‘Contos Escolhidos’ by Fernando Pessoa

My rating: 4 stars

Fernando Pessoa, a modernist Portuguese writer, is better-known as a poet and for being the author of The Book of Disquiet, but he also wrote various short stories throughout his life. I have recently finished the anthology Contos Escolhidos, comprising ten of his short stories. They are mainly characterised by being quite philosophical and sometimes even featuring esoteric elements. Some of the stories are appealing because of the writing style, while others are more plot-focused.

The first short story featured in this anthology, ‘A Very Original Dinner’, was written in English by the author and is signed by the heteronym Alexander Search. The narrator is a member of the Gastronomical Society of Berlin who spends the first part of the story analysing the personality of Herr Prosit, the president of the association. During one of their meetings, after a discussion about lack of originality, Prosit invites the other members to attend a very special dinner and afterwards challenges them to discover the reason why it was so original. I was definitely not expecting the story to unfold in the way it did. This is a very dark and twisted tale, what surprised me greatly.

All the other stories were written in Portuguese and had more philosophical elements. ‘A Estrada do Esquecimento’ is a beautifully written account of a man’s thoughts while he rides a horse together with his companions and chief. He muses on his loneliness and existence, while his fears keep on growing. ‘A Hora do Diabo’ is also quite philosophical, being a conversation with the devil about religion, humans and gods. In ‘O Adiador’ the topic explored is how delaying things that must eventually be done is different from failing. And in ‘A Caçada’ we read about a group of people who is on a hunt and, at the beginning, wonder whether they are hunting a person or an animal. This is a good, although quite short, reflexion on how humans can feel disconnected from another human being who they believe to be a criminal.

‘O Peregrino’ is one of the longest short stories in this anthology, but could have been even longer if some of the plot points had been more developed and not only so hastily mentioned. The story is narrated by a young man who encounters an older one dressed in black who says something to him. At first, he struggles to remember what it was that the man said, but, after that moment, his life changes and he starts to feel quite anxious. He then remembers that the man told him to follow the road and not just look at it and decides to follow his advice. It is a lesson about how people should properly live and not just see their lives pass by.

Some of the short stories delve into quite interesting topics, as is the case with ‘A Carta da Corcunda para o Serralheiro’. It is a letter written by Maria José, a hunchback who is dying of tuberculosis, to António. She has no intention of sending it to him, but writes it anyway because she felt the need to talk about her sadness, which stems from never have been loved. Nevertheless, there was a statement that has really irritated me, which was that to be a woman is having someone making a move on her.

I really struggled to rate this anthology of short stories. Some thought-provoking reflexions are made and the majority of the short stories are quite beautifully written. However, I didn’t feel the yearning for keep on reading. I ended up rating it with four stars, but I was expecting something a little more enthralling.

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