The unlikely association of a book: Fernando Pessoa and plane crashes

By James Hannaham

In this playful and varied collection, novelist James Hannaham (“Delicious Foods”, “God Says No”) uses an unlikely pair – the works of Portuguese modernist Fernando Pessoa and the story of plane crashes – to ask thorny questions on contemporary life. The copy of the jacket gives us the truth: in December 2016, during a Cape Verde-Lisbon flight, Hannaham found himself reading the collected poems of Pessoa. The Trump presidency was shaping up to be bad weather. He had also recently become enthralled with a television show, “Air Disasters”, which documented famous plane crashes, hijackings and bombings. Hannaham blended these interests and anxieties with her impressions of Lisbon to form “Pilot Impostor”, a hybrid work of stories, essays, poetry, jokes and visual art. Everything does not hold together, even if his best pieces have the improbable coherence of dreams.

Pessoa, this great self-proliferating poet, is a useful antecedent. His alter egos, or “heteronyms,” are on almost every page. Their fragmented aphorisms serve as breadcrumbs in a forest of shapes. Although written in lowercase characters and hung in inconspicuous corners, they orient the reader obliquely. Pessoa’s line “That Kind of Madness” appears alongside “Ghost Plane,” a story about unmanned flight. “Countless lives inhabit us”, proclaims its heteronym Ricardo Reis at the top of the poem “I’m Missing”, a hymn to multivalence: “I am more than one. / It’s too much fun for me. Like the ghost poets of Pessoa, the narrator of Hannaham – or are they narrators? – is elusive, mysterious, funny, varied and a bit ethereal.

He is also indignant. The book is bubbling quietly. America’s racial divisions, past and present, drive much of the work. “Black Rage” includes three miniatures of real crimes in which black men, motivated by revenge, hate or insurance money, have taken control of flights and trains. In “Dear White Woman I Nearly Hit With My Car This Morning,” Hannaham, who is black, uses a showdown to suggest the difficulty of charitable understanding. “Ferdinand Magellan” reshapes the legacy of the Portuguese explorer in mocking and profane battle lyrics: “Colonizin ‘folks as you was travelin’ / Spreading Christianity’s infection. “

There are also pages of apparent nonsense. “On Seeing Pessoa” repeats the poet’s name in the middle of a series of forward and backward slashes. “Felt” dissolves into its own syntactic echo chamber: “We have the impression of having felt. We felt what we felt. Felt. Feel. ”The recursive, algorithmic“ Great Weekend ”is like a machine tempting a conversation. An untitled spread features alien hieroglyphics etched into what might be a 1990’s WordArt template. These juxtapositions of sharp commentary, threat, and absurdism are provocative.Something like the irreverent and devastating spirit of Dadaism sometimes approaches.

Hannaham, who is also a visual artist, uses images to anchor or counterbalance texts. There are photographs of plane crashes, paintings, readings of flight paths, patterned textures and squares that he found in Lisbon, memes, footage from films, abstract geometric pieces and Google Maps selections. Taken together, they create a sense of mediation and instability. Who and where we are – historically, culturally, existentially – is always a negotiable prospect for the author.

This elasticity sometimes takes the book into thin or unconvincing territory. What exalts on one page disorients the next. The different registers may seem random. Trump’s identity thefts rub shoulders with hallucinatory geographies, gnomic stanzas, error messages and utopian gestures. Who are we in the midst of such debris? Hannaham seems to be asking. What is real? Instead of answers, the book offers a kind of anti-catharsis: “We have to live life forward and try to make sense of it backwards. So we are failing both ways.

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