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 Pessoa wrote poetry under different heteronyms however, his most famous work is ‘The Book of Disquiet’, unpublished for 47 years after the author’s death.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