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José Saramago Nobel Prize for Literature

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Born in 1922, Saramago is a Portuguese novelist.

Saramago is the first Portuguese writer to win the Nobel Prize for literature. His works, which feature a distinctly modernist exploration of contemporary life as well as of Portugal's historically ambiguous place in world culture, have been consistently acclaimed since he began publishing in the early 1980s.

While neither of Saramago's first two novels—Manual de pintura e caligrafica (1976) and Levantado do chao (1980)—have been translated into English, subsequent works that have been translated have earned him a wide following among readers of English as well as readers of Portuguese. In his first translated novel, Memorial do convento (Baltasar and Blimunda; 1982), Saramago introduced the stylistic and thematic element of magical realism, which later became a hallmark of his fiction and prompted comparisons to the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez. Set in eighteenth-century Portugal during the Inquisition, Baltasar and Blimunda tells the story of two young lovers—Baltasar, a handicapped war veteran, and Blimunda, a visionary who can see human spirits—and their attempts to transport themselves to heaven using a flying machine.

In 1984 Saramago published one of his most lauded novels, O ano da morte de Ricardo Reis (The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis). Set in Portugal during the early years of the dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, the novel traces the last days of Ricardo Reis, presented in the book as a middle-aged poet and physician who is haunted by the spirit of Fernando Pessoa, the great Portuguese poet and revolutionary. In reality, Pessoa had used the literary convention of multiple pseudonyms—including "Ricardo Reis"—to convey various facets of his work and the fractured nature of human thought. Many critics warned potential readers of the novel that knowledge of Pessoa's life and work were necessary to understand its complexity but praised the book nonetheless as a significant achievement in the modernist canon.

Saramago again presented a fantastical story in A jangada de pedra (The Stone Raft; 1986). Translated into English in 1994, the novel concerns events that ensue after the Iberian peninsula breaks free from the European mainland and begins drifting through the Atlantic Ocean. This incident sparks considerable bureaucratic chaos as the drifting Iberians struggle to cope with their extraordinary predicament. Always critical of Europe's historical ambivalence toward Portugal and Spain, Saramago used The Stone Raft to explore this difficult social, political, and geographical relationship.

História do Cerco de Lisboa (The History of the Siege of Lisbon; 1989) presents a fictional account of historical incidents. Raimundo Silva, a middle-aged bachelor working uneventfully as a proofreader for a publisher in Lisbon, changes the course of his life—and symbolically the course of history—when he becomes bored proofreading a typical account of the 1147 Siege of Lisbon. When he comes to the sentence "The crusaders did agree to help seize Lisbon," Silva is overcome with a perverse urge to change it, so he inserts the word "not" into the sentence, thereby reversing history. When the change is noticed, Silva's employers are furious, but a new editor, Maria Sara, is intrigued and encourages Silva to write his version of Portuguese history. Saramago then presents Silva's story alongside his own. The novel was an immediate success in both Portugal and Brazil, and its translation has earned critical acclaim from an English-speaking audience.

With O Evangelho segundo Jesus Cristo (The Gospel According to Jesus Christ; 1991), Saramago provoked the ire of Christians around the world, particularly the Catholic Church. In this novel Saramago portrayed Jesus as a confused and vulnerable human being, while God is presented as an amoral bureaucrat and Lucifer as a mischievous but sympathetic imp. The overall tone of the novel is infused with Saramago's well-known devotion to Marxism and is by turns satiric, comic, and tragic. Critics acknowledged that The Gospel According to Jesus Christ would most likely be considered blasphemous by devout Christians, but they also noted that the novel brought an important perspective to the story of Jesus and a significant argument to the debate over the nature of God and human existence.

In Blindness (originally published in 1995 and translated in 1997) Saramago again used an improbable occurrence to explore human emotions and interactions. Placed in an abandoned mental institution by a powerful but anonymous State, victims of a mysterious contagious blindness must learn to fend for themselves. As the disease spreads beyond the walls of the institution, eventually blinding everyone except the wife of an ophthalmologist, the people of the unnamed city succumb to their basest, most animal tendencies. Many critics interpreted Saramago's allegory as a search for meaning in a world with an uncertain future.

Principal Works

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Manual de pintura e caligrafia (novel) 1976
Levantado do chao (novel) 1980
Memorial do convento [Baltasar and Blimunda] (novel) 1982
O ano da morte de Ricardo Reis [The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis] (novel) 1984
A jangada de pedra [The Stone Raft] (novel) 1986
História do Cerco de Lisboa [The History of the Siege of Lisbon] (novel) 1989
O Evangelho segundo Jesus Cristo [The Gospel According to Jesus Christ] (novel) 1991
Blindness (novel) 1995

Gerald M. Moser (review date Winter 1982)

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SOURCE: A review of Levantado do chao, in World Literature Today, Vol. 56, No. 1, Winter, 1982, p. 88.

[In the following review, Moser praises Saramago's intimate knowledge of his subject matter in Levantado do chao but ultimately finds the novel monotonous and redundant.]

Saramago is a rising star in Portuguese literature, still unnoticed abroad. This prizewinning novel [Levantado do chao] is his twelfth book since 1966. It deals with a familiar, emotion-laden subject, the losing battle of the small landholders and landless farmhands against the tentacular big estates in Portugal's dry and hot Alentejo, its only province where latifundia exist. The theme was a favorite with the neorealists and had been treated before in two memorable novels, Manuel da Fonseca's Seara de vento (1958) and the recent O pão não cai do céu by José R. Miguéis (1975/76; see WLT 55:4, p. 650).

Like Fonseca, Saramago knows the region intimately. Both draw embittered, coarsened peasants from life, without sentimentality; Saramago's best pages may well be the scenes of their deaths. He writes the chronicle of a poor rural family through three generations, against a backdrop of barely hinted-at political Portuguese history from the end of the monarchy in 1910 to the Revolution of 1974, in the wake of which Alentejan laborers occupied many of the latifundia. Thus the stark tale of deprivation, injustice and powerlessness ends on a triumphant note, expressed in the title Risen from the Soil, poetically equating the human beings with the wheat, the olive trees and the cork trees of the land. The lyrical tone, the obvious delight in language and the fulsome descriptions of the chores of peasant life soften the inherent monotony of the subject matter. The ironic juxtaposition of the doings of landed barons who seized the land during the Reconquest from the Moors with their spiritual descendants of today establishes the idea of an immutable unjust fate, making the recent revolution appear the more abrupt and incredible.

In spite of the admirable linguistic pyrotechnics, the impression of monotony persists. "The story," Saramago observes, "repeats itself with notable regularity, but it has its variants." Without a good deal of extraneous matter, such as the initial story of a drinking cobbler, the interlude of a young man's years spent as a guest worker in northern France or the experience of jail and police brutality in Lisbon under the dictatorship, the novel could have been cut down to the size of a novelette, possibly becoming a classic, for there is no question about Saramago's being a born storyteller.

Irwin Stern (review date Spring 1986)

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SOURCE: A review of O ano da morte de Ricardo Reis, in World Literature Today, Vol. 60, No. 2, Spring, 1986, p. 297.

[In the following review, Stern examines O ano da morte de Ricardo Reis, finding the novel a fitting tribute to Fernando Pessoa, a hero of the Portuguese revolution.]

Saramago once again melds fantasy and reality to produce a truly marvelous novel based on Fernando Pessoa's heteronym Ricardo Reis. In O ano da morte de Ricardo Reis (The Year of Ricardo Reis's Death) Reis returns to Portugal from Brazil upon learning of Pessoa's death. It is Portugal of the midthirties, and the backdrop is that decade's events: the entrenchment of the Salazar regime, the incipient Spanish Civil War, the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, all within the global-view style reminiscent of John Dos Passos's fiction. Pessoa's ghost appears to greet his "fellow poet" and eventually to "absorb" him.

Reis's odes come alive in the fiction, as Saramago invents a new Lídia and a Marcenda for the poet's pen. Reis suffers a typical Portuguese inner exile: unhappy abroad, distressed by the state of his homeland, misplaced in his own era. Only his conversations with Pessoa about Portuguese and world literature and culture, their walks through Lisbon shadowed by the omnipresent figure of Camões, and his emotional encounters with Lídia and Marcenda offer him some solace.

Saramago's novel is an affirmation of the new reigning Portuguese national hero, Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935), who has been gradually elevated to fame since the 1974 revolution. However, no academic symposium or study has had a more decisive impact on his national popularity than Saramago's novel. Perhaps Pessoa himself would disapprove of being thrown into the national spotlight, but he would have liked nonetheless the tribute paid to his views on the Portuguese condition and fate in the twentieth century.

Paul Stuewe (review date October 1987)

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SOURCE: A review of Baltasar and Blimunda, in Quill and Quire, Vol. 53, No. 10, October, 1987, p. 30.

[In the following review, Stuewe offers a negative assessment of Baltasar and Blimunda, noting that Saramago fails to develop his characters beyond basic outlines.]

This colourful panorama of 18th-century Portugal [Baltasar and Blimunda] has almost everything going for it: vivid contrasts between the worlds of king and cutthroat, intensely real treatments of occult occurrences, and a definite flair for imaginative plotting. Unfortunately, the author has failed to devote the same amount of attention to his characters, who for the most part come across as arbitrary collections of uninteresting attributes. Thus it ultimately becomes very difficult to care about Baltasar or Blimunda or any of the rest of the novel's human elements, despite the attractive backgrounds against which they attempt to flicker into being. Unlike Gabriel Garcia Marquez—whom the jacket copy unwisely invokes in comparison—José Saramago has not yet learned that magic realism requires a strong dose of realism as well as the aura of magic, and as a result Baltasar and Blimunda seems a mildly diverting curiosity rather than deeply compelling fiction.

Irving Howe (review date 1 November 1987)

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SOURCE: "Fueling the Passarola," in New York Times, November 1, 1987, Sec. 7, p. 7.

[In the following review, Howe finds Baltasar and Blimunda a complex and engaging story.]

The most vigorous writing of recent years has come not from the great powers of the West but from small, impoverished and sometimes "backward" countries in Latin America, Eastern Europe and parts of Africa. As if to confirm this trend, there has now arrived from Portugal a brilliant novel by Jose Saramago, a writer who is highly regarded in Portuguese-speaking countries but little known elsewhere. This injustice should speedily be corrected with Giovanni Pontiero's translation, at once idiomatic and elegant, of Baltasar and Blimunda. And apart from its strong intrinsic interest, this novel should help put to rest the notion recently expressed in these and other pages that living in the wake of the heroic period of literary modernism dooms us to a literature of timid voices and small consequence.

Set in early 18th-century Portugal, Baltasar and Blimunda knits together a number of fictional modes. It is a work of harsh realism, picturing the abominations of absolute power and Inquisitorial fanaticism; but weaving around the realistic pages is a fable about a flight into the marvelous, a lyric fantasy about a company of free spirits escaping for a moment into freedom. And then, as still another narrative strand, Mr. Saramago spins a love story, as sober as it is exalted, about two young plebeians bound in absolute devotion. All the while a self-conscious narrator keeps breaking in with jokes, aphorisms, a scale of ironies and critical observations ("After all," he explains, "this is a fairy tale").

This full-bodied novel is organized as a series of contrasts between rulers and ruled, those who luxuriate and those who labor. Though Mr. Saramago often reveals a bracing contempt for the powerful of this world, he is not primarily concerned with the struggle between classes. What excites his imagination is the conflict between a stiff moralism of morals, manners and speech—those social and ecclesiastic rituals denoting the death of spirit—and a free play of feeling at a time when the idea of individuality has begun to stir European consciousness.

On one side, the Portuguese monarch, Dom Joao V, a febrile nincompoop who diverts himself with toys by day and impregnates compliant nuns at night. Around him circle his sleepy queen, fawning nobles, starchy footmen. Eager for an heir, Dom Joao V promises the Franciscan order that if it intercedes effectively with the heavenly authorities, he will reward it with an enormous (and unneeded) convent in the town of Mafra. The Queen conceives—hurrah! The King lives up to his promise—bravo! The Portuguese peasants, conscripted to labor in Mafra, sweat and suffer.

On the other side, two characters based on historical persons. Padre Bartolomeu Lourenco, a heretical priest who disdains the Trinity, keeps working on a machine named the Passarola (Portuguese for big bird) with which he means to take off for freedom. And Domenico Scarlatti, the famous musician, comes to Lisbon to teach the King's clumsy daughter but soon finds himself far more interested in the padre's plans for flight.

Joining Padre Bartolomeu as loyal helpers are the two central figures of the book, the young lovers Baltasar and Blimunda, he an ex-soldier who has lost a hand fighting for his feckless king and she a nubile beauty whose mother, "one-quarter converted Jewess," has been shipped to Angola by the Inquisition. These lovely young creatures live for each other's word, each other's touch—and also for the project of the heretical priest.

Interspersed between these stories of the monarch and the flight-obsessed heretics are a number of set pieces rich in flair and color. Mr. Saramago renders autos-da-fe and bullfights, both releasing blood lusts. There's a charming episode in which Scarlatti plays his harpsichord while the padre and the young lovers assemble the Passarola. ("God," Mr. Saramago assures us, "has a weakness for madmen, the disabled, and eccentrics, and most certainly not for the officers of the Holy Office of the Inquisition.") And toward the end Mr. Saramago executes a powerful tour de force in portraying how 50,000 peasants are driven to build the convent in Mafra because of a monarchical whim.

Meanwhile, Mr. Saramago is constantly present as a voice of European skepticism, a connoisseur of ironies. I think I hear in his prose echoes of Enlightenment sensibility, caustic and shrewd. Here is a passage describing a Lenten procession of penitents: "The flagellants move forward, unable to speak yet roaring like rutting bulls, and if the women and mistresses feel that the penitents are not flogging themselves with enough force to inflict open wounds and draw blood for everyone to see, then the female choir erupts into a hideous wailing, as if possessed, inciting the men to greater violence. They want to hear the whips crack and see the blood flow as it flowed from the Divine Saviour. Only then will their bodies throb under their petticoats." Such sardonic interventions suggest that in relation to Padre Bartolomeu's fantasy of flight, Mr. Saramago is a kind of secret sharer.

Baltasar and Blimunda opens on a note of high comedy. His Majesty solemnly makes one of his semiweekly visits to the queen's chamber, in hope of royal impregnation. The bed creaks, the nobles wait expectantly, all seems well—but for the subversive interference of nature, bedbugs to whom the King's "blood tastes no better or worse than that of the other inhabitants of the city."

We shift to an auto-da-fe. One hundred and four men and women are to be burned, and we shall never know, Mr. Saramago remarks gravely, "what the inhabitants of Lisbon enjoyed more, autos-da-fe or bullfights, even though only the bullfights have survived." A dry-eyed Blimunda, careful not to betray that her mother stands among the heretics, watches the procession as "the rabble hurls furious insults … the women scream abuse … and the friars prattle among themselves." Turning to a tall young man with a missing hand, Blimunda asks, "What is your name?" Baltasar. They leave together and that night their life together is sealed. Next morning Blimunda reveals that she enjoys a strange power of clairvoyance: "I can look inside people"—though only into their bodies. (Souls, explains Mr. Saramago, belong to the church, bodies and their wills to Blimunda.) The priest moves toward the heretical view of denying the Trinity. That is a grave heresy sloping toward Judaism, and Judaism means the risk of Inquisitorial fires. Padre Bartolomeu, as if fanned by the breezes of the Enlightenment, indulges in greater heresies still: "God sees into the hearts of men … and if a man's sins were so serious that they should not go unpunished, God would see to it that he was judged … on the Day of Judgment, unless in the meantime his good deeds compensated for his evil ones. For it may also come to pass that everything will end with a general amnesty or universal punishment. All that remains to be known is who will pardon or punish God."

The Passarola is almost ready. All that's needed to make it fly, the Padre tells Blimunda, is a supply of "human wills" to serve as a kind of fuel. (How can freedom be won without "human wills"?) Blimunda, seer into bodies, can collect these and then, once she has done so, the Passarola will take off. Earthly miracle, celestial miracle, whichever it may be, the three of them soar rapturously toward the sky. "Where are we going?" asks Blimunda. "Where the arm of the Inquisition cannot reach us," the priest answers, "if such a place exists."

They land. They scatter. The priest, fearing the arm of the Inquisition, flees to Spain, there to die. Baltasar and Blimunda go to Mafra, where, to earn their bread, he works as a drover with the other laborers at the king's convent. One night the peasants sit before a fire and one of them asks Baltasar the heretical question: "How does a drover become a man?" "Perhaps," he answers, "by flying."

The novel moves toward climax. The tone darkens and the exuberance of the early pages thins out. The sheer hardness of life, the implausibility of any full liberation, emerges as a dominant theme. Yet Baltasar and Blimunda do not yield; they remember the Passarola, and every now and then Baltasar journeys to Monte Junto, where the flying machine lies hidden, to tend and adore it.

