Sunday, 22 January 2012

Clarabóia: José Saramago and Neorealism

I started reading José Saramago’s posthumous novel, Clarabóia, a few days ago. (1) Some readers may recall that he passed away in 2009. After that I began reading his books more slowly because I knew I’d never have another opportunity to enjoy a new novel from my favorite writer. Now let me share several posts about this new novel with you.

Clarabóia adds another piece to the jigsaw that composed Saramago’s sprawling oeuvre (six decades writing novels, poems, plays, diaries, crónicas, newspaper articles, a travel book, a memoir, children’s books, short-stories and a blog), and it helps  to understand the development of his work as a novelist. Finished in 1953, if I had to position it I'd say it's in the vein of our neorealist literature. Neorealism started coalescing in literature after the 1929 Crash and matured during World War II with the publication of two novels: Soeiro Pereira Gomes’ Esteiros (1941), and Alves Redol’s Gaibéus (1939). The first novel depicted child labour in Lisbon’s glassworks; the second, the arduous lives of workers from the Ribatejo area, the birthplace of Saramago, grandson of peasants.

Neorealism was perhaps the most important literary movement in Portuguese letters during the first half of the 20th century because it spoke more directly to the social circumstances of Portugal. In 1926, a military coup overthrew the short-lived republic and imposed a dictatorship in the vein of the fascist regimes sweeping Europe at the time. Known as Estado Novo (New State), it immediately instated censorship to clamp down on all arts and civil liberties. Portugal at the time was a poor, underdeveloped country; the regime, based on the pillars of the family and the Catholic Church, tried, however, to project a false image of it abroad, and therefore rejected any form of art that sowed discord between classes, offended the nation’s moral customs and attacked the regime’s policies. The movement saw literature as a tool in denouncing social injustice. Neorealist literature ignored style and aesthetics; it was socially committed art, with a Marxist inclination, that concerned itself with class struggle and capitalist exploitation; it was downbeat, focusing on poverty, famine, unemployment. Neorealism was disillusioned with life and captured it with all its wrinkles, body odour and toothless gums. It was the only type of literature that could dismantle the illusion the State’s propaganda department had so diligently created.

It was in these circumstances that José Saramago published his first novel, in 1947: Terra do Pecado (Land of Sin). It may seem unusual to associate his name with neorealism. Readers probably know him from his magical realist novels and parables like Baltazar and Blimunda, All The Names and espeically Blindness, an absurdist view of life, with impressionistic prose, and a satirical narrator who’s a far cry from the bleak and rigorous voice that informed neorealist novels.

But Saramago had his short-lived affair with neorealism. Terra do Pecado was about a rich, young widow trying to make her Ribatejo farm prosper after the death of her husband; the author claimed, in the preface of the modern edition, that he knew something about Rijatejo and farms, but nothing about rich widows.  It was also a bit glum, like a realistic Eça de Queiroz novel without its trademark sense of humour. In truth, writing about the well-off was never Saramago’s forte; he’s always shown a deeper love for the voices and lives of the downtrodden. His second published novel, Manual of Painting and Calligraphy (1977), was also a somewhat realist novel, with autobiographical undertones, about a painter who, being unable to capture the real world, turns to writing. In the protagonist’s dilemma we can already read a critique of the neorealist approach to fiction, which, in spite of its attempts, could never totally capture a world in constant flux.

Saramago’s third published novel, which some critics have called the final nail on Portuguese neorealism’s coffin, was the first one to present the style he’s today celebrated for. Raised from the Ground (1980; it will finally be published in English this year, translated by the ubiquitous Margaret Jull Costa), was, in Saramago’s words, an “epopee about Alentejo’s rural workers,” referring to one of the poorest areas in Portugal, an area that played a crucial role in the Portuguese labour movement. It’s arguably his most ferociously communist novel, but also where his humanism is at its clearest. Saramago explains that he finally found his famous style when he went to Alentejo to interview peasants and workers and that he simply reproduced their speech pattern, which was digressive and interweaved with proverbs and popular sayings. He had already written half the novel in a traditional style, but he went back and re-wrote everything again in his newfound voice. It is ironic that the style that made a radical departure with the writings of Alves Redol and other neorealists came exactly from the people they wrote about in their novels.

So Clarabóia is interesting to me because it fits between Terra do Pecado and Raised from the Ground. It still exhibits Saramago’s adherence to traditional prose, but the voice has already mellowed. It’s more reflective, funnier, wiser. The action revolves around the tenants of six apartments in a working class building: traditional families, a daughter living with her widowed mother, a kept woman who receives a gentleman at night, couples that hate each other, and couples deeply in love form the cast of this novel about the hardships men and women endured in the Estado Novo. Sixty pages into it so far, I notice a compassionate, non-judgmental tone that slowly, one by one, reveals the fears, disappointments, and ambitions of these people, some happy, some sad, others on the verge of change. It’s a novel about ordinary people, the artisans he admired so much (in his youth he had been a mechanic and compositor), just living, no more no less.

(1) Since then the novel has been translated into English under the title Skylight: 16/07/2016


  1. Saramago is one of my favorite authors. I'm anxious to read this when it is translated into English. I only know him, as you've pointed from his recent stuff. Thanks for the review.

    1. Kinna, hello.

      Thanks for the African Reading Challenge. I'm anxious to begin that once I finish Saramago.