Thursday, 26 January 2012

José Saramago, Women and Sex

Long before I started reading Clarabóia, I had already noticed that José Saramago wrote excellent female characters. His first novel, Terra do Pecado, followed the doomed attempt of a landowner’s widow to find love again. Saramago would claim, decades later, that it was a topic he didn’t know anything about. Although the intimate life of a rich widow was something that the grandson of landless peasants wasn’t familiar with, he’s never shown any fear of filling his novels with female perspectives. The women in his novels not always dominate the plot, but some characters, like Blimunda (Baltasar and Blimunda), The Doctor’s Wife (Blindness and Seeing), and Death (Death With Interruptions), do have more importance than the men to the action. Even if they have a supporting role, their presence always leaves a significant impression, whether it be the unknown woman who fuels the obsession of Sr. José to discover her identity (All The Names), the biblical prostitute Mary Magdalene (The Gospel According to Jesus Christ), or Maria Sara, the editor who persuades Raimundo to write an alternative history of Portugal (The History of the Siege of Lisbon).

I don’t mean to say the author idolizes them, though. In these politically correct times, it’s easy to turn minorities into the personification of all virtues; it’s even easier and less criticisable to slip into misandry, something Saramago never does either. I just mean he writes women who possess complex personalities – with dreams, insecurities, values, and sexual drive; ballsy women with their own way of doing and thinking about things. They’re not easily definable because they exist in a constant flux, like Emma Bovary, one of the most fascinating women from literature, and who wasn’t a good person by most definitions. Simple tags like good or bad don’t apply to rich characters.

And it’s with this frame of mind that I’m reading Clarabóia, possibly Saramago’s most female-centric novel ever. I mentioned in a previous post that the plot loosely revolves around the people living in six apartments in a tenant building. Although most of those apartments have men – husband and fathers – living in them, the reader often enters their homes through the perspective of the women. It’s also inevitable, perhaps considering that the novel was written in 1953, at the height of Portugal's patriarchal values, that the men-women and women-women relationships are depicted in terms of power and sex.

In 1953, Portugal was, morally speaking, still living in the Victorian age. Although in the outside world the feminist movement was underway, Portugal had stopped in time regarding sex and what was considered morally decent. Women were considered second class citizens. The man was the chief of the family, and the breadwinner; the woman, often a housewife, would simply manage the domestic economy, do the house chores and serve her husband. Daughters should remain chaste until marriage, and parents controlled every aspect of their (non-existing) sexual life to make sure they walked towards the altar still intact; young men had to ask the father permission to date his daughter. It was all very traditional and in line with the state propaganda that promulgated a Christian, patriarchal view of the world.

Writers, however, tried to dismantle this illusion through their fiction by writing explicitly about sex, sexual relationships, extramarital affairs, and, worst of all, female sexual desire. It was then still unthinkable that women could actually enjoy sex. That is one of the topics that motivated criminal charges against the authors of The Three Marias, an erotic book collectively written by three women - Maria Teresa Horta, Maria Isabel Barreno e Maria Velho da Costa – and which was deemed indecent because it showed sexual desire from a woman’s point of view. This happened in 1972.

Twenty years before, Saramago was already writing about women fighting against this sexual repression, and the way this repression traumatised them. There are two sisters, Adriana and Isaura, who live in an apartment with their mother and aunt. Adriana keeps a diary where she confides her unrequited love for a co-worker: it’s a sad diary because it reveals her lack of self-esteem; she, for instance, calls herself ugly and doubts any man would ever love her; but it also shows the way she was brought up: she doesn’t think she should take the initiative; that would be considered too forward – it’s the man who must show interest. Women must inhibit their desires. As for her sister, literature constitutes her form of escape and also the only space where she can entertain sexual fantasies. There’s a curious passage in the novel that juxtaposes Adriana writing in her diary with Isaura reading Denis Diderot’s The Nun. This is an erotic novel involving lesbianism: the lengthy excerpt Saramago quotes from involves a mother superior getting in bed with a nun. Isaura is more reserved than her sister: she works at home, mending clothes. Whereas Adriana can project her feelings onto her co-workers, Isaura doesn’t have an outlet for her sexual experiences. This isolation leads to a scene where she slips into bed with her sister, who’s sleeping, and starts kissing her arm. Adriana wakes up and there are further complications. Although it’s an arousing passage, I think it has more to do with loneliness than sex. Isaura is motivated by the fact that she doesn’t have any form of expressing her libido. Her kissing her sister is a confused manifestation of all her pent-up emotions; she’s a victim of a society where sex isn’t free, where sex isn’t even private. When their aunt notices that something is wrong with the two, she hatches a carefully thought out plan to have access to Adriana’s diary, hoping it’ll yield explanations to their behaviour; she justifies these actions with the belief that she’s doing it to help them. The theme of intruding on other peoples’ lives is continued in the character of Anselmo, a father who starts following his daughter, Maria Cláudia, after he suspects she’s seeing a boyfriend. He too think he’s doing it for her own good, by ensuring she marries a man who can provide her with a good life.

Still, deep down Anselmo is a well-intentioned father and husband. There are worse men in the novel. Caetano is a cruel, whore-mongering brute who treats his wife, Justina, like a slave. He doesn’t hide the fact he blows all his money on prostitutes, he never shows any affection for her, he schemes to make her life miserable, he forces her to have sex with her just to spite her. He doesn’t hit her, not as a matter of principle like he fondly claims, but out of fear, because he fears pushing her too far. Caetano’s a bit heavy-handed, clichéd; he’s not one of Saramago’s most accomplished characters, who, even at their worst, have redeeming qualities. But this caricature of a man serves to show his time’s double standards regarding sex, which granted men more freedom and rights than woman.

Another instance of double standards concerns Lídia, a kept woman. A former prostitute, she now lives in an apartment where she frequently receives a lover, Paulino. Lídia isn’t the traditional whore with a heart of gold, but a woman in a vulnerable position, at the mercy of her aging body, who hates what she does. She gets along fine with most of the tenants, even if most judge her behind her back and if some envy her because she has more than them. Her mother, who visits her twice a month, once to collect a stipend, another to pretend she cares about her, condones her job because it financially suits her. During the novel, Maria Cláudia’s mother, Rosália, pleads with her to persuade Paulino to find her daughter a better-paying job in his company. She acquiesces but this backfires on her because Maria Cláudia becomes Paulino’s new object of desire. However he must first get rid of Lídia; an opportunity arises when he receives an anonymous letter accusing Lídia of cheating him with a new tenant. He uses this pretext to leave her, pretending to be the victim in the relationship. Rosália and Anselmo, who until then had been obsequious to Lídia, take Paulino’s side. It’s not just that he’s their daughter’s new boss; it’s that he’s a man, and so it’s expected, even natural, to have a mistress. Lídia is criticised for being disloyal. Men are encouraged to be polygamous; women, monogamous.

I’m curious to see how other people will read this novel. Have attitudes towards sex changed so much in the past sixty years that in this regard Clarabóia is interesting only as a historical document? I don't think; I fear this novel condemn a sexual hypocrisy that still exists today.


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