In the novel's most tender passage, we see the aging Baltasar coming back from work—and suddenly Mr. Saramago drops his occasional mask of objective narrator and cries out to him with a full heart: "Your beard is full of white hairs, Baltasar; your forehead is covered with wrinkles, Baltasar, your neck has become scraggy, Baltasar; your shoulders are beginning to droop…. But now here is surely a question of failing eyesight, because it is a woman in fact who is coming toward us, and where we saw an old man, she sees a young man, who is none other than the soldier whom she once asked: What is your name?"

Baltasar visits Monte Junto for the last time and, perhaps because it has still kept some "human wills," the blessed machine takes off with him as its sole passenger. Where to? We never learn. Blimunda—she too has wrinkles now—spends nine years scouring Portugal for her man. She finds him, a prisoner at an auto-da-fe, "the last man to be burned." The novel ends: "Blimunda said: Come. The will of Baltasar … broke free from his body, but did not ascend to the stars, for it belonged to the earth and to Blimunda."

Much reverberates in memory after reading this enchanting novel, but most of all the love story which soars over the rest of the action like a flute across a heavy orchestra. Mr. Saramago, a writer of sharp intelligence, keeps this love story under strict control, free of pathos or sentimentality. It is a love of, and on, this earth.

And the Passarola? I'd like to think we need assign it no precise symbolism, since it is so splendid an object in its own right. But if we must succumb to the rudely explicit, let's say that the Passarola and its creator are agents of a freedom glimpsed at a moment before it can be realized in history; that they sponsor an imaginative playfulness disdaining all orthodoxies; that they are precursors of the idea of the self—that great invention of the modern mind—as it breaks past every life-thwarting formalism.

How does a drover become a man? Perhaps by learning to fly. IF THE KING COULD SEE HIM NOW.

The whole machine creaked, the metal plates and the entwined canes, and suddenly, as if it were being sucked in by a luminous vortex, it … soared like an arrow straight up into the sky…. Padre Bartolomeu Lourenco had grabbed one of the plummets that supported the sails, which allowed him to see the machine move away from earth at the most incredible speed…. What's that yonder in the distance? Lisbon, of course. And the river, ah, the sea, that sea which I, Bartolomeu Lourenco de Gusmao, sailed twice from Brazil, that sea which I sailed to Holland. To how many more continents on land and in the air will you transport me, Passarola?… If only the King could see me now … if only the Holy Office of the Inquisition could see me now…. Baltasar and Blimunda finally scrambled to their feet, nervously holding on to the plummets, then to the rail, dazed by the light and the wind. Suddenly they were no longer frightened. Ah, Baltasar shouted, we've made it. He embraced Blimunda and burst into tears.

Richard Eder (review date 13 December 1987)

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SOURCE: "Baroque Portrayal of the Sadness of the Portuguese," in Los Angeles Time Book Review, December 13, 1987, p. 3.

[In the following review, Eder considers Baltasar and Blimunda at times weighted down with unnecessary details but otherwise a successful example of magical realism.]

Jose Saramago is one of Portugal's most eminent writers, and his elaborate novel Baltasar and Blimunda has an authentically national theme. It is about the melancholy of magnificence.

A national stereotype can be rejected but it can't be ignored, particularly when it is as odd as Portugal's. Sadness is a quality that others have claimed for the Portuguese, but mostly the Portuguese claim it for themselves.

More than Spain, their country was the exemplar of an empire impoverished by wealth. Thanks to a burst of early seafaring prowess, Portugal found itself in possession of Brazil, Goa, Macao and Mozambique. A tide of riches swept in and almost none of them stuck. They embellished the country without raising it. Its colonial power never elevated it to more than pawn status in Europe.

The sad monuments remain, and a misty legacy. Portuguese baroque—the Plateresque—is an art of manic embroidery of depressive forms. The palaces and monasteries, beautiful as they are, exhibit no whit of soaring, but a dulcet elaboration gone wild.

With a deliberately baroque ornamentation of its own, elements of magic, pervasive irony and sudden, touching moments of realism, Baltasar and Blimunda deconstructs the magnificence.

There is no elevation in human affairs, it declares, except in airplanes fueled by the human will. That image—an example of the magic—is a central one, as we shall see.

Set in the 18th Century, Baltasar takes the lavish style of Dom Joao V's royal court and renders it indistinct from the bedbugs in the royal bed. It takes the colossal display involved in building the great monastery at Mafra and fuses it with the lives and sufferings of the conscripted workers who labored at it.

It is leveling but not reductive leveling. On the contrary, it is mysterious and sumptuous. The king is absurd, certainly, but he is not brought down to the hod carrier. Instead, the hod carrier partakes of the royal vertigo. A broken-down old soldier who is one of hundreds of scavenging camp-followers on a royal journey to Spain, is written about as if he shared in the royal pump. It is deflation, all right, but by a process of inflation that declares not derision but—that word again—sadness.

Saramago makes the Portuguese court a choked and superheated place. When the book opens, the king is regularly performing his marital duty upon his timid and mopish Austrian wife, who has failed to conceive.

The narrator, here and through much of the book, is grandiloquent, malicious and oddly wary. He sounds like a courtier writing to a relative he does not completely trust. It gives the court scenes a porous, slightly dreamlike quality; some of it very funny.

The narrator recites the court's concerns. The barrenness, of course, must be laid to the queen. A procession of the king's bastards is lining up at that very moment to prove the point. There is a marvelous account of the stately mating protocol. The queen awaits her husband wrapped from head to toe, despite the heat, in the goose eiderdown she brought from home. She lies "curled up like a mole that has found a boulder in its path and is trying to decide on which side it should continue to burrow its tunnel."

A Franciscan monk promises that the queen will conceive if the king builds a monastery at Mafra; assuming, that is, that he entrusts it to the Franciscan Order. The promise is less than it seems; apparently, the queen is already pregnant, though she is too innocent to know it. Her lady-in-waiting knows it, though, and has passed the word to the proper Franciscan circles.

The promise, in any event, is fulfilled; and the building of Mafra will be one of the major themes of the book, related in a detail that contrasts its magnificence with the deadly labor imposed upon the workers who build it. The detail is both crushing and thrilling.

Other scenes, equally detailed, are more wearying. A bullfight, a procession of penitents to be punished in an auto-da-fe, a royal journey to Spain, are virtually parodies of 19th-Century-style ironic realism. They bring the book to an ornamented standstill. This, no doubt, is intended as part of the theme, but that doesn't help much.

Emerging from Sarainago's public chronicle is the individual story of Baltasar and Blimunda. The former is a soldier whose military career ended when he lost his left hand. He replaced it with a removable spike—good for fighting—and a hook—good for working.

Baltasar meets Blimunda at an auto-da-fe where her mother is condemned to exile for witchcraft. Blimunda is tall and fair and possesses a kind of magical X-ray vision. She can see people's insides; she can also see a faculty that the author calls "will." It resembles a cloud.

Baltasar and Blimunda are both ordinary and pure. They are passionately devoted to each other; their marriage is one of earthly sensuality and near-saintly fidelity. Most of the time, Baltasar works as an ox-cart drover at the Mafra project; it allows him and his wife to live in something better than extreme poverty.

Blimunda's gift, however, takes them out of their hard-working domesticity. They are enlisted by a visionary priest, Father Lorenzo, who is trying to build a flying machine. They help him put together the body, which resembles a giant bird. It lacks a flying element, however. After a four-year course of study at the University of Coimbra, Father Lorenzo returns, having discovered what is needed.

This is an element he calls "ether." Ether has an affinity for the sun; when the sun warms it, it rises. It consists of human wills; and Blimunda goes to Lisbon where, assisted by the plague, she collects 2,000 wills in amber bottles.

The machine flies successfully but after Father Lorenzo and his two helpers land it on a mountain, the priest flees to Spain, fearing the Portuguese Inquisition. The machine remains where it is, and for many years—ending with one last flight—Baltasar and Blimunda interrupt their ordinary lives to make periodic visits to repair it.

The flying machine is Saramago's redeeming image. In a heavy world of squandered wealth, of back-breaking poverty, of ignorance and oppression and a messianic compulsion to build grim and elaborate monuments, liberation, lightness and flight are provided by human wills drawn to the sun.

It is a very playful image, and the author handles it without solemnity. Quite arbitrarily, he has Domenico Scarlatti, then working at the Portuguese court, ride out from time to time during the construction to play for the three visionaries on a portable harpsichord.

Baltasar and Blimunda are natural creatures, not supernatural ones. They are earthy, though not earthbound. Their magic is almost incidental; the real magic is in their unforced goodness in an age and a society of pretense and pretension.

Saramago has succeeded with them, and he has succeeded, in part, in his portrait of the world around them. Sometimes, it is a matter of excessive success. The reader is all too often buried in the deliberately elaborate and lifeless detail that Saramago compiles to portray the sickness in his country's history.

Richard A. Preto-Rodas (review date Winter 1988)

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SOURCE: A review of A jangada de pedra, in World Literature Today, Vol. 62, No. 1, Winter, 1988, pp. 107-8.

[In the following review, Preto-Rodas discusses A jangada de pedra, finding that "despite a loose structure," the novel succeeds in its examination of the status of the Iberian peninsula in the modern world.]

In his most recent novel [A jangada de pedra] José Saramago focuses on Portugal (and Spain) in the near future, a departure from his celebrated historical work Memorial do convento (see WLT 61:1, pp. 27-31). Invoking an anonymous observation that the Iberian Peninsula resembles a raft, the "stone raft" of the title, the author sets into motion a remarkable chain of events which occur when the peninsula is suddenly sundered along the Franco-Spanish border from the rest of Europe. Iberia's traditional subaltern status in a more advanced Europe has dramatically ceased to be a continental embarrassment now that Europe indeed stops at the Pyrenees—or, more precisely, at the eastern half of the mountain chain.

The phenomenon coincides with unusual events involving five ordinary individuals, three Portuguese and two Spaniards, whose humdrum lives are transformed as a result. Media coverage about one of them, an elderly Andalusian pharmacist who felt the earth tremble at the fateful moment, leads to a meeting with two Portuguese men, each baffled by his own brush with the mysterious. The trio are subsequently joined by a Portuguese woman who feels a bond with the new celebrities due to her own encounter with the magical, and all four are led by a formidable mastiff to a Galician farm woman. The fortunes of the little band have now become intertwined with the cataclysmic event that has converted their peninsula into a floating island.

Saramago's most recent venture into magic realism requires especially close reading, given a style that melds dialogue, description, and narration with a highly personalized, all-seeing point of view. As the narrator tells of fleeing tourists, their cars rendered useless, followed by wealthy Portuguese and Spaniards, he aims a satiric eye at the posturings of politicians, the superficiality of televised reports, and the maneuvers of the superpowers and their allies prompted by the altered state of Occidental geography. In the process he suggests the encyclopedic florilegia of a Renaissance writer as he spreads his net to include comments on the likes of Don Quixote and Clavileño and Alfred Hitchcock and his birds along with hundreds of references to writers, works, public figures, and a vast array of topics, from proverb lore and geology to religion and poetry. There is even an autonomous short story in the (unnumbered) sixteenth chapter concerning a wandering sailor who lands in a deserted Lisbon only to be shot by soldiers standing guard against looters.

Despite a loose structure, the author manages to hold the reader's attention as the "peninsula" floats across the Atlantic and finally comes to rest somewhere between Africa and South America, a more appropriate location in the view of many. In the interim, the little band and their mastiff traverse Spain and Portugal, and the two Portuguese become the women's lovers. When the earth ceases to move under foot, the old pharmacist dies and the couples, like their two countries, begin anew.

Richard A. Preto-Rodas (review date Winter 1990)

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SOURCE: A review of História do Cerco de Lisboa, in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 1, Winter, 1990, p. 84.

[In the following review, Preto-Rodas calls História do Cerco de Lisboa a "worthy addition" to Saramago's canon.]

In light of the author's enormous successes in recent years, the fanfare occasioned by his most recent novel is hardly surprising. The first edition was launched in both Portugal and Brazil with an unheard-of printing of fifty thousand copies. The first printing ran out in one day in Brazil, where the novel has topped best-seller lists. História do Cerco de Lisboa has met with similar acclaim in Portugal, where the prestigious Jornal de Letras for 18 April declared it "the best of Saramago's novels," a rave which some may qualify only when recalling Memorial do Convento (1982; see WLT 58:1, p. 78, and 61:1, pp. 27-31) and its many translations.

História do Cerco de Lisboa provides a number of motifs which have come to characterize Saramago's works, such as a somewhat timid male protagonist, a more assertive female ("though perhaps both sexes are weak," the male here suggests), and a bittersweet view of the world. We are even reminded of the mastiff from A Jangada de Pedra (see WLT 62:1, p. 107) when a stray dog appears to serve as a measure of society's compassion.

The protagonist of História is Raimundo Silva, a fiftyish bachelor who earns a modest living as a proofreader for a Lisbon publisher. When a manuscript concerning the 1147 siege of Lisbon crosses his desk, he is struck by an overwhelming sense of déjà vu as he reads the all-too-familiar account of how Portugal's first king, Afonso Henriques, conquered the Moorish city with the help of foreign crusaders en route from northern Europe to Jerusalem. Rebelling against yet another unimaginative account of history, the proofreader inserts a "not" into the text, making the sentence in question read, "The crusaders did not agree to help seize Lisbon." By the time the change is detected, Raimundo's employers are in an uproar; also, he has intrigued a new editor, the refined and comely Maria Sara. The resulting mutual attraction is enhanced by her proposal that Raimundo re-create the siege of Lisbon from his original perspective. The novel thus proceeds to incorporate yet another novel based on a scholarly study, all of which entails a fusion of periods, points of view, and such characters as a blind muezzin, a financially strapped twelfth-century king and his motley following, and a ragged couple whose romantic fortunes parallel those of Raimundo and Maria Saria. Saramago ends his novel with the fall of Moorish Lisbon and the union, for the moment at least, of both sets of lovers.

The novel succeeds in large part thanks to its setting, the ancient quarter of Lisbon where Raimundo lives under the shadow of the hilltop fort, the actual site of the events of 1147. As he strolls about his neighborhood for inspiration, time coalesces, and even customers in a luncheonette become worried Moslem men and women discussing the siege of their beloved city. There are no overt transitions from Saramago's narrative to Raimundo's. As in previous novels by Saramago, the reader is guided and charmed by the intensely conversational style of a genial omniscient narrator who delights in revealing surprise and ambiguity in a world meticulously analyzed. Saramago's irony and wit are tempered only by his sympathy for characters who are strikingly rendered despite differences of time, class, sex, or religion. Even Raimundo's part-time cleaning lady reveals facets that beg for a novel of her own. The fanfare is justified, for História do Cerco de Lisboa is a worthy addition to the author's impressive bibliography.

Richard Eder (review date 30 December 1990)

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SOURCE: "An Aftertaste of Iberian Unreality," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 30, 1990, p. 3.

[In the following review, Eder examines The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis in the context of the Iberian literary tradition of surreality, finding in the novel an appropriate and successfully rendered balance between the serious and the absurd.]

The circumstantial fog that surrounds so many modern facts, the literary fog with which some modern authors choose to write about them, the actual fog that blurs and softens the Baroque architecture of Lisbon: How well, on the whole, these come together in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis.

The Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago, author of the enchanting historical fantasy Baltasar and Blimunda, has created an utterly indeterminate protagonist. He is a middle-aged doctor and poet who returns to Lisbon in the mid-1930s after living for 16 years in Brazil. He dies a year after his arrival. On the other hand, he may have been dead from the start. Or he may be a literary invention of the real and historical Portuguese poet, Fernando de Pessoa.

Indeterminacy is in literary fashion right now, with its deconstructionist rupture between words and the reality they ostensibly represent. But it has long roots, particularly in the literature of the Iberian Peninsula. There was the Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno; but chiefly, of course, there was Calderon's Life Is a Dream. Iberian unreality has ancestors and family photographs; it has veins, warmth and melancholy.

Existent or not—he argues for the possibility and does not always win—Dr. Ricardo Reis displays a great deal of life in the aimless interval that he spends between his arrival on the first page and his "death" on the last. Indecisive, languid and pedantic, he haunts us, nonetheless; just as throughout the book, he is himself haunted by the sardonic and talkative ghost of Pessoa, who comes regularly to visit.

A little narrative is in order. Reis lands in Lisbon, where it is raining, and where it continues to rain virtually nonstop. He has no friends or connections; he puts up in a comfortable hotel, works for a while as a substitute for another doctor, makes vague plans to open a practice of his own and. with much procrastination, moves to a somber and massively furnished apartment overlooking the harbor.

