Thursday, 1 November 2012

José Saramago: A Beginner's Guide




The José Saramago Month has officially started and before we continue I think a few words on where to get started with this wonderful writer are in order. Although he has many great novels, I believe some are better introductions than others. I speak from experience because before he became my favourite novelist I had a lot of difficulty getting into his work.

Once upon a time I didn’t love reading José Saramago’s novels. Impenetrable, verbose, complicated, and boring were just some of the adjectives I hurled at the books shortly after I closed them in anger, having barely managed to read past the first page. In school we routinely joked about his inability to use correct punctuation when we had to learn it. Baltasar and Blimunda is part of the high school syllabus, but at the time I was thankfully spared from having to read it, instead I read Vergílio Ferreira’s Aparição. I’m glad I didn’t have to read Saramago against my will because I would have hated him, much like I couldn’t stand Eça de Queiroz for years after having to put up with the interminable masterpiece The Maias. I firmly believe readers need to discover writers at their natural rhythms. Years passed, I was in college and I still couldn’t stand him. Although my mother, who is another fan of him, kept encouraging me to give him a try, I just couldn’t get past the style. Then one day, without expecting it, I just overcame my aversion to him. It was a rainy morning in Winter, in late 2004 or early 2005. I had accompanied my mom to a clinic, and while the doctor was seeing her I was sitting in the waiting room. She was reading Saramago’s most recent novel, Seeing, and I was holding it for her. Since I didn’t have anything to do I opened the novel, read a few lines, and found it extremely funny. In the dimly-lit waiting room his style finally clicked with me. Why? I have no idea. The opening pages described a morning that was much like the one outside the building, cold and rainy; it is elections day but because of the rain no one had yet arrived to vote. And the delegates at the voting booths are becoming worried. I read on, laughing with the narrator’s wits and sarcasm as he gently mocked modern elections. Then my mother came back and I stopped. But I was finally intrigued. Seeing, however, wasn’t the first novel I finished. I figured I needed something to sweeten the pill, so I bought The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. As a fan of Fernando Pessoa, I figured that I’d enjoy the novel more because of that. Looking back, that wasn’t a wise introduction because the novel is dense and difficult, but it’s also possibly the greatest novel Saramago ever wrote. It left me pretty much fit to read everything else. I liked it so much I continued to read his novels, one by one. A good thing about Saramago is that there is no shortage of his books in English: there’s Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, Raised from the Ground, Baltasar and Blimunda, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, The Stone Raft, The History of the Siege of Lisbon, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Blindness, All The Names, The Double, Seeing, Death At Intervals, The Elephant’s Journey, Cain, the short-story collection The Lives of Things, the novella The Tale of the Unknown Island, the travelling book Journey To Portugal, the autobiography Small Memories, and the collection of blog articles The Notebook. Over the years I’ve liked some more than others, and my recommendations are nothing but the thoughts of a humble reader and fan. For me his best novels are the ones that combine his inventive imagination, his humanism, and his sarcastic and ironic humour.


This year readers will finally be able to read Margaret Jull Costa’s translation of Raised from the Ground. Although this is his last novel be translated into English, it is, for me, the best introduction to José Saramago, and also my personal favourite. It’s the first novel he wrote that exhibited his distinctive voice and it was revolutionary in Portugal, immediately making critics and readers take notice of the arrival of a unique new literary talent. But it’s also his most personal novel, drawn from his experiences as a boy in his grandparents’ house in Ribatejo, a desert-like backland peopled by impoverished landless peasants, farmers and artisans. It’s a hymn to the people of humble origins he comes from, a harrowing chronicle of the lives of peasants from the time of the monarchy to Portugal’s post-revolutionary period. It’s his most communist novel, about people who, like him, joined the party when it was a clandestine organization, and it weaves fiction with facts about historical movements, strikes and conflicts with the land-owners and the government that marked 20th century Portuguese history. In spite of that, it’s very easy to get into this novel without knowing much of the historical context, the historical details aren’t as dense as in Baltasar and Blimunda. It’s really a novel about ordinary people living from their hard work and fighting back oppression. I don’t hesitate to say it’s his most heartbreaking novel.

Almost as heartbreaking is the novel All The Names. Written after Seeing, it’s a whimsical but tragic story about an ordinary clerk who investigates an ordinary woman he never knew after he chances upon her file at the Civil Registry where he works. It’s something of a love story, in which the woman is missing, and he never meets her. It’s also a treatise on loneliness, in spite of the often absurd personality of the protagonist. It’s almost a detective story, and as gripping as one, but the true figure under the microscope is the protagonist and his feelings and thoughts, which occupy a good part of the novel through silly dialogues he keeps with his house’s ceiling. It’s one of his best and funniest novels. And since it takes place in an unnamed country, the reader doesn’t need a lot of cultural baggage to understand it.


