Pessoa and Kiarostami: The Disquiet of Close-Up

25th February 2021

Fernando Pessoa - Revista ESTANTE
Doc on life of Abbas Kiarostami to go on screen in Tehran - Tehran Times

Serendipity – I only recently became aware of the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa (1888 – 1935) while watching a YouTube video on modernity in literature. The video mentioned some of my favourite writers of the early C20th namely Camus and Kafka, as well as Pessoa.

Despite a lifetime of reading; pulp, poetry, popular, philosophy (OK, enough alliteration) literature and drama, I’m overwhelmed by the amount of authors I haven’t read, authors of whom I’m not even aware. Therefore, when Pessoa was grouped with other authors I’ve read and love, I had to investigate … and what a story. In fact, before one reads Pessoa, one needs to read about him, his lifestyle and writing habits.

Firstly, Pessoa adopted different personalities under which to write. Instead of simply using a pseudonym, Pessoa became these ‘writers’, each one having individual characteristics, and he coined the term heteronym to explain his system. Pessoa wrote poetry under different heteronyms however, his most famous work is ‘The Book of Disquiet’, unpublished for 47 years after the author’s death. This book is credited to the heteronym Bernardo Soares.

Mua The Book of Disquiet (Penguin Classics) trên Amazon Mỹ chính hãng 2021  | Fado
The Penguin Classics edition

Not unlike his Czech contemporary Dr Franz Kafka, Pessoa spent his working life in an office, burdened by the drudgery of routine, dreaming of writing yet seeing very little success in his lifetime. More information can be found on these Wikipedia sites:

For ‘The Book of Disquiet’: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Book_of_Disquiet

For Pessoa’s life: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fernando_Pessoa

So, the plot … there isn’t one. The book, nearly 800 pages on my online version, is comprised of various musings, ramblings, sketches, observations, poetry in prose, diary-like entries and endless pathetic fallacy; it seems to be always about to rain, to be raining or has just stopped raining.

The topography of Pessoa’s Lisbon is also extremely limited; his office, his flat and his local restaurant. This short video encapsulates his environment succinctly: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gsOAKWBuuo&ab_channel=TurismodeLisboaVisitors%26ConventionBureau

The style of the book means that one can just open at random, read in reverse order or return to it after reading other books. Personally, I find that I read maybe ten – fifteen pages at a time, although some pages may just contain a single sentence. It’s like poetry, each section is densely packed with meaning and significance; to race through it would be to miss the view and it’s the journey that has the meaning … not simply reaching the destination.

I just wish to add a couple of extracts that appealed to me.

Entry 84 (p. 148 online version), Pessoa quotes the Holy Roman Emperor, Sigismund (1368 – 1437):

“It is told of Sigismund, King of Rome, that when someone pointed out a grammatical mistake he had made in a speech, he answered, ‘I am King of Rome and above all grammar.’ … Every man who knows how to say what he has to say is, in his own way, King of Rome.”

Entry 269 (p. 387), Pessoa, another vociferous reader, refers to Charles Dickens:

“One of my life’s greatest tragedies is to have already read The Pickwick Papers. (I can’t go back and read them for the first time.)

THE PICKWICK PAPERS (illustrated, complete, and unabridged) - Kindle  edition by DICKENS, CHARLES. Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @  Amazon.com.

Coincidentally, I am also working my work through the complete Christmas Stories by Dickens, an author I consider one of life’s greatest pleasures.

Meanwhile, while devoting time to focus on Iranian cinema, I watched the 1990 film ‘Close-Up’ by one of the most famous Iranian directors (possibly the most famous outside of Iran), Abbas Kiarostami (1940 – 2016), a filmmaker who uses Persian poetry in his films, and whose styles employs allegory and symbolism.

Close-Up (1990 film) - Wikipedia
‘Close-Up’, often appearing in Best Film polls, notable the Sight & Sound Top 50 films poll of 2012

As with Pessoa, we have a film that doesn’t fit into a neat genre (fiction, documentary, re-enactment). Allow me to explain, and at least with the film, we have a story, if not a plot.

Abbas Kiarostami quote: The film [Close Up] made itself, to a large  extent...

Hossain Sabzian is struggling to make his way, and escapes into cinema, identifying with downtrodden protagonists such as the eponymous ‘Cyclist‘ (1987) by Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf.

On a bus ride, a fellow passenger notices that Sabzian is reading ‘The Cyclist’ screenplay, and asks where she can buy a copy. Sabzian gives the book to her, claiming to be the writer and director Makhmalbaf. From here, Sabzian gets to meet her family, and is invited to their home which he says could be used in a future film.

The pretend director begins examining the house and garden, as if setting up shots. He is almost caught out when he is informed that one of his films has just won a prestigious prize abroad, of which he is ignorant. However Sabzian, thinking very quickly, says that the prize was for the music score, and not down to him. Finally, a reporter friend shows the family a photograph of the real director; the police are called and the imposter is arrested.

This is not fiction; it all really happened.

Norman Holland on Abbas Kiarostami, Close-Up, Nema-ye Nazdik

At this stage, Kiarostami became involved, interviewing Sabzian in prison.

Can't Explain: Close-Up (1990)

Then, in documentary style, or news reportage, we see the director asking permission for the trial to be filmed, permission which is granted. What differentiates this film is that Kiarostami then got the real-life protagonists to re-enact the situation, from the meeting on the bus to the arrest.

The Film Sufi: "Close-Up" - Abbas Kiarostami (1990)
The real Ahankhah family in their home

So, it’s not a documentary per se, as the characters are recreating scenes, knowing how they will play out (of course, there are famous examples of documentaries using recreation or the staging of ‘real’ scenes), it’s not fiction or, as is so often seen, ‘based on a true story’ … it is a true story.