History tosses and turns like an insomniac in the next room, without ever quite breaking in on his daze. Reis' hotel is full of right-wing Spaniards plotting the uprising that will become the Civil War. He himself is an object of suspicion to the Portuguese government, led by the professorial dictator, Salazar, and sympathetic to the Spanish Right. He is interrogated by the police, inconclusively; a ghostly policeman shadows him, his presence invariably announced by the odor of onions.

Reis' own past is no more definite than his existence. As a youth, he was part of a liberal intellectual circle that included Pessoa; his departure for Brazil followed an abortive coup. His return follows an abortive leftist coup in Brazil: hence, the police surveillance. In the rambling musings that form a considerable part of the book, he appears aimlessly indecisive: unhappy with the Spanish Republic, and unhappy with Franco. Among all our doubts as to who he is, it is clear that he is Saramago's image of the futile artist and intellectual.

The futility is played out with comic allure that deepens into sadness in two love affairs that Reis bonelessly carries along. One is with Marcenda, whom he spots dining at the hotel with her father. She is slender and virginal, and has a crippled left hand. Father and daughter come down from Coimbra once a month, ostensibly so that specialists can examine her, and also so that her bourgeois father can visit his mistress.

Marcenda and Reis exchange glances, and she contrives a decorous meeting in the hotel lounge so that he can examine her hand. The hand is incurable, he tells her, but she should continue the monthly visits. It will give her father an alibi for his escapades, and it will give her an alibi for hope.

It will also allow her to visit him in his apartment. All that happens is a passionate monthly kiss, which Saramago makes more arousing than any 10 bedroom scenes. Finally Marcenda refuses an offer of marriage, and breaks off. Reis is too immaterial to hold her.

Marcenda is a splendid character, outspoken, inhibited and as much a fantasist as Reis. Lydia, the chambermaid with whom Reis conducts a much more fleshly affair, is even more memorable. She belongs to the oppressed classes—the hotel, with its hierarchies, stands for society—but her passion flames through her timidity.

Reis holds her hand for a moment one morning when she brings him breakfast and tells her she's pretty. She flees, but when he returns to his room in the evening, he sees that she has put out two pillows instead of one, and has turned down both sides of the bed sheets. Saramago's comedy is delicately and intimately entwined with his bleak puzzles; these, in turn, are tangled in something close to tenderness.

Lydia is whole-hearted, sensual and devoted. She creeps down the hotel's cold corridors each night from her garret. When Reis moves out, she comes once a week to remedy his domestic incompetence, "to tidy up this chaos, this resigned sorrow of things badly arranged." Afterwards, she washes, and they make love. They also argue about politics. She is a woman of the people; her brother is a naval seaman and a Communist. At the end, he is killed in an abortive left-wing mutiny.

Ultimately, Reis—artistic dilettante and poet's figment—is as muffled against life, love and humanity as if he, like the regularly visiting Pessoa, were a ghost or the poet-ghost's poetic invention.

He is a voyeur and an insatiable ruminator. Like Leopold Bloom canvassing Dublin, he walks endlessly through the streets, reads all the trivia in the newspapers, and rarely slows his stream of disconnected musings. He cannot find reality, so he hurls speculation at it, like 40 chimpanzees set to pounding 40 typewriters in the hope that by chance they might write Hamlet.

Reis' musing and peregrinating can be comically absurd. The first morning in the hotel, he hears the maid—it turns out to be Lydia—at the door with his breakfast: Surely, she is using both hands to carry the loaded tray. How does she manage to knock? Does she have three hands? Surely, "we would be in a sorry state if we had to hire only servants who possess three hands or more." In their sheer volume, the musings can be wearying, as well. It is not always easy to pay attention to Reis' ghostly meanderings.

Yet ultimately, the doctor-poet holds us and moves us. His struggle to be real makes him real. Saramago, unlike some modern writers, seems to know that it takes a real character to make one who is meaningless. It takes someone serious to be absurd.

Michael Wood (review date 24 October 1991)

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SOURCE: "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," in New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 17, October 24, 1991, pp. 20-22.

[In the following review, Wood discusses the almost-palpable sense of history in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis.]

… "One can be a monarchist," a character says in José Saramago's capacious, funny, threatening novel [The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis], "without clamoring for a king." The man who speaks in this way has just arrived in Portugal after a long spell abroad, and earlier in the book has signed a hotel register: "Name, Ricardo Reis, age, forty-eight, place of birth, Oporto, marital status, bachelor, profession, doctor, last place of residence, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil…." "It reads," the narrator comments, "like the beginning of a confession, an intimate autobiography, all that is hidden is contained in these handwritten lines, the only problem is to interpret them." This is a problem, though. Reis, like Bernardo Soares and Fernando Pessoa, is given to thinking he is many people, indeed has written a poem saying so ("Innumerable people live within us …"), but who is he, apart from being a character in a novel by Saramago (born 1922), first published in Portuguese in 1984? He is a figment of Pessoa's mind, a reaction to Alberto Caeiro, another figment; a gifted poet; and he is, in this book, alive when Pessoa is dead.

The time is late 1935, most of 1936, and Reis has returned from Brazil because he has received a telegram from Alvaro de Campos ("Fernando Pessoa has died Stop I am leaving for Glasgow Stop"). He meets and has regular conversations with the ghost of Pessoa, although when one man is dead and the other fictional it is perhaps wise, as Saramago suggests, to go easy on the question of real life.

But Reis also has relationships with flesh-and-blood women (that is, plausible women made of prose), begets a son, and his Lisbon is irredeemably, desperately historical. There is poverty in the streets, fear in the air. Salazar rules, there are Fascist rallies, described by Saramago with deceptive mildness, as if all that shrieking patriotism was harmless, as if black, brown, blue, and green shirts were just a matter of color combinations. Les beaux esprits se recontrent, Saramago says, pretending to admire the subtlety of the French proverb. It's the equivalent of our "Great minds think alike," but it's funnier in French when applied to Ricardo Reis's sharing a thought with Franco, and by extension with Salazar, Mussolini, and Hitler.

At the end of the novel, as the Spanish Civil War rages, and General Milán d'Astray makes his famous cry of Viva la muerte, Portuguese sailors revolt in favor of the Spanish Republic, and are killed. One of them is the brother of Reis's mistress, but even without this connection he would know he had gone wrong, that the world was rougher and more complicated than anything his posture of classical stoicism could cope with. Reis is tailed by Salazar's police as politically suspect, and the novel, in its affectionate and witty way, refutes pretty much everything Reis thought he stood for, and with it, much of Pessoa's more heraldic and nostalgic thinking too, particularly his dreams of a Fifth Portuguese Empire, headed by King Sebastian, returned from the Blessed Isles as King Arthur was also supposed to return to England. Salazar is not Sebastian, but the dream of Sebastian may have helped Salazar to power.

Reis's hedonism brings not peace or indifference but a muddled guilt, and Pessoa and Reis together articulate a new domain of doubt. The following sentences seem to be spoken alternately, with Reis going first, but as Saramago wryly says elsewhere, in these territories the question of who speaks may be meaningless. The initial reference is to a Pessoa poem which begins "O poeta é urn fingidor," and suggests that the poet even pretends that the pain he is really feeling is pain:

You yourself wrote that a poet is someone who pretends. We utter such intuitions without knowing how we arrive at them, unfortunately I died without discovering whether it is the poet who pretends to be a man or the man who pretends to be a poet. To pretend and to deceive oneself are not the same thing. Is that a statement or a question. It is a question. Of course they're not the same….

This may all sound like an elaborate literary game, but the historical stakes are quite high, and The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is also a patient, old-fashioned novel full of dialogue and detail, mist, streets, squares, statues, meals, rooms, neighbors, life in a particular hotel of modest pretensions. So much "reality," carefully documented, lovingly piled up. Can it be true, as the narrator suggests, that the "only real survivor" in detective stories is the reader, and that other stones are perhaps no different, since it is "as the one real survivor that every reader reads every story"? This may be what we tell ourselves, but the effect here is almost exactly the reverse. Nineteen-thirty-six seems nearer, and certainly more solid, than 1991. Pessoa and his companions, one defunct and the others invented, have already lived for more than half a century, and even their ghosts are sturdier than we are.

Shaun Whiteside (review date 28 August 1992)

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SOURCE: A review of The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, in New Statesman and Society, August 28, 1992, pp. 34-5.

[In the following review, Whiteside provides a brief explanation of the literary background of The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis—particularly regarding the life and work of Fernando Pessoa—and finally considers the novel an "impressive intellectual achievement," although overly cerebral.]

This large novel [The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis], by Portugal'ss greatest living writer, comes with a number of provisos. According to the author, it might be fully appreciated only by someone Portuguese. For the translator, it requires a thorough knowledge of Portugal's history and culture from the days of empire to the beginning of Salazar's dictatorship in 1938. Lastly, it presupposes an intimate knowledge of the work of Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935), the writer who, according to his translator, probed "with Talmudic precision and persistence the philosophical problems surrounding true boredom". Given all this, it's hard not to feel that the novel's constituency will have already lapped it up in the original. And if it all sounds daunting, well it might.

To provide some background: Pessoa, the poet of The Message and author of The Book of Disquiet, wrote under three pseudonyms (at least)—Alvaro de Campos, Alberto Caeiro and Ricardo Reis. Each of them represented a different aspect of his creative personality. Of these, Reis is the cerebral one, the neo-classicist without much appetite for the things of the real world.

At the beginning of Saramago's novel, Reis, a doctor and a monarchist, is returning from exile in Rio to Lisbon in 1936. Around the time of his arrival he learns of the death of his creator, Pessoa. By a happy symmetry, however—and Reis appreciates symmetry—Pessoa will not fade utterly from the world for another nine months, a mirror of his original gestation. And when he dies for this second time, Reis will go with him.

For the nine months left to him, Reis books into a hotel, where he lives on the savings he has brought with him. Poems come to him, and so does the spectre of Pessoa, who pops in from time to time wearing the suit he was buried in. Reis, it should be said, is pretty wraith-like himself, and the two discuss metaphysics—life, identity, truth—at considerable length.

Reis falls for Marcenda, a young woman with hysterical paralysis of the left hand, whose father brings her to Lisbon every month, supposedly for a cure but in reality to conduct an illicit affair. He also takes to bed the hotel chambermaid, Lydia, a down-to-earth young woman who at least is capable of some feeling, and who forms a deliberate contrast with Reis' muse of the same name.

As Salazar's dictatorship approaches, as the Falangists come to victory in Spain, Reis finds himself being tailed by Victor, a police spy who smells of onions even first thing in the morning, and moves into an apartment of his own.

In search of his spiritual love, and hoping vaguely for a miracle of some kind, Reis joins a pilgrimage to Fatima, where he finds the faithful being bombarded with advertisements for Bovril from a low-flying plane. There is a genuinely poignant and horribly funny moment when an illiterate peasant in search of enlightenment asks him to interpret one of the Bovril leaflets. There is no miracle.

Lydia proves courageous, saved by the authenticity of her feelings; Reis seems ultimately defeated by his apathy and disillusioned pragmatism. Meanwhile Salazar's thugs are taking to the streets and Portugal is set for a few benighted decades. Pessoa and Reis take their leave of the living.

This is very much a novel of ideas, subtly textured and rich in symbolism, written in a style redolent of the age of high modernism, and many of its ironies are refined to the point of invisibility. Giovanni Pontiero deserves to be applauded for capturing the novel's many different levels of discourse. On the other hand, this is a book for people who would take Unamuno or Broch to read on holiday. So rarefied is the atmosphere that it comes as a terrific relief when Victor turns up smelling of onions again, or when Reis eats some scrambled eggs, even if he doesn't much like them. This is an impressive intellectual achievement, but perhaps one with too much Dedalus, not enough Bloom.

Richard A. Preto-Rodas (review date Autumn 1992)

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SOURCE: A review of O Evangelho segundo Jesus Cristo, in World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 4, Autumn, 1992, p. 697.

[In the following review, Preto-Rodas warns that O Evangelho segundo Jesus Cristo "will hardly validate traditional beliefs," but confirms that the novel probes important questions about the nature of Christianity and religion.]

As Portugal's most celebrated living author, José Saramago has never concealed his Marxist ideology. Thus, when he announced that his seventh novel would be based on the life of Jesus of Nazareth, there was lively anticipation. Judging from its best-seller status in both Portugal and Brazil, O Evangelho segundo Jesus Cristo (The Gospel According to Jesus Christ) has not disappointed Saramago's admirers. The book's controversial theme has also sparked much debate even among religiously orthodox groups at home and abroad.

The novel follows the scriptural outlines as established in the Synoptic Gospels, though it departs from the embellishments of pious tradition. The first of nine children born to a young couple, Jesus is accompanied by wondrous phenomena from the moment of his conception. When Herod orders the slaughter of Bethlehem's infants, Jesus' father Joseph is overwhelmed with guilt for not having warned the villagers of impending disaster and suffers recurrent nightmares as a result. (Saramago has been faulted for leaving unclear just how Joseph might have saved the children even had he chosen to do so.) When Joseph is executed at thirty-three, the victim of Roman repression, the thirteen-year-old Jesus inherits the nightmare, and its awful significance is reluctantly revealed by his mother. Appalled that his survival was somehow connected to the slaughter of innocents, he leaves home and remains estranged from his family except for an occasional tense encounter such as the meeting at the marriage feast in Cana.

Saramago fills in the period between Jesus' youth and his appearance as an adult with years of apprenticeship in service to a shepherd, a mysterious figure whose abiding interest in the protagonist begins with his conception and continues until his death. During this period Jesus is informed by God in the shape of a cloud that he is His son, destined to expand the Father's kingdom beyond the narrow confines of Israel. Later, as a young man, Jesus becomes Mary Magdalene's companion in a scene replete with imagery from the Song of Songs, and his fame proceeds to spread, the result of such miracles as fish-filled nets and devils cast into swine.

The climax is reached in a skiff on a fog-shrouded Sea of Galilee, where God reveals the full extent of His plan before a single witness, the tall shepherd, who is now revealed to be Lucifer. When Jesus asks just how the new religion will evolve, he is horrified to learn that "it will be an endless story of iron and bloodshed, of fire and ashes, an infinite sea of suffering and tears." God proceeds to enumerate in several pages an alphabetically organized martyrology commencing with Jesus' friends and disciples. After listing dozens of victims and their gory executions, God testily asks, "Haven't you heard enough?," only to be countered by Jesus, who observes: "That is a question you might better address to Yourself." Even Lucifer suggests forgoing the need for such suffering and offers to recant and reconcile with God, but his offer is rejected, since he is needed as a foil for Divinity. Jesus, now a reluctant Messiah, returns to shore to complete his mission and its inevitable denouement on Golgotha.

Clearly, for Saramago, the Judeo-Christian God is more Moloch than loving father, and religion throughout the novel is inseparable from immolation and suffering. When, for example, Mary visits the temple at Jerusalem to ensure her purification after giving birth, two turtledoves are sacrificed in a harrowing scene of clucking fowls, terrified bleating lambs, and blood-spattered priests, and the narrator invokes the spirit of Voltaire as he marvels, "How can God find satisfaction in the midst of so much blood?" Later, when Jesus is obliged to sacrifice his pet sheep to seal the new covenant, he sheds tears while "God sighs in satisfaction." In short, as the horrific glimpse into a future of patriarchal despotism, religious wars, and inquisitions would seem to demonstrate, "It is necessary to be God for one to enjoy so much bloodshed." The tone, however, is less accusatory than tragic, for even God is not free "to cease loving Himself" and is thus compelled to assert His dominance. In his final moments Jesus realizes the sad truth when he sees himself as yet another "lamb led to slaughter" and cries out before a smiling God, "Men, forgive Him, for He knows not what He has done." In death his final sensation is provided by a welcome drop of watered vinegar from a sponge held up to him by the mysterious shepherd we know as Lucifer.

As in his previous works (see e.g. WLT 61:1, pp. 27-31, and 62:1, p. 107), Saramago's style is demanding in its blend of narrative, description, and dialogue, and the theme accounts for a mood of foreboding. The reader, however, is swept along by events despite the ancient and familiar plot. The author's fans will find much wit and many wry allusions such as references to a verse by Góngora or a line from Camões. A finger is pointed to Pessoa, and at one point a joke is played on Saramago's previous novel, História do Cerco de Lisboa (see WLT 64:1, p. 84). There is even an echo of current events in a sly description of Jewish insurrection in Roman-occupied Israel as an intifada. Throughout, the author's critical irreverence provides bizarre insights, such as his account of the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus suddenly shifts from comforting promises to the poor to dire warnings, for "God suddenly realized what was happening and, unable to censure what Jesus had said, He obliged him to add other words." It is obvious that O Evangelho segundo Jesus Cristo will hardly validate traditional beliefs, but it will definitely provide much food for thought.

Ruth Pavey (review date 27 August 1993)

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SOURCE: "Jealous God," in New Statesman and Society, Vol. 6, No. 267, August 27, 1993, p. 40.

[In the following review, Pavey finds The Gospel According to Jesus Christ a worthy addition to the catalog of modern literary studies of Christianity.]

