The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis has been praised as the finest of Saramago’s series of surreal historical novels. The novel’s protagonist is a literary alter ego named Ricardo Reis, a persona originally created by the great Portuguese modernist poet Fernando Pessoa. Reis has been in exile in Brazil since 1919, but after he learns of Pessoa’s death he returns to Lisbon in 1935, in the early years of a rising totalitarianism found not only in a Portugal but also in the regimes of Francisco Franco, Benito Mussolini, and Adolf Hitler elsewhere in Europe. As Reis wends his way through the labyrinthine streets of Lisbon, he is visited twelve times by the ghost of Pessoa; the two have lively discussions on many subjects, including art, life, politics, religion, and history. These conversations act as an intriguing and complicated counterpoint to an emerging fascistic modern world marked by fear and inhibition. When Reis pays a visit to the cemetery where Pessoa is buried, it appears to be a mirror image of the city itself, whose inhabitants have become deadened and passive.
Because the difference between the living and the dead is slowly dissolving throughout the novel, it is unsurprising that in the end Reis is led to the graveyard to take his place with Pessoa. While in one way this conclusion suggests that Reis has taken his place among the living dead of fascist-ruled Lisbon, on the other hand he has secured a transcendent bond with Pessoa that is a counterpoint to the terrible times in which he was living. Reis was content to live a contemplative life in a crisis-torn Lisbon because fascism was simply not a part of his interior life. His inner exile into a poetic, literary, and philosophical world secures an identity untouched by the evils of the day.