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.