José Saramago is Portugal's leading writer, now in his seventies. Despite this eminence, it is not hard to see why he ran into stormy weather after publishing this book [The Gospel According to Jesus Christ]. Written in a tender, respectful tone, its purpose emerges only gradually. But it becomes unmistakable in a key scene towards the end, with a devastating excoriation of cruel religious practice. In a boat hemmed in by a sea mist, cut off from normal time, God, the Devil and Jesus engage in unequal discussion. Their subject is the future course of that which has not yet come into being: Christianity.

Jesus, powerless except to ask questions, badgers from a reticent God a preview of the carnage to come, the agony to be endured in his name. Although his delivery is concise, God needs the next eight pages for his (incomplete) catalogue of "abnegation, tears, suffering, torment, every conceivable form of death known or as yet unrevealed". Even the Devil is shocked: "Although I myself have caught glimpses of the light and darkness ahead, I never realised that the light was coming from the burning stakes and the shadows from innumerable corpses."

In Saramago's characterisation, Jesus is neither wimp nor superman, just the thoughtful, tender-hearted son of a carpenter. The deal before him, very much an offer he cannot refuse, is posthumous power and glory. In exchange he must be the earthly representative, the sacrificial lamb through whom the Hebrew God will pursue his desire for universal sovereignty. Having heard what this will entail, Jesus is reduced to saying, "I don't want this glory". God snaps back: "But I want that power."

The Devil offers to abdicate, in order to avoid so much bloodshed. But God is quick to see the flaw in this arrangement: "if you were to come to an end, so would I; for Me to be Goodness, it is essential that you should continue to be Evil". The Devil swims off, God and the mist evaporate. Jesus rows in to find he has been away for 40 days, that a crowd awaits him, and that Simon Peter is adopting the role of manager. The rest of the tale we know, though it is somewhat changed in the telling.

The sacrifice of two doves in the Temple, to ensure Mary's purification after the birth of Jesus, is the first substantial indication of Saramago's standpoint. Allowing himself only glancing asides, he relies on the scene to speak for itself. He has us accompany Joseph, Mary and Jesus into the Court of the Gentiles, to buy the doves amid the "smell of blood and singed feathers". Things get worse as we move inwards, court by court.

First, Gentiles are excluded, then women, and all the time there is an increasing stench, smoke, and howling, bleating, shouting, till the furnace and slaughterhouse are reached. Numerous animals are being killed on two stone slabs. Joseph is moved to murmur: "My God, my God, how fragile You have made us and how vulnerable to death." Nevertheless, the Holy Family leave, unperturbed. But by the end of the chapter, Herod has already ordered the Massacre of the Innocents.

The story of Christ's life has not lacked interpreters. Nikos Kazantzakis, in his novel The Last Temptation, has Jesus emerge as a triumphant hero. But in questioning the horrors of Christian martyrdom and celebrating human affection, Saramago is nearer to Shusaku Endo, the great Japanese Catholic novelist. For Saramago's Jesus there is no triumph, only pity. His last cry from the cross is changed to "Men, forgive Him, for He knows not what He has done".

Giovanni Pontiero (essay date January 1994)

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SOURCE: "José Saramago and O ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis: The Making of a Masterpiece," in Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, Vol. LXXI, No. 1, January, 1994, pp. 139-48.

[In the following essay, Pontiero examines the major themes in O ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis.]

As the title suggests, this fourth novel by José Saramago is dominated by the presence of Ricardo Reis, one of the heteronyms of the poet Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935), Portugal's most famous poet since Camoens. Pessoa insisted that his three main heteronyms (Álvaro de Campos, Alberto Caeiro and Ricardo Reis) were not mere pseudonyms but evidence of the multiple personalities we all possess and contrasting facets of our innumerable selves. Saramago ingeniously probes the relationship between Pessoa and Reis further, by allowing the heteronym to outlive his creator by nine months, while summoning Pessoa from his tomb to renew friendship with Reis, who has just returned to Portugal after sixteen years of exile in Brazil.

Reis' return to Portugal can be seen as a quest, a pilgrimage to his creator's grave, a return to his spiritual roots, spurred on by the need to renew an unfinished dialogue about life and art, reality and illusion. Both Pessoa and Reis are haunted by unresolved enigmas and the poet confides: '… morri antes de terra percebido se é o poeta que se finge de homem ou o homem que se finge de poeta'.

The Lisbon Reis encounters on his return is a sombre and silent city, its topography a labyrinth of reminiscences. A constant drizzle and darkness emphasize the all-pervading sense of alienation and the author suggests that what Reis needs is

um cãozito de cego, uma bengalita, uma luz adiante, que este mundo e esta Lisboa são uma névoa escura onde se perde o sul e o norte, o leste e o oeste, onde o único caminho aberto é para baixo …

The Lisbon depicted by Saramago is unmistakably that of the mid-1930s. The reader has the impression of scanning photographs of the period, the city's monuments and statues reminding us of Portugal's former glory, once a great sea-faring nation and mighty empire, but now much diminished. In the company of Reis, we discover the city's landmarks, a city of slopes and lookouts dominating the waters of the Tagus. Posters, advertisements and a wealth of visual detail provide a vivid picture of the commerce, the trading companies and products of the day, the time-honoured traditions and local customs, the numerous churches, convents, theatres, cinemas and music halls. A city of bustle and sharp contrasts, a nation much given to parades and processions, feast-days and carnival.

But once installed in the Hotel Bragança, a glass house at once confining and transparent, 'lugar neutro, sem compromisso, de trânsito e suspensa', Reis gradually becomes aware of a clandestine Lisbon, of the anxieties and fears lurking in the background. The political events that were to change the face of Europe, notably the civil war in Spain and upsurge of Fascism in Italy and Germany, also began to affect Portugal. A tiny country with reduced resources, Portugal could hope for little in the power game being played by stronger nations. The repressive régime introduced by Salazar's 'New State' aped the Fascist régimes of Italy and many with disastrous results. Salazar, Portugal's self-styled sage, actor and gentle potentate, courted the approval of these dubious allies, while leading his country into crippling isolation. The spirit of patriotism he invoked was to absolve all excesses and justify the most glaring contradictions.

Reis' pessimistic view of the political arena of the day and his contempt for political expediency provide Saramago with an irresistible opportunity to voice his own firm belief that deception is the very essence of politics:

Lutam as nações umas com as otras, por interesses quo não são de Jack nem de Pierre nem de Hans nem de Manolo nem de Giuseppe, tudo nomes de homem para simplificar, mas que os mesmos e outros homens tomam ingenuamente como seus, os interesses, ou virão a sê-lo à custa de pesado pagamento quando chegar a hora de liquidar a conta.

The voice we are listening to here is that of a committed communist who knows that powerful neighbours can either offer help or extermination. As a political force, Portugal comes across as a nation that has lost its nerve and initiative; servile and ineffectual, timid even on her home territory, she is patronized by the rest of Europe and is insultingly typecast as the 'loyal ally'.

Saramago frequently refers to the tiny voice of Portugal, and this sense of inferiority conditions the Portuguese people both at home and abroad. The author reminds us that no one can claim to be truly Portuguese unless he speaks another language better than his own, a nation of emigrants prepared to settle wherever they can find something to eat and earn some money. Patient, hard-working and submissive, the Portuguese have mastered the art of self-effacement: 'este povo ainda tem na memória inconsciente os costumes do deserto, continua a acreditar que o que defende do frio defende do calor, por isto se cobre todo, come se se escondesse'. Brainwashed by the politicians and clergy, the people are encouraged to confuse things human and divine and to believe that 'Portugal é Cristo e Crislo é Portugal'.

Seen through the eyes of an atheist who is not insensitive to the persuasive influence of religion, the Holy Shrine of Fatima is yet further proof of human gullibility. The faith and resignation of the pilgrims returning empty-handed fills Reis with quiet rage and frustration. In search of a miracle, these pilgrims advance from every cardinal and collateral point until they converge at the shrine: 'Fátima … uma enorme estrela … esta preciosa jóia de catolicidade resplandece por muitos lumes … sofrimento … fé … caridade … a indústria de bentinhos e similares … quinquilharia … comes e bebes … perdidos e achados'. A dispirited Reis retreats from the pilgrimage convinced that once we start believing in miracles we have lost all hope. Stoic resignation is preferable by far and will bring fewer disappointments: 'Não tentarás o Senhor teu Deus nem a Senhora Sua Mãe e, se bem pensasses, não deverias pedir, mas aceitar, isto mandaria a humitdade, só Deus é que sabe o que nos convém'.

Reis is equally scornful of that other major instrument of manipulation, the Press, which misleads its readers while satisfying their curiosity. Perusing the newspapers of the day, Reis uncovers yet another labyrinth of information at once significant and trivial, true and false, selected and edited for maximum effect and couched in words which conceal as much as they reveal, the language pitched at the level of the masses they hope to brainwash. Salazar transformed the Press into a powerful instrument of propaganda and self-aggrandizement. We are reminded that the ideals and achievements of the New State were constantly being extolled in the newspapers. Thanks to Salazar, Divine Providence was pouring endless blessings on Portugal while the rest of the world faced doom and destruction, a farcical travesty not unlike the special edition printed daily for the senile John D. Rockefeller which reported nothing but prosperity, the end of unemployment, the death of communism in Russia, and the virtues of the American way of life, while suppressing every item of bad news.

Returning from the relaxed, not to say lax, atmosphere of Brazil, it is perhaps inevitable that Reis should be struck by the persistent rigidity of the social hierarchy in his native Portugal. He has his own ironic theory about social harmony:

a paz social é uma questão dc tacto, de inura, de psicologia, para tudo dizer numa palavra só, à vez três vezcs, se ela ou elas coincidem rigorosamente com o pensamento é problema a cujo deslindamento já tínhamos renunciado.

Beholding the spectacle of the world from his own privileged position, he is painfully aware of its ironies, injustices and inequalities. The lower orders, that backward clan, disconcert and exasperate him with their endless capacity for suffering and humiliation (whether it be sincere or false). Reis comments that if Lydia were not a maid at the Hotel Bragança, there is every possibility that she would make an excellent tightrope walker, juggler or musician, for she has talent enough for any of these professions. And this reflection squares with Saramago's firm conviction even the most deprived members of society are exceptional human beings who only need the right conditions in order to show their true worth. Class distinctions are further explored when we meet the two women in Reis' life: the warm-hearted, uncomplaining Lydia who submits to the advances of hotel guests because 'a vida é triste', and the coy, elusive Marcenda who has the right social credentials but whose chances of a normal existence have been dashed by the embarrassing disfigurement of a withered arm. The presence of Lydia and Marcenda satisfies two quite separate strands in Reis' nature: a man in search of his creature comforts and sexual gratification on the one hand, the poet in search of the ideal muse on the other, because even poets, after all, are not exempt from the demands both of the flesh and the spirit. Reis' warring emotions on both counts tell us everything we need to know about accepted attitudes between men and women in a society fettered by religious beliefs and social prejudices. And our protagonist speaks with two voices: pursuing his muse one minute as he works at a poem and engaging in a little erotic combat the next to steady his nerves and calm his thoughts. Uneasy relationships between men and women are probed in all Saramago's books and with disarming honesty. He confides that there are moments in life when we think we are experiencing passion and it is merely an outburst of gratitude. His limited experience of women has taught him the difference between love and companionship, the latter seemingly preferable because less painful and demanding.

So much for the personal dimension as Reis renews contact with his past and intellectual formation, but what of the universal dimension surrounding the charismatic figure of Fernando Pessoa—poet, philosopher and pervasive presence even as a ghost?

Saramago's portrait of Pessoa is accurate in every detail: a fastidious and somewhat enigmatic human being, a keen observer of life and hypersensitive by nature. As an intellectual, Pessoa was impressive. A man with wide interests, a voracious reader and attuned to new philosophical ideas and literary trends then current in Europe. Avant-garde journals published in Lisbon provided Pessoa with a platform for his theories about art and life. In his poetry and essays, there is a lingering sense of disquiet: 'Não conheço quem fui no que hoje sou'. In dialogue, Reis, his heteronym, alternately identifies with Pessoa or questions his creator's conclusions on every imaginable issue from political allegiances to the essence of true love. And to complicate matters, the voice of Saramago himself can be heard intermittently, adding his own note of agreement or dissent. The dialogues between Pessoa and Reis are wary and tense, they confess to never having really understood each other as they recapitulate and reiterate their convictions, qualify and revise certain opinions they once held. In both men there is a contagious pessimism and weariness, Pessoa the more resigned, Reis the more irritable and sceptical, 'a mais duvidosa das pessoas'; both are keenly aware of their inner solitude, of a profound silence (the half-brother of solitude). Like Pessoa before him. Reis feels overwhelmed by the enormity of the world, by too much talk, too much literature, and he declares himself exhausted after hours of listening to

os pulmões portugueses tuberculosos, cansado também de terra palmilhado a cidade, no espaço limitado por onde incessantemente circula, como a mula que vai puxando a nora, de olhos vendados, e, apesar disso ou por causa disso, sentindo por momentos a vertigem do tempo, o oscilar ameaçador das arquitecturas, a viscosa pasta do chão, as pedras moles.

Here we find the same dark musings as in Pessoa's Livro do Desassossego, but offset by the simple need to believe that there are some good things in life such as love, for example, or that happiness which unhappy people are continually talking about. Yet for the self-questioning Pessoa and Reis, happiness and love might well prove to be impossible, given their difficulty in knowing themselves. And this is where Lydia shows her inner strength. She possesses neither Reis' intellect nor powers of introspection, but when it comes to knowing herself—she does not appear to have the slightest doubt. Their relationship reveals the abyss between what Pessoa defines as 'vida teórica' and 'vida prática'. The words she utters are simple and to the point, yet somehow more meaningful than the fastidious discussions of Pessoa and Reis: 'singular rapariga esta Lídia, diz as coisas mais simples e parece que as diz como se apenas mostrasse a pele doutras palavras profundas que não pode ou nâo quer pronunciar'.

The existential problem posed by Pessoa, Reis and Saramago, is that every human being is individual while resembling every other human being. We are all unique, yet innumerable, and this multiple personality exacerbates the problem of self-identity and our fragmentation. To complicate matters, the gods, too, are innumerable, but hopefully superfluous: 'quern não tem Deus procura deuses, quem deuses abandonou a Deus inventa, um dia nos livraremos deste e daqucles'. This fragmentation means that we can feel many, often contradictory, things at the same time. And this in turn can so easily lead us into misunderstanding and misinterpretation; human error and its dire consequences being one of Saramago's constant preoccupations.

Another obsessive preoccupation is the thought of encroaching death. Man is compared with an elephant that senses its approaching end. A constant theme in his poetry and prose while alive, death is perceived somewhat differently by the Pessoa who returns from the grave. The poet's confidences to Reis give as much cause for disquiet as reassurance. Looking back on life, Pessoa can best describe it as a lingering convalescence:

afinal a vida não é muito mais que estar deitado, convalescendo duma enfermidadc antiga, incurável e recidivante, com intervalos a que chamamos saúde, algum nome lhes havíamos de dar, vista a diferença que há entre os dois estados.

This uneasy pact between life and death extends to that between memory and oblivion, and Pessoa warns Reis that the wall separating the living from one another is no less opaque than the wall that separates the living from the dead. The poet's message would appear to be that, when the laughter and the tears have subsided, we are left with shadows, a sense of futility, a shaming recognition of our own ineptitude when it comes to accepting fundamental truths, and when Reis accuses Pessoa of trivial philosophizing, he warns him that everything loses its significance once seen from his side of death.

Convinced that the works of mankind are ever incomplete, Pessoa can attest to lost opportunities, to missing out on that one word that needed to be said, that one gesture that needed to be made before time ran out. Once dead, Pessoa becomes aware that being and existing are not the same thing, and that in the final analysis none of us is truly alive or dead, nor is anyone the wiser as to whether 'this passing shadow we cast on the ground is life because it resembles life'.

Pessoa's lifelong concern with the inevitability of fate is echoed throughout Saramago's novel. We are constantly being reminded that no man escapes his ironic destiny—'o destiny, além de obreiro, também sabe de ironias'—or can hope to win his battle against time: 'Não hâ resposta para o tempo, estamos nele e assislimos nada mais'. As Ricardo Reis lies in bed, he imagines that he can see the palm of God's hand overhead and is reading there the lines of life, of a life that narrows, is interrupted and revived, becomes more and more tenuous, a besieged heart solitary behind those walls. In Saramago's firmament the gods are wise and indifferent, and above them is fate, the supreme order to which even gods are subject. Once he touches on the divinities, Saramago becomes cynical, rebellious, and subversive. Because the gods of Ricardo Reis are silent, unfeeling entities prepared to dupe and abandon us:

para quem o mal e o bem são menos que palavras, por as não dizerem eles nunca, e como as diriam, se mesmo enlre o bem e o mal não sabem distinguir, indo como nós vamos no rio das cotsas, só deles distintos porque lhe chamamos deuses e às vezes acreditamos.