Another novel full of humour, perhaps his funniest, is Death At Intervals. This is another one of his unusual love stories. At first it’s about Death quitting her job and granting everyone immortality. Quickly people discover this is not a good idea after all (the effects are limited to a single country), so Death resumes her job with a disturbing innovation: she starts sending people letters telling them exactly when they’re going to die and giving them a week to get ready. Again this has unexpected consequences to people. Then one of the letters is returned and Death investigates the recipient, a musician, and she falls in love with him. The second part of the novel is very tender.



The Gospel According to Jesus Christ and The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis are two other great introductions. The one about Jesus Christ is perhaps a better introduction since it deals with a topic universally known. It has Saramago’s most incisive reflections about life, God, death, religion, oppression, freedom and love. It’s bawdy, humane and humanistic, whimsical, satirical, irreverent, and amazingly well written. The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is perhaps a harder recommendation because it’s necessary to know something about the poets Fernando Pessoa and Ricardo Reis before reading it. But it’s impeccably written, and the imagined conversations between the two poets constitute some of the best writing of Saramago’s career.


Blindness and Seeing form a couple of novels that have to be read in order, so it’s a bigger investment. But it’s well worth it. For my part I prefer Seeing, but it’s necessary to read Blindness first in order to understand part of the plot. Blindness imagines what would happen if the world went blind completely, from a mysterious white blindness that has no known cure. It’s a feral, violent, disgusting novel, a cry of despair about the madness that consumes the world and the violence and horrors ignored by everyone every day, all over the world. It’s a frightening portrait of the total collapse of human society and all its values, except for a small group of men and women led by a woman who hasn’t lost her sight. It is very well written, but it’s a strong and disturbing novel that may leave some readers upset and disgusted. But after reading it, I recommend Seeing, which is an allegory about the very modern crisis of democracy: the government of an unnamed country places a city under siege and proceeds to punish its citizens for their lack of democracy – their crime? Casting too many blank votes. Instead of trying to understand the reasons that explain the dissatisfaction of the electors with the politicians, the government resorts to surveillance, torture and terrorism to get even with the citizens. In their search for scapegoats they come across some characters from Blindness. It’s almost a protagonist-less novel in that it’s a panoramic view of the city and the government, jumping from character to character. Excellent are the conversations between the prime-minister and his cabinet of ministers, as are the attempts of the citizens to maintain democracy going in spite of the siege. This novel isn’t so much communistic as it is unapologetically anarchistic. Towards the end the novel discovers a protagonist, the Superintendent, one of Saramago’s best characters, a weary, humane, pensive policeman who could have come out from one of Leonardo Sciascia’s detective novels, one of the best compliments I can give to Saramago.


The Cave is another one of his novels about ordinary people trying to survive in a changing, incomprehensible, hostile world. It follows the life of a potter and his difficulty in selling his handicrafts in a world that has surrendered to plastic objects. Didacticism aside, it’s a beautiful novel with strong characters and displays Saramago’s deep love and respect for the artisans and small tradesmen of his childhood.

Other possible entry points, but in my humble opinion not as strong: Baltasar and Blimunda (his first international success), The Stone Raft, The History of the Siege of Lisbon, and The Double. Although these have all their strong points, I find these not as enjoyable as the others listed above. Don’t take my word for it, though, Baltasar and Blimunda is very popular with bloggers, but for me it fails to show the best of Saramago’s skills, and I wonder if the historical passages and long descriptions of architecture won’t put the reader off.

Novels I don’t recommend to first-timers: The Elephant’s Journey, Cain and Manual of Painting and Calligraphy. Cain is probably the worst novel he ever wrote (worst than his first one way back in the 1940s), and a disappointing and redundant diatribe against the Bible after the verbal and intellectual splendour of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. The ending, though, with Cain inside Noah’s Ark is a great conclusion, it’s just a pity one has two waddle through a lot of pap to get to it. The Elephant’s Journey, although not a very bad novel, is a simple and inconsequential one, retreading old themes with diminished finesse and irony. Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, although a good novel in itself, lacks Saramago’s extraordinary imagination, it’s in fact a bit dull as far as plot goes. It was Saramago’s second published novel, and although it was already a sober and accomplished work about a painter struggling with his inability to finish a portrait, it lacks the flights of fancy, humour and magical realism that have brought him worldwide fame.

