commerce), Casa do Saber (House of Knowledge), and PUC (Pontific Catholic University), where she took part in lectures, as well as the Camões Institute, diplomatic representations, and consulates.

São Paulo, according to newspapers, was chosen for its role as the national financial center. As the country's financial powerhouse, it can afford some opulence to great poetry aficionados. The poor devil poet has changed status.

Poetry Is Big Biz

He will be revered by businessmen, socialites, left-wing intellectuals, some alleged statesmen, and other crooks of the same deck of cards. Those from the "mansarda" (shabby homes), as Pessoa put it in his great poem, please do not attend. Poetry now is a matter of big business.

By the way, if you would like to read the great poem of the Portuguese language, visit Read A Tabacaria (The Tobacco Shop) and have a taste of the absurd: the man who wrote those anguishing lines being honored as a national poet.

In the last decades, literature studies have been the major propeller—not in literature—for tourism. A large literary conference is always a party for airlines, travel agents, and hotel and restaurant businesses. The one to profit the least is literature itself; after all, conferences generate a lot of hullabaloo and zero literature.

In 1976, in a short conversation in Porto Alegre, Guilherme Figueiredo told me about a curious event. On his way to a literary gathering, if I'm not mistaken in Nairobi, he asked an African poet: what are we going to do there? L'usage de la parole, answered the poet. That is, the use of words.

In my daydreams, I imagine a fence placed around humanity's great works, so that businesses don't vulgarize them. Here in São Paulo, for a long time, Pour Élise, by Beethoven, served as an advertising theme for trucks that supply gas for the homes. Was it ever in the German's plans to compose the motif for a gas distributor?

Pessoa, the unnoticed transient of Chiado (the Lisbon section), today represents feast bonanzas for academic tourism. The same with Cervantes. From prisoner thrown in the dungeons of Seville, today he has become a national matter. No use in sheltering a piece of work, said Nietzsche: pigs grow wings.

Intellectuals are all left-wings, right? It would be interesting to witness their reaction upon learning of the essay "Defense and Justification of the Military Dictatorship in Portugal."

In this piece, dated 1928—two years after the military coup of 1926—Pessoa advocates in clear words that "there is no other way to the country's salvation but the military dictatorship, be it this one or the other." The other would be Antonio Oliveira Salazar, who would take power in 1932.

The organizers of the Pessoa-Tour 2007 will likely leave aside this stance taken by the poet. If exalting his poetry is part of "strengthening the ties between Brazil em Portugal," it would be very inappropriate to take on the entire man, his political convictions and support for the military regime.

I wish were a speck of dirt on the road—wrote Pessoa—and that the feet of the poor were stepping on me… I wish were the flowing rivers and the women were at wash on my banks …

He wishes. For years, the poet has been sitting in bronze in front of Brasileira do Chiado, next to a bronze table, and an empty bronze seat also beside him. The statue is in a scale slightly larger than the human, for tourists to be photographed seated next to the genius.

From obscured and ignored drifter, Pessoa became monument, pride of Portugal. Today he is the topic for diplomats, State Secretaries, high-level institutions, travel agents. Time goes by. Academia kills.

Janer Cristaldo—he holds a PhD from University of Paris, Sorbonne—is an author, translator, lawyer, philosopher and journalist and lives in São Paulo. His e-mail address is
Translated from the Portuguese by Eduardo Assumpção de Queiroz. He is a freelance translator, with a degree in Business and almost 20 years of experience working in the fields of economics, communications, social and political sciences, and sports. He lives in Boca Raton, FL. His email:

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