The challenge confronting mankind is to change fate without the assistance of god or gods, to change it for better or worse, and to prevent fate from being fate.

In Saramago, critics worldwide have recognized a master of irony, a writer with an unsparing eye for human foibles and paradoxical situations. And when pressed on this point he once explained: 'I de-dramatise life through irony'. In O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis, the registers of parody and satire are as unpredictable as they are varied. Saramago can be biting yet compassionate, discerning yet deeply moving. His most bitter remarks are directed at the powerful and affluent who live in dread of some dangerous subversion of social class and ranking, a thing greatly to be feared. New Year resolutions, he insists, are only for the common people: the others, uncommon and superior, have their own good reasons for being and doing quite the opposite whenever it suits or profits them. Mindful of the time-honoured rivalry between Spain and Portugal, Reis mentally compares the subdued mutterings and whispers of the Portuguese with the high-pitched voices of wealthy Spanish refugees speaking the sonorous language of Cervantes and flaunting their triumph in misfortune: his disgruntled thoughts echoing time-honoured grievances: 'os espanhóis são assim, querem logo tomar conta de tudo, é preciso estar sempre de olho neles'. The English fare no better. Perfidious Albion, we are reminded, has lived up to her reputation and given nearly every other nation just cause for complaint, and when Reis sees cricket being played on the deck of the ocean liner The Highland Brigade, he is even more convinced that for the British Empire nothing is impossible. The author can be engagingly witty when he suggests that the only real justification for statues is to provide perches for pigeons or suggests that Bovril might be the answer to the country's poverty, as he watches leaflets advertising the beverage's nutritious value dropping from the clouds on to the pilgrims at Fatima. The humour becomes rumbustious, not to say risqué, when Reis finally kisses the highly-strung Marcenda and can feel the blood rushing to his temples and his libido aroused, and there is a hint of playful irreverence when he retells the story of Adam and Eve and settles for an earthier vision of Paradise and its delights:

Onde se reunirem homem e mulher, Dues estará entre eles, por estas novas palavras aprenderemos que o paraíso, afinal, não era onde nos tinham dito, é aqui, ali aonde Deus terá de ir, de cada vcz, se quiser reconhecer-lhe o gosto.

At times the humorist is reined in by the radical sceptic: 'Um homem, se estudou, aprende a duvidar, muito mais sendo os deuscs tão inconstantes, certos apenas, eles por ciência, nós por experiência, de que tudo acaba, e o sempre antes do resto'. Life is looked at obliquely and with a questioning eye. But note that even the aloof and indifferent Reis is often stirred by unexpected emotions to the extent of finding himself quaking because a simple cloud has passed.

Like all important novels, O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis is also a hook about reading and writing. Note the titles of the two books mentioned several times within the narrative: The God of the Labyrinth and Conspiracy, both titles embodying key themes throughout the novel. Drawing a clear distinction between the essential books and those which satisfy our inclinations, the author likes to think of his own books as a conversation with his reader. He frequently addresses the reader directly in mid-narrative, taking care to adopt a tone of voice which is challenging rather than confessional. This desire to be an 'oral narrator' has influenced his technique with its disregard for conventional punctuation. As he himself has stressed: 'the words written by me are intended as much to be read as to be heard … the oral narrator speaks as if he were composing music and uses the same elements as the musician: sounds and pauses, high or low, some short, others long'. As readers, we are invited to ponder and tease out the contradictions he exposes, to probe the nuances of the words and moments of silence. To complicate matters, thinking itself intervenes as if it were a protagonist, and like the Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges, the author believes there is no more elaborate pleasure than that of thought. He makes frequent use of Borgesian images: the labyrinth, the chessboard, the compass, the river of time and the mirror, but the wealth of associations attributed to the last of these images shows just how skilfully he adapts these borrowings:

talvez no espelho se tenha falado uma língua diferente, talvez outras palavras se tenham dito naquele cristalino lugar, então outros foram os sentidos expressos, parecendo que, como sombra, os gestos se repetiam, outro foi o discurso, perdido na inacessível dimensão, perdido também, afinal o que deste lado se disse, apenas conservados na lembrança alguns fragmentos, não iguais, não complementares, não capazes de reconstituir o discurso inteiro, o deste lado, insista-se, por isso os sentimentos de ontem não se repetem nos sentimentos de hojc, ficaram pelo caminho, irrecuperáveis, pedaços de espelho partido, a memória.

Like Borges he specializes in tactical subtleties, dialectical cunning and rhetorical digressions. Saramago exploits philosophical preambles and frequent digressions to show just how deeply the human mind can burrow: 'a sensibilidade das pessoas tem recônditos tão profundos que, se por eles nos aventurarmos com ânimo de tudo examinar, há grande perigo de não sairmos de lá tão cedo'. As a writer he is motivated by the desire to establish patterns of symmetry amidst the chaos, to discover unexpected links between men and symbols; sometimes all too transparent, for example, a new automobile named The Dictator, or Marcenda's withered arm seen as a symbol of collective mutilation; at other times startlingly unreal, for instance, the image of St Francis of Assisi's stigmata linking him with the cross of Christ, and the crosses on the armbands of bank employees at a political rally.

In linguistic matters, Saramago is scrupulous, analysing, dissecting and contrasting words and their meaning; establishing different layers of meaning; investigating new formulations. He is particularly sensitive to words spoken from the heart as opposed to platitudes devoid of any human interest, and he leads us through an intricate mental process that derives from a succession of stimuli, sometimes unconscious, sometimes only pretending to be unconscious, which achieves new relationships of thought and expression. As with most of the important writers of our age, he cultivates that opacity of language whereby books are made out of words as much as out of characters and incidents. He neatly defines the tyranny of words:

por que será que as palavras se servem tantas vezes de nós, vemo-las a approximarem-se, a ameaçarem, e não somos capazes de afastá-las, de calá-las, e assim acabamos por dizer o que não queríamos, é como o abismo irresistível, vamos cair e avançamos.

Yet much as he is worried by the inauthenticity of language and the danger of counterfeit emotions, he reassures us in the next breath that words are the best tools we can hope for in our attempt, ever frustrated, to express what we call thought. Language, for Saramago, owes much of its fascination to the inherent contradictions, and he warns us that unless we are prepared to use all words, however absurd, we will never say the essential words. The texture of his own prose owes much of its richness to multiple registers as he goes from description to philosophical speculation, from melancholy and despair to wry humour. By restricting punctuation to commas and full-stops, he creates his own verbal music and allows for a greater variety of inflections. The basic technique is that of counterpoint as he sets up a game of voices, each voice establishing its own truths, yet truths often saying different things.

Connecting the threads across time (a time at once linear and labyrinthine), finding certain threads without knots and certain knots without threads. Saramago shows us how the past and its ghosts can be more real and concrete than life in the present.

For Saramago, writing novels is a truly passionate way of living life and enlarging on the world. He does not subscribe to the idea of an absent, impartial narrator. In O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis our author is omniscient and omnipresent, and he shows an almost carnal relationship with his country and people while transcending all barriers of race and culture in his pursuit of a vision of totality. The novelist's art, as he understands and practices it, is not one of reflection or imitation but a skilful act of invention:

O objecto da arte não é a imkação … a realidade não suporta o seu reflexo, rejeita-o, só uma outra realidade, qual seja, pode ser colocada no lugar daquela que se quis expressar, e, sendo diferentes entrc si, mutuamente se mostram, explicam e enumeram a realidade como invenção que foi, a invenção como realidade que será.

Or as Pessoa himself expressed it: 'Sobre a nudez forte da verdade o manto diáfano da fantasia'.

As in all of his major novels, the author's earthly journey leads him irresistibly back to the point of departure. The opening phrase—'Aqui o mar acaba e a terra principia'—finds its completion in the closing sentence: 'Aqui, onde o mar se acabou e a terra espera'. Sea and earth, space and time, past and present merge in this kaleidoscopic vision of an awesome totality.

Ilan Stavans (review date 16 May 1994)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1641

SOURCE: "A Fisher of Men," in The Nation, Vol. 258, No. 19, May 16, 1994, pp. 675-76.

[In the following review, Stavans discusses the place of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ in Saramago's canon, concluding that the novel succeeds in continuing to probe themes explored in earlier works.]

Portugal sits in the Iberian Peninsula as an eclipsed region in the heart of Europe, its culture commonly overshadowed in international circles. Few twentieth-century Portuguese writers, for example, have managed to find an audience beyond their national borders. Even the most notable poet, Fernando Pessoa (an extraordinary figure, roughly the equivalent of T. S. Eliot in the Iberian World), is still, sixty years after his death and in spite of homage paid by Octavio Paz, Susan Sontag and other intellectuals this side of the Atlantic, the property of a relatively tiny elite. (His Kierkegaardian diary The Book of Disquiet is available in more than one edition in the United States, though, and university and independent presses have brought out some of his astonishing poetry, essays and stories.) This makes the appearance of a newly translated novel by Portugal's most prominent man of letters, José Saramago, all the more refreshing.

Saramago is an extraordinarily talented artist, the type of playwright, novelist, essayist and occasional poet irresistible to lovers of literature. Born in 1922, he published his first book in the forties, a juvenile novel he now disowns. As a young Communist he found it virtually impossible to publish under the Antonio de Oliveira Salazar dictatorship of 1932–68, but after the bloodless coup of 1974 brought a modicum of press freedom, he exploded into Portugal's intellectual arena. Since then, with his pen, Saramago has over the past few decades publicly re-evaluated Iberian history, offering insightful, at times uncomfortable reflections on Portugal's religiosity and daily behavior. His artistic vision and his powerful style, which appears increasingly influenced by Gabriel García Márquez in its realist and magicalist tension, have made him a perennial Nobel Prize contender, an award he richly deserves. (No Portuguese writer, by the way, has ever been anointed by the Stockholm committee.)

Although too slowly, readers in the United States are getting to share in the excitement surrounding Saramago. Memorial do Convento, his dense 1982 narrative about a one-handed soldier in love with the slender daughter of a witch, whose romance plays to the ethereal music of Domenico Scarlatti, was rendered into English as Baltasar and Blimunda in 1987; Irving Howe praised its texture and lauded it as "a lyric fantasy about a company of free spirits escaping for a moment into freedom." The novel's unique polyphonic feel of orchestrated voices and plots was indicative of what was yet to come. The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, Saramago's second book translated into English, is a bridge between his work and Pessoa's. I rank it among the best novels I've ever read, a sweet masterpiece set in Lisbon in 1936. It's about one of Pessoa's many literary personalities (or heteronyms, as he termed them, fullblown writerly "souls" and not simply noms de plume) who returns to life after Pessoa's final expiration, as a heavy ideological fog is descending over the Old Continent. Saramago pays tribute to his most famous literary predecessor in Portugal, linking himself to a national tradition that values baroque self-reflection and self-referentiality. As in Hamlet and Don Quixote, Saramago builds a universe that is a hall of mirrors; Ricardo Reis, a doctor, returns to Portugal after a long stay in Brazil; rather than keeping a private practice, he wanders Lisbon's labyrinthine streets reciting poetry and is often visited by his creator, Pessoa, with whom he discusses current affairs at a café. The influence of Borges and Miguel de Unamuno is undeniable in Saramago's approach to the universe as a huge book written by a self-centered, larger-than-life novelist. Aren't we all trapped in someone else's dream? he wonders.

Now comes The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, expertly translated, as were the two previous titles, by Giovanni Pontiero. Here, Saramago works wonders with the Passion story. His goal, clear from the outset, is to humaninze the son of Joseph and Mary, to make His odyssey immediate, to shape Him as a perfect novelistic creature, one suitable to our fin de siècle. As Saramago puts it, his novel "was never meant to dismiss what others have written about Jesus or to contradict their accounts." And yet, although the plot has been repeated ad infinitum, much still comes as a surprise to the reader, mainly because Saramago has seasoned it with imaginative details full of mystery and gothic twists. For instance, after Jesus, Mary's oldest son, is born in a pool of blood, the mother gives birth to many more children with whom He, the wise brother, will keep in close touch. Joseph, Mary's husband, is portrayed as a relentless skeptic, constantly suffering from a sense of guilt, a hunted man ultimately crucified by the Romans. Jesus grows up to become an uncompromising, questioning, moody adolescent with sexual urges and a troublesome attitude. Even though His dialogue with God becomes a permanent feature toward the second third of the novel, the adolescent's ordeal is very much an affair of this world: He excretes the usual bodily fluids and enjoys physical pleasure with Mary Magdalene; a doubting Jesus is pushed into the role of Messiah not only by friends and acquaintances but also by an ambivalent God ready to change His mind as circumstances arise.

The vertebrae of Saramago's novel are to be found in the recurrent dreams and nightmares, omens about death and resurrection, as well as in a mystical García Márquez-like character, a visitor sometimes posing as angel and other times as devil who foretells the future and establishes a communication line between the celestial and earthly spheres. Of course, others, from Nikos Kazantzakis in The Last Temptation of Christ to Paul Claudel in his oratorios with Catholic motifs, have been in the same theological terrain, but Saramago creates room of his own. Like Hermann Broch and Milan Kundera (the latter has also dealt with Christ's defecations in his fiction), the Portuguese has reinvented the novel as literary genre by making dogma and Holy Scripture fundamental narrative components. His crystalline prose ponders the weight of human existence, meditates directly rather than elliptically on cosmic questions and dares to travel the fragile frontier where faith and the intellect intertwine.

Perhaps what's most memorable about The Gospel According to Jesus Christ is the role played by God. (Again, Borges's sensibility comes to mind.) Saramago makes Him simultaneously a witness and a puppeteer; at times He is late in receiving news of His child's pilgrimage; at other points He reluctantly participates in the tragedy unfolding before His eyes. The book has been injected with a sense of awe and spirituality that the novel as genre supposedly dismantled long ago. Saramago incorporates scriptural quotes to create a reinvigorating hybrid, one oscillating between a secular and a religious tone. In an outstanding scene, one recalling Dostoyevsky's segment on the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov, Jesus encounters God not as a cloud or a column of smoke but as an elderly man with a great beard flowing over his chest, head uncovered, hair hanging loose, and with fleshy lips that barely move when he speaks. For over thirty pages Saramago's protagonist sustains a discussion in which the Almighty tells Him the consequences His death will have on Europe (and Portugal) while Jesus ponders His desire to go on. Immediately after this seductive encounter, a touching end to the narrative is precipitated over the reader's mind, one in which Jesus's individual will is actively questioned.

While other outstanding Saramago novels await an English translation, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ—part of an important religious facet of Saramago's career in which Catholicism is examined in the context of contemporary theological ambivalence—is enough to assure him a place in the universal library and in human memory. He has delivered a poignant reinterpretation of the Passion, one sensitive to the needs of our dissenting era. Not surprisingly, when the book was first published in Lisbon in 1991 it caused an uproar, felt soon after in the whole Iberian Peninsula thanks to the Spanish edition that quickly followed. Those accusing Saramago of blasphemy for portraying Jesus as a Communist (a questionable attack), a vulnerable and lascivious person, forgot something altogether crucial: As a literary genre, the novel retains a loyalty to the secularist and even cynical views it was born with during Erasmus's age; any historical figure metamorphosed into a novelistic character thus becomes an expression, a mirror of the container it inhabits.

While Fernando Pessoa may not figure literally in Saramago's account of Jesus, his influence can be felt everywhere. Pessoa's poetic journey, let's remember, focused on deciphering the mysteries of individual identity in the modern world. Poetry was his means and vehicle. Saramago, on the other hand, seems involved in a quest to re-evaluate European history and sense of the collective using another tool: the novel, an instrument once thought exhausted after Joyce's, Musil's and Proust's contributions, later reinvigorated by so-called Third World writers during the sixties. While Pessoa directed his attention to the enigmas of the self, Saramago centers his energy in deciphering the foundation of Iberian civilization in general, and Portugal's past and present in particular. No doubt the best pens to emerge out of Portugal since Eça de Queiroz, the two writers represent differing aspects of a depressed nation pushed into introspection and doubt. Nowhere else in Europe would the milieu allow for such uniquely contemplative approaches to man and the divine. In Saramago's portrait of Jesus and the Holy Family, Pessoa plays a fundamental role: The Messiah, the owner of a divided self, lives in a fractured world where reality and fiction are thoroughly commingled, heteronyms of each other.

Richard Eder (review date 28 May 1995)

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SOURCE: "Continental Drift," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 28, 1995, pp. 3, 11.

[In the following review, Eder considers The Stone Raft to be one of Saramago's greatest literary achievements.]