The Lives of Things has one great short-story, “Chair,” which meticulously describes dictator Salazar’s fall from a chair that leaves him with a head concussion. I personally love it, but the rest of the book isn’t as strong. The Tale of the Unknown Island is to avoid.

Of his non-fiction, Small Memories and The Notebook are good reads for those interested in learning more about the man behind the novels. But there’s no urgent need to read them until you’ve become acquainted with a few of his novels.

Next, a short biography of José Saramago.

18 comments:

  1. Thanks again for organizing the month Miguel.

    I am about one quarter through "The Stone Raft" and I am loving it.

    Having also read "Baltasar and Blimunda" I agree with some of the adjectives you used to describe Saramago's writings. He can be challenging! I as I really like to try to dig into theme and symbolism I find that Saramago really keeps me on my toes. Of course, I love such challenges and this have really enjoyed the limited number of words that I have read thus far.

    I have only seen the film "Blindness" and have not read the book. I have heard that it is a fairly faithful representation of the novel. I was not disgusted as it was obvious that the narrative was on the side of the oppressed and those who are victimized. There was a rape/murder scene that was so unbelievably disturbing, at least for me, that I am very hesitant to read the book.

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    1. I'm glad you're enjoying The Stone Raft, I personally had difficulty enjoying it, a few bits aside: the starlings are lovely. I however fail to see the point of the novel. So I'll be looking forward to your thoughts about it :)

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    2. I watched the movie after reading the book and had the impression that the film does not come close to the book's force at any point. For example, the rape scene in the film is Kinderkarten in comparison to the one in the book. I think it is the only book ever that made me physically sick. A strong boog, but for some reason the obvious symbolism of so many passages went on my nerves. I prefer it a bit more subtle.

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    3. Hello, yes, I agree the movie was far weaker than the novel. But all in all, I found it a decent effort, and it had many good performances. Still, I'd sooner watch an adaptation of Seeing, I think that would make a great movie.

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  2. I've been looking forward to reading "Raised from the Ground" for quite a while. Thanks for helping put it in context of his other works and life!

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    1. Don't hesitate, Dwight! It's one of his best novels, I cried when I re-read it in 2010, but that perhaps also because Saramago had just passed away. But it's a very beautiful, humane story, a joy to read.

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  3. An excellent intro. Thanks for sharing your personal favorites. I have The Stone Raft and Ricardo Reis on my pile but will not be able to read them this month. I'll follow the discussions with interest though.

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  4. P.S. Based on your recommendations, I'd love to eventually get my hands on Raised From the Ground and Seeing. Small Memories also look appealing to me as one of my interests is childhood memoirs of writers.

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  5. This is a writer I keep meaning to read,I even own a couple of his works and yet.... So this is a fantastic guide and one that will aid me when I finally manage to open one.

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  6. Thanks for this very nice overview, I will need to come back to Saramago at some point, he is a great writer. One minor comment, didn't he write Seeing long after All The Names?

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  7. I have read The Double and The Elephant's Journey in the past few years and enjoyed both. (See blog posts at theknockingshop.blogspot.ie/search/label/Jose%20Saramago)
    I'm excited to hear that they are among his worst! It makes me look forward to reading more.
    I have Seeing on my shelves but (as you clarify here) I will have to get Blindness first. I will bookmark this and use it to help decide which ones follow those two.

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  8. Rise, I look forward to eventually reading your thoughts about those novels in your own blog :)

    Although Small Memories is a good source of information about his formative years, I think he's written better about his past and personal life elsewhere - particularly his series of diaries (coming up next week) and some of the entries in his blog.

    Parrish Lantern, may I ask which novels you own by him?

    Anonymous, he wrote All The Names in 1998 and Seeing in 2004. This list wasn't chronological; I'm leaving that for my short bio of him, which is already up :)

    Séamus, I wouldn't include The Double amongst his worst, just average for Saramago. Well written but rather unimpressive for a fanatic like me :)

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  9. The only Saramago I've read is Blindness. This list gives me options.

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    1. Nana, I recommend Seeing next, half your work is done already :)

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  10. Thanks for this :)

    I haven't read any Samarago yet (and I'm a bit tied up with other projects at the moment), but when I do get to him, I'll know where to start... here ;)

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    1. Tony, no problem, I'm also involved in the German Literature Month :)

      When you read him, write about it in your blog so I can read it.

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  11. Hi Miguel, I have Cain on my Kindle & a copy of Seeing purchased from a 2nd hand bookshop, both bought with the intention of being read soon after acquiring & yet something got in the way.

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    1. Read them when you have the time. I'd start with Seeing, though, it's the best novel. Then let me know what you think of it :)

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