To go back to my earlier point, we have story but no plot that is, no psychological motivation for Sabzian’s deception.

One of the sons claims that the fraud was perpetrated in order to ‘stake out’ the house, see what was worth stealing and how to gain entry. Sabzian strenuously denies this. Conversely, there are no doctors to give an evaluation on Sabzian’s mental health. Is he a criminal, acting delusional, or a person in need of help, caught in a delusion that escaped his control ? The audience, like the judge, can only rely on the facts, what happened, not what could have happened.

Thus, although guilty of deception, Sabzian appears contrite and, having no previous record, is pardoned by the Ahankhah family providing he use this opportunity to change his life and become a productive member of society. The film ends with the real Mohsen Makhmalbaf driving Sabzian back to the house to greet the family and apologise.

The Cinematheque / Close-Up

I hope you can pardon this heavily condensed synopsis of a very nuanced and rewarding film. ‘Close-Up’ is an absolute ‘must see’ film for cineastes and, like all works of art, requires repeat viewing(s).

If I have inspired anyone to look for Pessoa’s work, or to watch the Kiarostami movie, then I can consider this blog a success.

Thank you all for reading – please stay safe and well

Nightmare on IELTS Street.

The IELTS exam is becoming increasingly important, as a sign of English proficiency, and as a requirement for working or studying abroad. It is quite academic, and requires a lot of work by the students. From a teacher’s point of view, it can be quite unappealing, as a lot of the work is quite dry; students will get bored and restless, which will manifest itself in their behaviour. I’m not just talking about teenage classes, or younger learners; one of my worst classes EVER was with an adult (so-called) IELTS class

I first encountered IELTS when I was applying for my second job in Sai Gon. This was with a smaller company, centrally located and smartly-designed, which offered IELTS classes. I had to prepare an IELTS lesson and I, of course, had no idea what that entailed. After some online searching, I groped together a vague lesson plan – it was a writing lesson, I believe.

The ‘lesson’ was for two young adults, under the supervision of the office manager. I recall I had to talk about a graph, then guide the students as to how an essay should be written (word count, structure, paragraphs etc).

Naturally, I had no idea how well I performed (because a lot of teaching is a type of performance) and waited for my Grabbike home, thinking that there were other schools to which I could apply. But the next day, I got the call that I was accepted. Obviously, their need for teachers overcame my blatant shortcomings.

The site of my second English centre, opposite the War Museum. The campus has now relocated and the site is a medical centre.

And so to IELTS. I was sent to ‘the best’ public school to teach 45-minutes classes. Public schools in Sai Gon are usually in rooms with no air-conditioning, probably no IT or whiteboard – it’s chalk and dusters – and an average of forty students, most of whom couldn’t care less about English. It was, for them, simply a free lesson, a chance to do their chemistry homework, or play with a Rubik’s Cube, or sleep, or anything save learning English.

It was certainly a mixed bag. Teaching the same lesson to different classes are different lessons. One class was silent as the grave (except one loud-mouth who thought he knew everything and was intent on proving how the Cambridge books were wrong and he knew better). Apparently they were used to the teacher speaking, and they just wrote (pretended to). Not great preparation for the speaking component. Another class of supposedly higher-achievers hated me, and loved showing it. I was lucky if I got five students to even acknowledge my presence in the room, let alone listen to me.

However, the last class of the week was the best. I was able to introduce Camus, Kafka and Rimbaud into the lessons. It made a change from the quotes attributed to Lenin that adorned several classrooms (apparently, “study, study and study,” or “learn, learn, learn.”). And it was one of these quotes from Camus that made to decide to quit this company:

“What am I doing here, wasting my time, destroying my vocal chords and exhausting myself when the vast majority of students couldn’t care less.” The situation was absurd. I want to spend my mornings drinking coffee and reading Camus. I resigned the same day. Merci, Albert.

Some time later, I was working for one of the top centres and was offered an adult IELTS class. Let me do my best to reproduce the scenario.

There were about a dozen students, two over thirty years of age, but the rest teenagers. Oh, crap ! All types were represented here: the one that says his mother sent him and he DOES NOT want to be here, the one that walks into the room, ignores the teacher and begins to sleep on his desk, the one that looks with contempt and hatred at the teacher, deciding that there was nothing I could teach him and he was going to sigh and mutter throughout the lesson. Let us not forget the type that has confused a class room with a social club, and thinks it’s absolutely acceptable that he should carry on a conversation, top-volume, with his neighbour, in Vietnamese (which, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, is not the most euphonic of tongues). Latecomers are par for the course in Vietnam, barely worth mentioning. And then there was the know-it-all; the student who had studied the grammar book and wanted to ask questions. And more questions. And … yeah, so on and so on.

The ‘Camus’ moment came when, after a lengthy discussion about the placement of adverbs, he informed me that he was going to continue using adverbs as he thought best, and ignore my advice (after all, I only have a distinction in linguistics, have written plays and been published, not to mention possessing a teaching qualification from one of the best teaching schools). I know teachers are supposed to be endowed with infinite patience, but after a long sweaty day, screaming teens, sourly teens, swearing teens, the odd-lunatic, and work-shy TAs, infinity somehow becomes a lot nearer. After three lessons, I requested, then begged, then offered to pay for a replacement teacher. Full credit to the centre, they complied, but it was the final nail, or straw, take your pick. Notice given and by October I was a free man … but after reading Camus, that is a very contentious statement. And now … time for coffee.