At the start of The Stone Raft, a river that flows from France into Spain disappears into the ground. Soon a rift appears, bisecting the Pyrenees lengthwise; in a day or two the rift is 30 feet wide. The entire Iberian Peninsula has broken off from Europe and begun to head west across the Atlantic; slowly, at first, and then at a rate of some 30 miles a day.

By the end of the book, Spain and Portugal, the great stone raft of the title, will have made a jog north to avoid decapitating the Azores, will head for North America, will stop and slowly revolve so that Lisbon faces east and Barcelona west, and then slide south to come to rest partway between Central America and Africa.

Hundreds of thousands of Spaniards and Portuguese take to the road to explore a world that is suddenly finite and utterly changed. Tourists flee and so do investors. The European Community [EC] protests the departure of an Iberia it had been reluctant to admit in the first place. NATO makes a fuzzy pronouncement, its approval indistinguishable from its disapproval. The English are delighted when Gibraltar snaps off from the end of the moving peninsula and remains in the middle of the sea, solitary but entirely the queen's. Young people all over Europe clash bloodily with the police under the slogan: "We are all Iberians now."

Ruptures, new beginnings, the shaking-up and turning upside down of the ingrained miseries and dead-ends of contemporary life. If José Saramago, Portugal's great fabulist, were simply attempting an ironic political and social allegory, all these things would fit in neatly. The Stone Raft, which may be Saramago's finest work—he also wrote Baltasar and Blimunda and The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis—is much more than that.

It is the questing journey of five people who come together from five different parts of their questing peninsula: their land voyage set atop an ocean voyage. When the bank clerk Sassa from Oporto meets the schoolteacher Anaiço in his village in the Alentejo, they are the first two to join together. They lie out all night under a moonlight that has never before bathed these particular olive trees—now 70 miles and several days west of themselves. From this particular angle, they ruminate. Anaiço recalls that Portugal's great King Joaõ II once bestowed an imaginary island on a courtier, who then set out to find it. "This other island," Anaiço says, "the Iberian one, which was once a peninsula but is no longer, I find just as amusing, as if it had set out to sea in search of imaginary men."

The wandering of Saramago's Spain and Portugal is more than a geological outrage. It is as if one large chunk of the earth, sick of or feeling sorry for its becalmed and deadened humanity, had decided to get the human faculties of imagination, generosity and discovery moving again—by moving itself. Saramago's lovely and original questing story, in a lineage of such others as Don Quixote and Kipling's Kim, is a journey of the spirit told as a journey of the feet.

To have five people trudge on a pilgrimage through a contemporary Western panorama could be forced and artificial, as Kerouac's On the Road partly was. With Spain and Portugal mysteriously pirouetting around the Atlantic, a supercharged end-of-time condition is evoked—doomsday and resurrection at once—and it allows Saramago's characters to undergo a metaphysical adventure while performing in a register that is natural and entirely winning.

Each is utterly his or her cranky and curious self; each touches at some point the supernatural phenomenon that sends Iberia gadding about. At the same moment that the rift in the Pyrenees appears, the following has just taken place:

Sassa, strolling on the beach near Oporto, idly picks up a 13-pound stone and heaves it into the water. Instead of plop-ping, it soars, comes down on the water, skips up again and keeps on skipping until it reaches the horizon. Anaiço, walking near his village, is suddenly joined by a host of starlings that follow him wherever he goes.

Pedro Orce, a small-town Spanish pharmacist, stamps his foot and from that moment on, the ground never stops shaking beneath him. Guided by television and newspaper reports of these phenomena, Sassa seeks the other two out. They set off in Sassa's tiny car: first, to the Malaga coast to see Gibraltar passing (or rather, Spain passing Gibraltar), and then to the Atlantic.

The cloud of starlings on their Lisbon hotel roof guides Joana Carda to them. She had left her husband and their home in Coimbra and retreated to a village to consider her life. At the moment of the Pyrenees crack she had drawn a line in the dirt with an elm branch: herself on one side, Coimbra on the other. However persistently it is scraped or dug over, the line cannot be effaced.

She and the three men go to inspect it. A mastiff appears with a bit of blue thread in his mouth. By various canine signals ("Man proposes, dog disposes"), the mastiff leads the tiny crowded car through Portugal and up to a farm on the northern Spanish coast. Maria Guavaira, who lives there, had been unraveling a blue sock at the moment the rift opened. The mastiff had appeared at her door, bit off a length of thread, headed south and returned with the others.

The five repair a wagon and set out through northern Spain, buying and selling clothes to support themselves, visiting the Pyrenees—which now end in a one-mile sheer drop to the ocean—and heading south. Anaiço and Joana pair off; so do Sassa and Maria. Orce, old and lonely, has the mastiff as companion and once each—out of sexual hountifulness—Joana and Maria. There are jealousies as a result, and reconciliations; above all there is the sense of five innocents, their slates wiped clean by the voyage of their stone raft, trying to figure out how to draw a human being. It looks much as a human being has always looked, in fact. The magic evoked in Saramago's book is in the opportunity to draw once more.

He writes in great balloon-like sentences. A sentence may include two or three different characters speaking, a hit of narrative or description, a comment by the author, a digression on the comment. Greek protagonist and Greek chorus are rolled into one. Things flow together, separate, join. Here, for example, is Sassa setting out on a walk; soon it is the author walking:

He was one of those travelers who go neither in debt nor in fear, he set out early to enjoy the fresh morning air and to make the most of the day, tourists who are out and about early are like this, at heart troubled and restless, unable to accept life's inescapable brevity, late to bed and early to rise does not make one healthy, but it does prolong life.

Saramago's balloons need time and patience, particularly at first. Bit by bit we do not simply get used to them; we find in them—skillfully translated by Giovanni Pontiero—the essence of his humane and magical art. They fill with words, they take on assorted cargo, they lurch up, and soon we are moving giddily over a panorama of the world infinitely stretched out below.

David Gilmour (review date 5 October 1995)

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SOURCE: "Adrift in Iberia," in New York Review of Books, Vol. XLII, No. 15, October 5, 1995, pp. 35-6.

[In the following review, Gilmour finds The Stone Raft lacking in style and purpose.]

The Pyrenees have been more of a psychological barrier for mankind than a physical one. Although armies have long known how to go round them, ideas have seldom followed the drums. So often they seem to have been launched at the center, to have hit the mountain tops and then bounced back to the thrower; on occasion they have cleared the heights only to fall into ungrateful hands that have hurled them furiously back.

General Franco, for example, felt that he had nothing to learn from Europe—except, of course, for some military lessons from Germany. Everything he believed to be wrong with Spain—liberalism, socialism, freemasonry, and so on—was an unwelcome import from Europe. In the nineteenth century, which he called "the negation of the Spanish spirit," continental contamination had turned his country into a "bastardized, Frenchified and Europeanized" monstrosity. For her salvation, he proclaimed, Spain needed to return to the Golden Age of Ferdinand and Isabella, an age during which the Moors could be persecuted and the Jews expelled without interference from busybodies such as the League of Nations or the European Community.

Confronted so often by such attitudes, northern Europeans found it easy to accept the self-image of the Iberian conservatives. Yes, they used to say, perhaps Spain is different, it is after all very near Africa, and the Arabs were there for an extraordinarily long time. Look at their habits too, the way they kill bulls for pleasure and shoot prisoners and inquisite heretics. It's not at all European, at any rate not at all nineteenth-century Anglo-French European. Perhaps they are simply not by nature suited to representative government.

Iberian liberals and socialists long sought to overthrow this self-fulfilling cliché, and in 1936 some Europeans responded by joining the International Brigades. It is strange therefore to find the idea of peninsular uniqueness endorsed and transmuted into fiction by an unrepentant Portuguese Communist. In The Stone Raft José Saramago cuts Ibena physically from Europe without any feelings of regret or nostalgia. As he remarked after the novel's publication in Portugal, he was happy to imagine himself on that immense raft (Iberia) which had nourished the roots of his identity and collective heritage. Like Franco, he required nothing more from Europe.

Saramago is not afraid of the contamination of any formal European ideology. Indeed, as a supporter of the Portuguese Communist Party, he is hardly in a position to denounce foreign dogmas. His real objection is to European practices and attitudes, to the habit of interference that is built into the EC, to the condescension and indifference which the central, more populous powers of the Community display to the slighter countries of the periphery. These habits have fashioned a nationalist from unlikely material, a nationalist whose Iberian vision, however, is sometimes disturbed by a residual feeling that Spain too is not entirely innocent of condescending behavior toward her smaller neighbor.

Born in 1922, Saramago wrote little during the Portuguese dictatorship that survived until 1974, and his literary output before 1980 was largely confined to poems, essays, and stories. He then started to publish his principal novels, which have been translated without enormous delays, and in due course acquired both fame and infamy. One novel, the historical fantasy Baltasar and Blimunda, has been elevated to Appendix D ("The Chaotic Age: A Canonical Prophecy") of Harold Bloom's The Western Canon, while another, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, won the Foreign Fiction Award given by the London Independent. Set in the Lisbon of the 1930s, Ricardo Reis is a melancholy masterpiece, a meditation on the dilemmas of an intellectual living in a time of political upheaval. Realizing, however, that he has neither the power nor even the will to influence events, the main character stumbles aimlessly through the city, holding onto life by means of his relationships with two women and his dialogues with the ghost of the poet Fernando Pessoa, one of whose "heteronyms"—invented characters reflecting different facets of Pessoa's own nature—was named Ricardo Reis.

A subsequent novel, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, gained even more renown than its predecessors when the Portuguese minister of culture tried, on grounds of blasphemy, to remove it from the list of contestants for the 1992 European Literature Prize. Saramago profited greatly from this imbecility, selling 20,000 copies of his book in a single week in Portugal and winning his country's Writers' Association Prize for the best novel of the year.

The Gospel is in fact an intensely religious book, passionately written and so beautifully translated by Giovanni Pontiero that it seems to convey the rhythms and resonance of the Authorized Version. It certainly contains much to shock traditional believers, notably Christ's crucifixion appeal for the forgiveness of God: "Men, forgive Him, for He knows not what He has done." Yet in spite of the author's atheism, it is written with such respect for the figure of Christ, and with such integrity and warmth, that readers can hardly fail to be moved. Perhaps the book's unexpected tone can be explained by Saramago's throwaway remark that a person "needs a fair dose of religion in order to make a coherent atheist." Or as he has observed elsewhere, atheism is "a kind of religion without God or rather religious feeling related to the absence of God."

Saramago's ascent typifies that of a successful writer from a literature almost unknown outside its country of origin. After years in the wilderness, he is suddenly discovered and taken up by Western literary establishments amid much breast-beating about how Anglo/Francocentric we are to have ignored such a genius. Identified as the successor to García Márquez, he is then regularly touted as a future winner of the Nobel Prize—a possibility doubtless enhanced in this case by the fact that no Portuguese writer has ever won it. By the time he reaches Saramago's current position, his reputation is unassailable: each new novel is hailed as further evidence of his talent (and our blindness), and its author more or less acquires immunity from criticism. In this respect he is much more fortunate than major British novelists who are usually informed by reviewers that their latest work docs not live up to the expectations aroused by the previous one (which in turn failed to fulfill the promise of the one before that).

Published in Portugal in 1986, The Stone Raft was translated after The Gospel presumably because its contents were judged less likely to cause the kind of furor which produces spectacular international sales. It is after all an entirely peninsular, sub-Pyrenean novel.

One day a seismic rupture takes place at either end of the mountain chain, causing a gap to open along the length of the Francó-Spanish frontier. Another split occurs at Gibraltar, leaving the Rock in place but allowing Iberia to drift into the Atlantic. A good deal of panic follows. The rich behave badly (fleeing the peninsula by air), the poor behave well (it is hardly a crime to occupy the abandoned hotels), and all governments everywhere make a series of futile gestures and pompous pronouncements. People flee into the interior when it looks as if the great raft is about to collide with the Azores, but it somehow avoids the islands and comes to rest somewhere in the ocean. Its movements are entirely clear, and Saramago, who tells us that "concision is not a definitive virtue," does not always help us with his clarifications:

That afternoon … they learned that the peninsula, after having traveled in a straight line to point due north of the northern most island of the Azores, the island of Corvo, and from this summary description it should be clear that the extreme southern lip of the peninsula, the Punta de Tarifa, found itself on another meridian to the east, north of the northernmost point of Corvo, the Ponta dos Tarsais, the peninsula, then, after what we have tried to explain, immediately resumed displacement to the west in a direction parallel to that of its initial route, or rather, let us see if we are making ourselves clear, resumed it some degrees higher.

While the raft drifts across the seas, five characters and a dog meet up and meander about the peninsula. Each of them (including the dog) had a curious experience at the time the cracks began—one is followed everywhere a flock of starlings, another finds that a line scratched on the ground with a stick is indelible—and believe it connected with the rupture. So they wander along, at first by car, later by horse-drawn cart, discussing their experiences and trying to understand what has happened. The two women have affairs with the two younger men and subsequently become pregnant. But since they also seduce the reluctant older man one day in a wood, no one is sure who the fathers are. Eventually the old man dies, and the book ends with his burial. We are not told what happens to the other characters.

This essentially picaresque novel has been praised in Europe for its style and wit. Certainly it bears the hallmarks of Saramago's prose, including a regimen of parsimonious punctuation which permits only commas and full stops. Elsewhere the author has explained that he sees himself as "an oral narrator" whose words are "intended as much to be read as to be heard." As oral narrators do not quire dashes, colons, or inverted commas, Saramago similarly dispenses with them. Although the method is full of dangers, the dialogue can gain from such austerity and indeed does so in passages of The Gospel and Ricardo Reis. But in the less intense and less controlled atmosphere of The Stone Raft it is generally unsuccessful and sometimes leaves the reader puzzled about who is actually talking.

As for wit, it dashes sporadically rather than flows through the work. There is an amusing debate about what kind of music should be played on radio and television before Iberia crashes into the Azores; and there are occasional, very Saramagesque injunctions such as, "you must never be ironic with the authorities, either they don't notice and it's pointless, or they notice, and it only makes things worse." But all too often the humor is pedantic and contrived. In reaction to their governments' complacency toward the Iberian catastrophe, European protesters start spraying slogans, "Nous aussi, nous sommes ibériques," a gesture of solidarity that spreads throughout the Continent and encourages the author to spend a page translating it into almost every known language from Finnish to Bulgarian. Saramago's wit is frequently blunted by a pedagogic streak, a sleeve-twitching tendency he seems to deploy in order to remind the reader that he is an original writer. Here is a typical example:

The morning awoke overcast and drizzly, a familiar figure of speech but one that is incorrect, because mornings do not awaken, it is we who awaken in the mornings, and then, going to the window, see that the sky is covered with low clouds and the rain is drizzling down, tiresome for anyone caught in it, but such is the power of tradition that if there were a ship's log book on this journey of ours, the clerk would inscribe his first paean as follows, The morning awoke overcast and drizzly, as if the skies were gazing down with disapproval on this adventure, the skies are always invoked in these instances, whether it rains or shines.

In Ricardo Reis the principal character and the two women he is involved with are delineated clearly and seem alive. So do the people from The Gospel, where Saramago succeeds in creating full-blooded human beings from the stained-glass, two-dimensional figures of the Bible. But none of the characters in The Stone Raft is real or interesting. Indeed the author has made so little effort to differentiate them that almost any remark made by one could have been made by each of the others.

At his best Saramago does not much resemble García Márquez. But there are moments when his writing seems a parody of the Colombian writer on an off day, his characters possessing little identity besides their names and proceeding interminably on their unexplained and irrational ways without nuances of thought or behavior. After a while the reader of The Stone Raft loses interest in what they are doing and does not even care who is going to bed with whom.

In The Gospel Saramago writes with great tenderness of the passion of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene. In Ricardo Reis he conjures a moment of erotic intensity from a kiss between a crippled girl and a middle-aged doctor. But in The Stone Raft love is depicted with such banality that even the author allows his scenes to fade, archly terminating one copulation with the aside, "let us put it discreetly lest anyone accuse us of crudely portraying scenes of coition, an ugly word that has fortunately become obsolete."

Saramago's American publishers describe the Pyrenean split as "a metaphor for the driftlessness of modern society and the search for identity." In Europe the novel has been regarded as a satire on the abuse of power, while in Portugal it has been seen variously as a "discovery of the inner world and man's innermost feelings" and as "the perfect portrait of the Portuguese character and the nation's sense of mission throughout its history." Neither of the last two explanations seems particularly valid to a non-Portuguese reviewer, although nationalism is plainly one of the keys to the book. The simultaneous impregnation not only of the two heroines but of the entire fertile population of the peninsula presumably symbolizes the "rebirth" of Iberia following its separation from the rest of Europe. Indeed Saramago even creates a poet to proclaim the raft as "a child conceived on a journey and |who] now finds itself revolving in the sea as it waits to be born in its watery womb."

