Bernardo Soares did not exist, not in a tactile way. Yet he did buy bananas in this city and ride its yellow trams. He dreamt here. He nursed a coffee in this cafe, watching people cross the square, just as I’m doing now, emulating the man who technically wasn’t.
On paper, Bernardo worked as an assistant bookkeeper in a fabrics firm a few blocks from here. He clocked in. Balanced numbers. Or as he put it: “Every day I meticulously write the lines of the epic commercial poem that is Vasques & Co.”
He also kept a diary of sorts, a stream of inklings committed to sheets of paper, stored in a loose-leaf bundle on Rua dos Douradores, where Bernardo lived alone. If not for the work of Maria Aliete Galhoz, and other literary detectives to comb the apartment in subsequent years, those pages would never have outlived Bernardo himself.
Gratefully, his words now lie beside my coffee. Typed, bound, they make up the Book of Disquiet, as written by Fernando Pessoa, a man who knew Bernardo well. I had no idea about the work before buying it. I’d not heard of Pessoa, or his make-believe bookkeeper. Rather I’d been seeking a voice to help me decode Lisbon in some small way, and Disquiet came to the rescue.
Better than a map, deeper than a guidebook, the right work of fiction translates a city. Last month, I spent 10 days in the Portuguese capital, enriched by Pessoa’s words. (“I leave the tram exhausted, like a sleepwalker, having lived a whole life.”) Octavio Paz, the Mexican Nobelist, labelled Pessoa as “the solemn investigator of futile things”.