Although authors are notoriously unreliable guides to their own work, I think Saramago has been frank with his explanation of the genesis and meaning of The Stone Raft. Writing some years ago in the Times Literary Supplement, he described the novel as "the outcome of a historical grudge." It was published in Lisbon in the year that Spain and Portugal joined the European Community and directs most of its satire against Iberia's new partners. But behind the mockery of the House of Commons and the Brussels Commission burns an almost obsessive resentment against continental disregard for the two countries that once led Europe's overseas expansion. Saramago objects not only to the "congenital deformation known as Eurocentrism" but to that

other aberration whereby Europe is Eurocentric in relation to herself. The rich countries of Europe who revel in the narcissistic view that wealth makes them culturally superior, regard the rest of Europe as something vague, diffuse, a trifle exotic and somewhat picturesque.

Saramago's bitterness sometimes expands to embrace Spain, which he thinks also tends to ignore his own country. The Spaniards, he said recently, have an "amputation complex": for them Portugal (which was united to Spain from 1580 to 1640) is like an amputated limb which they prefer not to look at. But even if its press pays no attention to the Portuguese, Madrid cannot rival Brussels as an object of the author's obloquy. In tones alarmingly similar to that petty-bourgeois outrage which is still so regrettably rampant in Britain and France. Saramago castigates the EC for the destruction of Portugal's agriculture and the loss of identity. Why, he complains, should the EC order the Portuguese to plant eucalyptus trees which they don't want? Musing on his novel, he says he

would be prepared to bring my wandering raft back from sea after having learned something during the voyage, if Europe would acknowledge that she is incomplete without the Iberian Peninsula and make a public confession of the errors, injustices and outrages she has committed. For, when all is said and done, if it is expected of me that I should love Europe as if she were my own mother, the least I can ask is that she should love, and indeed respect, all her children as equals.

I do not know Portugal and cannot say whether this is a common view. But it seems an exaggerated reaction to a fairly minor misdemeanor. After all, in the long list of Western crimes against the world, indifference toward Portugal hardly ranks in the first league. Perhaps the author's real grievance stems from history's diminishment of his country's international position.

It would be nice to leave Saramago doggedly clinging to his raft and writing more novels of the caliber of Gospel and Ricardo Reis; for although he is well into his seventies, he shows no sign of flagging. But the skeptical reader will doubtless enjoy the irony that Saramago himself has lately abandoned Portugal to live in the Canary Islands. Explaining the transfer is complicated, even to himself. Lisbon is now noisy, ugly, and polluted, he says, and the Portuguese have become increasingly selfish. Last year, when the EC made Lisbon cultural capital of the year, a journalist asked him what Portugal could contribute to world culture. It would be difficult, Saramago twice replied, to have a living culture in a country as dead as his own.

So perhaps the raft was barren all along? Perhaps the impregnation of all its womenfolk was simply an illusion? Or maybe a distinguished novelist merely found himself enmeshed in a fable that never quite unwound.

Richard Eder (review date 25 May 1997)

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SOURCE: "Raimundo's Rebellion," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 25, 1997, p. 2.

[In the following review, Eder praises the satire and irony in The History of the Siege of Lisbon.]

It begins with an explosion of words, as if they were stored in a silo and had spontaneously combusted. For a while the air is choked with clouds of chaff: paragraphs that run for pages and looping dialogue whose tenses and speakers change repeatedly in the same sentence.

The dust settles. We perceive a middle-aged Lisbon proofreader in a foggy philosophical disputation with the author of the book he is correcting. It is an account of Alfonso Henriqucs, Portugal's first king, capturing Lisbon from the Moors 850 years ago.

Without transition, we go from present-day Lisbon back to 1147. A muezzin is about to call out the noon summons to prayer. He could be a condemned man springing the trap on his own gallows: the Christians will use the call as a signal for their attack.

Despite its title, Jose Saramago's The History of the Siege of Lisbon—also the name of the book his proofreader is working on—is essentially rooted in the present. The present is permeable, though; the past leaks in.

Saramago's hero is Raimundo Silva, a bachelor who has chosen his tidily definite occupation to prudently confine a soul as boundless as the paradoxes of history, language and erotic passion. Silva's comically suggestive adventure begins with an act of revolutionary imprudence that upsets the laws of literature and time. Such a thing must have consequences; soon the laws of bachelorhood are upset as well and Silva finds himself inextricably and entrancingly in love.

Saramago is one of Europe's most original and remarkable writers; among other reasons, he is remarkable for being utterly and indelibly Portuguese, a quality that Europe—not to mention the United States—has little acquaintance with. Like the works of Eca de Queiroz and Machado de Assis—a Brazilian but Portuguese in spirit—his writing is imbued with a spirit of comic inquiry, meditative pessimism and a quietly transforming energy that turns the indefinite into the unforgettable.

Portugal, at least in the north, is a foggy country. Us history of decline—imperial at first, later national—is longer than that of any other European nation. Its reigning spirit is saudade, or a kind of pleasurable melancholy. That is a stereotype, of course; like most stereotypes, whatever truth it doesn't render, it tends to generate. As Silva, already love-stricken and gazing out of his window at night, reflects: "Dear God, what sweet and gentle sorrow. May we never be without it."

Centuries of fog, decline and melancholy. If Elizabethan national resurgence had something to do with Shakespeare's unbounded universality, how could a great Portuguese writer, in this doleful trio of national conditions, do anything but (lower into skepticism about history and reality? The flowering in this desert—or marsh—is brilliant: fantasy, humor and a need to read the world's messages backward for what they conceal.

Working on still another history of one of Portugal's signal happenings, Silva is, accordingly, in a state of depressive skepticism. Its glib conventional version, based on the thinnest of sources, offends him. A sentence stands out—arrogantly, it seems to him. It states the conventional wisdom: that Alfonso was helped in the siege of Lisbon by battalions of crusaders on their way to the Holy Land.

A scandalous impulse takes hold, sheer blasphemy in the proofreaders' credo. Silva inserts a "not" in the sentence—the crusaders now refuse to help—and sends the proof off. Terror and exaltation follow.

As he awaits his nemesis in the form of a call from the publishers, he goes to a café. It is full of Moors, it seems to him; they are sipping coffee, reading the papers and chuckling over the Portuguese defeat. When Saramago offers a hallucination, it is an ironic commentary on reality—in this case, on the reality of written history. If historians can establish the past with their monographs, why can't Silva establish it otherwise with his "not"?

The conceit is not pursued. Yet as it turns out, Silva's act has indeed changed history, only it is history of a different kind. After 13 days, his bosses send for him, but they are too shocked, frightened even, to quite be angry. A world in which writers write, editors edit, publishers get rich and proofreaders correct spellings is threatened. An erratum notice is inserted in the finished book, and Silva is let off in exchange for an apology.

The scene's silences and indirections are rich in comic implication. After his boss says he is certain that this will never happen again, Silva maintains a moment or two of obdurate silence. Characteristically, Saramago uses an image that lets in a wider, disconcerting light: "Let us suppose that a man has asked a woman, 'Do you love me,' and she remains silent, simply looking at him. sphinx-like and distant, refusing to utter that 'No' that will destroy him, or that 'Yes' that will destroy both of them."

A new editor, Dr. Maria-Sara—the "Dr.," used with just a first name, is a wry play on residual Portuguese resistance to professional women—is assigned to check Silva's work. Their first meetings are tense; he finds her intimidating. At the same lime, he is attracted and. inexperienced in love, he does not quite realize that she is too. Her initial severity, in fact, conceals an awed admiration for his rebellion and what she calls, after the initial tension is dispelled, his "lateral thinking." She insists, in fact, that he write his alternative history, stemming from that "not."

From here on, the Siege of Lisbon alternates between Silva's new version of history and the steadily warming relationship between Silva and Dr. Maria-Sara, ending in a full-blown affair.

The revised version of how Lisbon was taken, without the crusaders' help, is an awkward and sometimes very funny effort to improvise historical alternatives so that they fit in with the undoubted fact that the Moors were defeated. Silva devises some elaborate technology and a German knight-inventor who puts it together and then, after being killed, becomes the source of miracles and pilgrimages. A Portuguese history requires its miraculous side; on the other hand, to fit modern ideas, it also needs its social conflict.

Silva has the Portuguese troops go on strike for a fair share of profits. "You're just getting Portuguese history started," a strike leader tactfully tells the king, "and you want to do it justly. Do not let Portugal become crooked, I implore you." The irony is wonderfully deadpan: Justice has the Moors, who had been there for centuries, despoiled, massacred or driven out.

The siege sections are deliberately ramshackle, and here Saramago's elaborately interlocking sentences and incessant asides can become tedious. His point, of course, is that Silva's history has the same superficiality and arbitrariness as any other history. The "not" was his only real feat. Not because, after demolishing history, it put anything in its place, but because it ignited Dr. Maria-Sara.

The brilliantly original achievement of Siege is the comical, hesitant and powerfully erotic progress of their mutual courtship. Here the looping sentences, the excursions, the indirections and the very wordiness make splendid play. They give the pulse of the thousand hesitations, terrors and hopes of such an affair. Through pricklinesses, veils of timidity, crossed messages, retreats and valiant and terrified advances, these two splendidly human figures conduct the only lasting and authentic siege of Lisbon.

Edmund White (review date 13 July 1997)

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SOURCE: "The Subversive Proofreader," in New York Times Book Review, July 13, 1997, pp. 1-3.

[In the following review, White praises Saramago's deft handling of the love affair in The History of the Siege of Lisbon.]

Like his near contemporaries Franz Kafka and Constantine Cavafy, Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935) was a writer and a clerk, but he encapsulated many different literary personalities. He lived in Lisbon most of his adult life, though he'd been brought up in Durban, South Africa, and his first poems were in English. Pessoa made his living by translating business letters into Portuguese, but in his spare time he wrote poems and prose pieces under many different names and in many styles. For instance, his most famous prose work, The Book of Disquiet, was written under the name Bernardo Soares.

Although Pessoa is mentioned only once in The History of the Siege of Lisbon, by Jose Saramago, he is present everywhere in this cryptic, ingenious novel (now translated by Giovanni Pontiero). Here is the single direct reference: "Raimundo Silva thought to himself, in the manner of Fernando Pessoa, If I smoked, I should now light a cigarette, watching the river, thinking how vague and uncertain everything is, but, not smoking, I should simply think that everything is truly uncertain and vague, without a cigarette, even though the cigarette, were I to smoke it, would in itself express the uncertainty and vagueness of things, like smoke itself, were I to smoke." (It should be pointed out that Pessoa smoked 80 cigarettes a day.)

The serpentine whimsicality of this passage establishes the link between Saramago and Pessoa (Saramago's novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is named after another one of Pessoa's literary "hctcronyms"; the hero of this earlier novel takes long walks and talks to the dead Pessoa). Like Bernardo Soares, like Pessoa himself, Raimundo Silva is a humble, celibate clerk, described as withdrawn, indecisive, in this case a proofreader who one day breaks with all the rules of his profession and commits a lunatic creative act. While correcting the proofs of a standard history of Portugal, he inserts a single word, "not," which totally derails the national saga. As amended by Silva, the text now reads that the crusaders did not come to the aid of the 12th-century Portuguese King who was laying siege to Lisbon, aiming to expel the Moors from the kingdom.

Only 12 days later does his publishing house discover this grave folly. Now the editors above him no longer trust him, but out of consideration for his many years of faithful service, they decide to give him another chance. And his new boss, Maria Sara, who is in charge of all proofreaders, indicates she is fascinated by his subversiveness. Indeed, she even suggests that he write a new history of Portugal based on the false supposition that all but a few crusaders refused to help the King, who was now outnumbered by the Moors, though still capable of laying siege to the city and starving his enemies into submission.

Raimundo Silva is haunted by her suggestion—and by her. He writes the new, fictitious history while keeping up his proofreading. And he indulges his obsession with Maria Sara night and day. Saramago's text becomes an ever-shifting blend of straightforward narrative about Silva and Maria Sara in the present, passages from Silva's fanciful history of the past, and Silva's thoughts, which seamlessly slide between present and past, reality and fiction, between himself and Maria Sara and their counterparts in the 12th century, a Portuguese hero, Mogueime, and a concubine, Ouroana. We deduce that the fertility of Silva's historical imagination is prefigured by his long-dormant but now fully awakened feelings for a woman. He writes the happy ending that he and his lover are about to experience.

I found the verbal pierce and parry of the two proofreaders' courtship the most persuasive and vivid aspect of the novel. Saramago has a sure sense of the pleasurable danger of seduction, the fear of offending, the wild hope of wooing, and he renders the lovers' dialogue in long, virtually unpunctuated paragraphs (in which the reader is often not certain who is speaking) that superbly reproduce the delirium of desire: "My problem in this situation is to know whether I should have blushed before or if I should be blushing now. I can recall having seen you blush once, When, When I touched the rose in your office, Women blush more easily than men, we're the weaker sex, Both sexes are weak, I was also blushing, How come you know so much about the weakness of the sexes, I know my own weakness, and something about the weakness of others."

The rest of the writing can sometimes seem to be nothing but digressions, although the author scatters plenty of clues that he fully intends his periphrases and divagations. At some point he tells us that a story can be 10 words long or 100 or 100.000—that every story, in fact, is infinitely extensible. He jokingly refers to his own long-windedness—which differs from real pomposity in that it is never dull or humorless.

If Pessoa provides Saramago with the ur-example in Portuguese of heteronymic writing (the assumption of one mask after another), then the blending of past and present and of Islam and Roman Catholicism can be traced to the influence of another living Iberian modernist, Juan Goytisolo, Spain's greatest avant-garde novelist. In book after book (Marks of Identity, Landscapes After the Battle) Goytisolo has played with time and imagined a Europe that embraced rather than rejected its Muslim heritage. Saramago is more a game player than Goytisolo, closer than he to the intertextual vivacity of the Borges of "Pierre Menard," a story about a 20th-century dandy who reinvents Don Quixote, much as Silva has reinvented the founding myth of Portugal. Word has it that Saramago is overdue for a Nobel Prize; no candidate has a better claim to lasting recognition than this novelist who was born in 1922 but was in his mid-50's before he began to publish the fiction that has won him an international reputation.

Adam Mars-Jones (review date 2 November 1997)

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SOURCE: "Now You See It, Now You Don't," in London Observer, November 2, 1997, p. 17.

[In the following review, Mars-Jones finds Blindness an "extraordinary novel" of linguistic and theoretical experimentation.]

Jose Saramago's extraordinary novel [Blindness] tells the story of what happens when people start to go down with 'the white evil', a strain of contagious blindness with the peculiar symptom that its victims are plunged not into darkness but an unseeing light. The first casualty refers to 'milky sea' destructively bathing his vision.

Initially, the victims of the white evil cope with their situation individually, but when it becomes clear that the condition is infectious, they are interned in what was once an asylum. Anyone who has been in contact with them is held in an adjoining wing. The authorities undertake to supply food (and cleaning equipment—little use without sight) but otherwise leave the newly blind to run their dismal kingdom.

There are teasing elements of allegory in Blindness, but the book turns into something stranger. It is never explained how the epidemic started (rather soon, any scientist who might profitably be looking down a microscope is unable to do so), nor how one particular woman, a doctor's wife, is immune to its effects. She pretends to be blind so as not to be separated from her husband, and witnesses the terrifying breakdown of order in the internment camp. But from these bizarre premises events flow with the strictest logic. Blindness is less an allegory than a lour de force of thought-experiment and feeling-experiment.

Saramago, a veteran of Portuguese literature, was born in 1922, although he did not start writing full time until 1979. This mature vine delivers a startling vintage. It may be that there are echoes of earlier writers and literary movements, of existentialism and absurdism, in the outline of Blindness: the white evil is as real as Camus's plague, as arbitrary as the metamorphoses into a rhinoceros in Ionesco's play. Occasionally, a stoical Beckettian cadence shines darkly through ('the unnameable exists, that is its name, nothing else'). There is even a parallel with dystopian British science fiction of a few decades back. John Wyndham, whose preferred genre description was 'logical fantasy', wrote about a pandemic of blindness in Day of the Triffids, though without the refinement of infectiousness, or indeed the refinement of Saramago's prose.

The extended central section of Blindness is utterly bleak, but tension is maintained on a number of levels. There is the question of what the solitary sighted person will do, particularly after she has found a pair of scissors in her handbag and hung them out of reach on a nail in the wall, when the internees are told to hand over their valuables to a gang of their fellows in exchange for food.

There's the enduring fascination of an implacably detailed narrative emerging from a book where no character or street has a name, and even the city and country are anonymous. In another imposition of authorial will, the characters are given virtually no memories of the time before blindness. The idea that no one in the little group we follow, clustered around the mysteriously competent sighted woman, thinks to ask anyone else's name is highly unrealistic, yet the cogency of the book is undiminished.

Blindness is written in long paragraphs, and dialogue is embedded in the sentences with no quotation marks and few 'he said', 'she said' signals: change of speaker is indicated only by a capital letter at the beginning of a phrase. In practice, this is reasonably easy to follow—capitals are more noticeable in the absence of proper nouns—except when a spoken phrase begins with T. Tenses shift about between present and past, and the identity of the narrative voice is likewise unstable.

The point of view (loaded term) is sometimes sighted, sometimes not, sometimes assumes a 'we', sometimes a 'they'. It is both sympathetic and cruelly mocking (reacting to an appalling tableau with 'you have to be strong-minded not to burst out laughing'). On a single page the narrator's interpolations may be philosophical, pedantic and conventionally moralising: 'No married couple would say these things to public'. A single sentence can be both intrusive and discreet: 'It seemed a happy smile, and perhaps it was, this is not the moment to ask him, it is much more interesting to observe the expression of surprise on the faces of the other blind men.'

The effect is to create an unpredictable relationship between reader and story. Sometimes the narrative voice brings events unbearably close, sometimes it perversely blocks the view. Perhaps the main purpose of this endlessly resourceful device is to prevent too easy an identification with the sighted character, through whom so much of the novel's business is conducted, but whose experience is by definition atypical. Her range of moral options is unique, her temptations hers alone.

The scenes in the internment camp are so gruelling, particularly after the thugs monopolising the food demand payment in sexual form, that it comes almost as a relief for the reader to discover that the blindness is now everywhere, and there are no soldiers poised to shoot at those who try to escape their confinement.

When the woman with the last pair of eyes in the world, torn between dreading blindness and longing for it, re-enters the city with the group for which she has made herself responsible, there is no slackening of the subtle rigour of Saramago's imagination. He has devised a plausible sociology for a blinded world in which nomadic groups shuffle along the stinking streets in search of food, losing stragglers here and there, acquiring new members almost by accident. Some people live in cars, others lay permanent siege to bank vaults, only leaving the premises when they have to, unable to believe that the economic order has gone for good.

This review will have made it clear that Blindness is not essentially a lyrical work, and yet through scenes of the greatest bleakness there runs an undercurrent of verbal beauty that surfaces at unlikely moments. The seeing woman, surprised by a thought, realises that it is only the words that arc new. The thought came before the expression of it, 'like a body searching in the bed for the hollow that had been prepared for it by the mere idea of lying down'.

Lyricism, all the more precious for having been rationed so strictly throughout, erupts at last when the women of the party, two blind and the sighted one, ('We are the only women in the world with two eyes and six hands') take advantage of a rainstorm to wash themselves on a balcony.

The two women who cannot see assure the one who can that she is beautiful, in a passage of startling splendour, enough almost to transfigure everything that has come before:

Words are like that, they deceive, they pile up, it seems they do not know where to go, and, suddenly, because of two or three or four that suddenly come out, simple in themselves, a personal pronoun, an adverb, a verb, an adjective, we have the excitement of seeing them coming irresistibly to the surface through the skin and the eyes and upsetting the composure of our feelings … we might say, The doctor's wife has nerves of steel, and yet the doctor's wife is reduced to tears because of a personal pronoun, an adverb, a verb, an adjective, mere grammatical categories, mere labels, just like the two women, the others, indefinite pronouns, they too are crying, they embrace the woman of the whole sentence, three graces beneath the falling rain.

In this passage, Giovanni Pontiero, Saramago's regular translator, who died before he could complete revising his version, amply justified the trust placed in him.

Richard A. Preto-Rodas (review date Winter 1997)

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SOURCE: A review of Cademos de Lancarote: Diario III, in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 1, Winter, 1997, p. 133.

[In the following review, Preto-Rodas presents an overview of the themes in Saramago's Notebooks from Lancarote.]

As Portugal's best-known living author, Jose Saramago has attracted considerable attention in recent years with his annually published diaries (see WLT 70:2, p. 385). Each volume presents his public with views and comments culled from a crowded calendar. The latest edition, written in these Notebooks from Lancarote (the volcanic island in the Canaries archipelago where Saramago now lives in a kind of self-imposed exile), relates events from 1995, the most varied year to date.

Always the novelist, Saramago acknowledges that his diary is less a confession than a process of self-discovery whereby the author-narrator reviews his growth and development. A recurring motif concerns his initial point of departure as a poor boy who first learned to appreciate the value of excellence as an apprentice lathe operator. His successive metamorphoses were even then foreshadowed in the shop's modest library, where he discovered that master of multiple roles, Fernando Pessoa. Saramago's humble beginnings shed much light on a second theme, his dedication to social justice, while also explaining his indifference to social pretensions and his aversion to academic puffery. In each daily entry the reader finds a healthy regard for reason and practical common sense. When, for example, the University of Manchester confers upon him an honorary doctorate, the first instance of a Portuguese writer to be so honored by a British university, he tempers a moment of pride by recalling "the barefoot boy and the teenager in overalls" who preceded the celebrated European intellectual.

An optimist who nevertheless views the challenges and promises of his times with much skepticism, Saramago expresses qualms about a world that has become ever more homogeneous while remaining terribly fragmented. He also finds troubling the hegemony exercised by a powerful few over media that select which ideas and social systems will prevail. For him, Al Gore's information superhighway suggests less a reason for enthusiasm than cause for suspicion, but Saramago admits his own dependence on a fax machine that generates fifteen feet of faxes during a brief absence from home. He is similarly wary and encouraged as he reflects on the European Union, which he views as a threat to national sovereignties and also as a necessary response to American and Asian domination. No nationalist, the author decries his country's penchant for masking perennial shortcomings with appeals to a debatably glorious past, but even the rational internationalist cannot resist the tug of patriotic pride when he encounters a CD-ROM display that introduces Portugal to visitors at the Oslo Book Fair. Emotional conflict of a different sort occurs on an April evening in Manhattan when he is confronted with his own racism as he nervously attempts to find his way through a black neighborhood.

The author seasons his rich stew of politics, economics, and current events with a number of insights on music and the arts, and his readers will find further cause for admiration in his perceptive comments on painting and photography. To be sure, literature remains central to Saramago's interests, and we find repercussions from O Evangelho segundo Jesus Cristo (1991; Engl. The Gospel According to Jesus Christ; see WLT 66:4, p. 697) in the form of impassioned letters from outraged believers scolding this nondogmatic communist who is no less fascinated by religious belief than he is dismayed by its excesses. And if he remains unrepentant and cool to the possibility of conversion to evangelical Christianity, he is also unshaken by criticism from those who perceive slights to national pride in the novel known in English as Baltasar and Blimunda. Little daunted by the negative fallout from his published accomplishments, he makes frequent references to the work in progress that will become his Essay on Blindness.

Throughout these "notebooks" Saramago invokes the rapport between his plots and history, viewed as an occasion for portraying what might have been. Especially worthwhile in this regard is the entry for 28 October, which comprises a lecture delivered in Oslo concerning the past as a source of inspiration. In general, the author shares James Joyce's view of history as nightmare, a series of mishaps and disasters stemming from our species' perverse reliance on illusion and myopic self-interest. Ancient horrors return in new guises, and Saramago sees little reason for celebration in a number of apologies for past transgressions that occurred in 1995, such as Robert McNamara's tears over Vietnam, fresh German regrets for the Holocaust, and Spanish penance for the savagery of sixteenth-century conquistadors. Even the pope's mea culpa before the shade of Galileo rings hollow, since "He forgot to include Giordano Bruno, who was burned alive at the stake." Doubtless, Saramago muses, one day there will be apologies tendered to Kurds by a NATO now silent in deference to its Turkish partner. Moreover, a memorial service in Harvard Yard in honor of civilian casualties of German bombs during World War II strikes him as oddly selective in its outrage in light of the absence of any reference to the Vietnamese victims of similar bombings a generation later.

Clearly, Jose Saramago casts a wide net as he reviews his calendar for 1995. The topics are as varied as the places he has visited, from Scandinavia to the United States, to participate in symposia or to attend events in his honor. We encounter notables like Susan Sontag and Umberto Eco and many other writers and artists from both sides of the Atlantic. There are moments that elicit wonder or anger, while other entries are treated with humor. As a counterpoint to cosmopolitan concerns, there are also pages devoted to his beloved island home where stray dogs come to visit and stay and welcome rains end a drought. New Year's Eve shows that on balance "It was a good year," and the reader is inclined to agree.

Drenka Willen (review date 13 July 1998)

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SOURCE: A review of Blindness, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 245, No. 28, July 13, 1998, p. 62.

[In the following review, Willen suggests that the plague in Blindness represents the tension between depravity and decency among people in extreme circumstances.]

Brilliant Portuguese fabulist Saramago (The History of the Siege of Lisbon) has never shied away from big game. His previous works have rewritten the history of Portugal, reimagined the life of Christ and remodeled a continent by cleaving the Iberian peninsula from Europe and setting it adrift. Here [in Blindness], Saramago stalks two of our oldest themes in the tale of a plague of blindness that strikes an unnamed European city. At the novel's opening, a driver sits in traffic, waiting for the light to change. By the time it docs, his field of vision is white, a "milky sea." One by one, each person the man encounters—the not-so-good Samaritan who drives him home, the man's wife, the ophthalmologist, the patients waiting to see the ophthalmologist—is struck blind. Like any inexplicable contagion, this plague of "white sickness" sets off panic. The government interns the blind, as well as those exposed to them, in an abandoned mental hospital guarded by an army with orders to shoot any detainee who tries to escape. Like Camus, to whom he cannot help being compared, Saramago uses the social disintegration of people in extremis as a crucible in which to study the combustion of our vices and virtues. As order at the mental hospital breaks down and the contagion spreads, the depraved overpower the decent. When the hospital is consumed in flames, the fleeing internees find that everyone has gone blind. Sightless people rove in packs, scavenging for food, sleeping wherever they can. Throughout the narrative, one character remains sighted, the ophthalmologist's wife. Claiming to be blind so she may be interned with her husband, she eventually becomes the guide and protector for an improvised family. Indeed, she is the reader's guide and stand-in, the repository of human decency, the hero, if such an elaborate fable can have a hero. Even after so many factual accounts of mass cruelty, this most sophisticated fiction retains its peculiar power to move and persuade.

Andrew Miller (review date 4 October 1998)

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SOURCE: "Zero Visibility," in New York Times, October 4, 1998, pp. 1-4.

[In the following review, Miller praises Blindness as a novel of great compassion and wisdom.]

Traffic at a red light. The lights change, the cars move off, all except one that remains blocking the middle lane. A man inside is shouting the same three words again and again: "I am blind." Distraught, he is accompanied to his home by a kindly stranger. But this good Samaritan is also a car thief. Having taken the blind man home, he steals his car. A short time later he too is blind.

What is this malady? The first blind man consults an ophthalmologist. He tells him the blindness is not dark but a brilliant, impenetrable white. The doctor examines the man's eyes, but there are no lesions, no signs of disease. In his apartment that night the puzzled doctor sits up late with his medical textbooks. The case is baffling. He shrugs, returns the books to the shelves. The last thing he sees is the back of his own hands against the spines of the books.

The first blind man, the thief, the doctor. Later come the girl with dark glasses, the boy with the squint, the old man. Nobody has a name in Blindness, Jose Saramago's symphonic new novel. Indeed, there are no proper names of any kind. The city in which this catastrophic epidemic of blindness breaks out is never identified. There are no street names. This is any city at almost any point in the modern era. This is everybody's disaster.

The government takes measures to halt the contagion, now known as the white evil. Those who are already blind and those who have been in contact with them are rounded up and driven to a disused mental asylum at the edge of the city. Among the first internees are the doctor and his wife. The wife has lied in order to stay with her husband. She too, she claims, has the white blindness, though in fact she is the only one to retain her sight. Why she is spared is not explained. Clearly it is useful for Saramago to have at least one pair of eyes still seeing, but as both readers and characters begin to suspect that the blindness has as much to do with a pathology of consciousness as with any failure of retina or lens, we are invited to speculate on her exclusion, as indeed we are invited, sometimes teasingly, to speculate on every aspect of this fascinating novel.

As the numbers of the blind increase, conditions in the hospital deteriorate. There is not enough food. Some take more than their share; others go hungry. There is no medical assistance. Any attempt to leave the hospital is met with lethal force from soldiers on guard, terrified that they too will succumb to the blindness. The asylum becomes more concentration camp than hospital. Among the military are those who believe it would be simpler to liquidate all the afflicted.

New inmates bring reports of the epidemic's spread in the outside world: there are multiple traffic accidents; airliners plunge from the sky when their pilots are blinded. In time life at the hospital degenerates into a Hobbesian struggle for power and survival: blind terror, blind hate, but also—for Saramago is the most tender of writers—blind love. In one scene the doctor's wife is moving through the crowded ward at night. She pauses to watch two young recent arrivals making love amid the filth on the floor (there are not enough beds):

The blind man and the blind woman were now resting, apart, the one lying beside the other, but they were still holding hands, they were young, perhaps even lovers who had gone to the cinema and turned blind there, or perhaps some miraculous coincidence brought them together in this place, and, this being the case, how did they recognize each other, good heavens, by their voices, of course, it is not only the voice of blood that needs no eyes, love, which people say is blind, also has a voice of its own.

The prose, with its minimal punctuation, its flickering of tense and subject so that we glide between first and third person, between stream of consciousness and wry objectivity, is this Portuguese novelist's trademark style, rendered faithfully by his longtime translator Giovanni Pontiero, who died after he finished this version. It takes a page or two for the reader to settle into it; the denseness of the long polyphonic paragraphs appears slightly daunting at the first encounter. Soon, however, we are caught up by the sheer momentum of the narrative. The unencumbered language hurries us forward at such a pace it is difficult to do justice to the subtlety and occasional beauty of its architecture, as if we were driving headlong through a great city at night.

The ordeal at the asylum ends with a disturbing and disturbingly comic battle between two gangs of blind warriors. A fire starts. The combatants call to the soldiers for help, but the soldiers have all gone; the gates are open. The doctor's wife leads her dazed and brutalized group of survivors into the city, where gangs of blind citizens grope their way about the streets searching for dwindling food supplies. The dead lie unburied, fed on by dogs and crows. Cars are rusting where they were abandoned. Shops have been clumsily looted. Everywhere there is trash and excrement, the physical evidence of social collapse that Saramago places great emphasis upon, partly, one assumes, because allegories and parables, if they are to work as novels, need the ballast.

But this, surely, is how it would be: the inexorable tide of filth.

All utilities have long since ceased to function. There is no running water. For most people, staying clean—or at least not allowing themselves to stop caring about the vileness around them, the crust of dirt on their skins—is more than a matter of hygiene. It is an attempt to avoid sinking back into a final blindness, a dark blindness, where there is no love and no stories. When at last, under a shower of torrential rain, they are able to scrub themselves and to scrub one another clean, there is an exhilarating sense of release and purification. In lesser hands a scene like this, with its clear, indeed its undisguised, overtones of spiritual as well as bodily cleansing, might have had about it a whiff of altar wine, but Saramago keeps his balance and allows the scene to work a much quieter and more effective magic:

They cannot imagine that there are moreover three naked women out there, as naked as when they came into the world, they seem to be mad, they must be mad, people in their right mind do not start washing on a balcony exposed to the view of the neighborhood, even less looking like that … perhaps we have judged them wrongly, or perhaps we are unable to see this the most beautiful and glorious thing that has happened in the history of the city, a sheet of foam flows from the floor of the balcony, if only I could go with it, falling interminably, clean, purified, naked.

Surviving together in the doctor's old apartment, sharing their few resources, finding a few small pleasures, the doctor's family and a few fellow refugees are still capable of acts of kindness, of generosity, fashioning out of the brute realities of their lives a fragile solidarity, a delicate bastion of civilization.

But what is the blindness? What does it stand for? The characters, of course, must put the question a little differently. What is the nature of their affliction, the cause of their blindness? In the last pages of the book, as the white blindness finally abates, the doctor's wife, whose eyes have borne all the burden of witnessing what the others in their sightlessness were spared, offers us a kind of answer:

Why did we become blind, I don't know, perhaps one day we'll find out, Do you want me to tell you what I think, Yes, do, I don't think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see.

Absurd to say it, but the blindness in Saramago's novel is an allegory for not being able to see. What exactly it is we should see, what Saramago—with all his years as a man and a writer and having lived through dictatorship and revolution—fears we cannot see, is present in the writing, present abundantly, but it is not to be paraphrased.

This is a writer who puts me in mind of the great German novelist Theodor Fontane, whose masterpiece, Effi Briest (1895), also written in the latter part of a long life, written out of the fruit of so much experience, shares with Saramago's Blindness a powerful sense of the folly and heroism of ordinary lives. There is no cynicism and there are no conclusions, just a clear-eyed and compassionate acknowledgment of things as they are, a quality that can only honestly be termed wisdom. We should be grateful when it is handed to us in such generous measures.

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José Saramago World Literature Analysis

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