Wednesday, 28 November 2012

José Saramago's Science Fiction Epic Poem

I couldn’t let this event pass without writing about José Saramago’s poetry. Well, I could have of course; I could have organized it in many different ways and I could have left his poetry out since it’s a negligible part of his oeuvre. I don’t consider myself an expert on Saramago and if I feel somewhat confident to make analyses of his novels, it’s because I’ve read lots of them (re-read some even) and picked up some ideas and noticed some patterns along the way. But when it comes to his poetry I’m a nullity. Of his earlier poetry I know nothing in first hand, just what I read about it, some good and mostly bad (and from the author himself). I know for instance that of his first poems, written in the 1940s, Saramago preferred not to have them published, and that tacitly says a lot about what he thought of them. I know that his first book of poetry, Os Poemas Possíveis, according to his biography, didn’t set the world on fire with their quality and innovation. And I know Provavelmente Alegria was better received by the press and the writers of the time but didn’t necessarily signal the rise of a fresh new voice in the Portuguese literary landscape, which didn’t have room for more poets anyway.

But I have read O Ano de 1993 (The Year of 1993) and liked it. To recapitulate what I wrote before: on March 16, 1974 there was a failed coup to overthrow Marcello Caetano’s fascist regime. Portugal had been a dictatorship since 1926 and there had been several unsuccessful coups over the years. In March of 1974, however, few probably expected that just a month later, specifically April 24, another coup would finally overthrow fascism. Saramago was one of the many who saw his hopes of freedom crushed in March, and in order to dissolve his frustration, sadness and rage, he started writing a narrative poetic allegory about a future where mankind is ruled by machines.

Well, it’s not The Wasteland and Saramago isn’t showing fear in a handful of dust. Saramago was, I think I’ve stated it before, a fan of science fiction and horror, the book is interesting for how he manages to integrate common tropes of the genre with his own sensibility, his own words, to create his own science fiction epic poem.

The plot is really a cliché of science fiction: slowly the slaves and hunted humans develop a consciousness of their own servile state and organize a resistance that defeats the mechanical tyrants. And once more mankind is free to rebuild a utopia from the debris of civilization. It’s a violent, tender, serene and hopeful book. It’s a book about the high cost of freedom and why cost has to be made. It’s a poem that speaks of the regeneration of a dying world, of the rebirth of mankind, children, words, society, ideas, nature.

The poem obeys a rigid style: it’s written in declarative sentences, without commas or any other punctuation marks. It’s divided in thirty chapters. Each stanza can go from several lines of verse to just one. The verses have a sing-song tone to it, a cadence that carries the reader throughout the narrative, told in a serene, tranquil voice in spite of the horrors described and the bizarre imagery, it’s like the voice of a weary man who has lived and seen too much to the point of sensorial numbness.

This is how the poem opens:

The people are seated in a Dali landscape with the shadows severely cut out because of a sun that we will call still

When the sun moves like it happens outside paintings the clarity is less and the light is far less aware of its place

It doesn’t matter that Dali was such a bad painter if he painted the image necessary for the days of 1993

(One day I will rediscover his quote about how he disliked surrealist paintings; as it is it’s in the back of my memory but I can’t pinpoint its source.)

The first people we meet in the poem are living in gutted buildings, in the dark, trembling with cold:

And they say last year’s winter was much sweeter or smoother or more benign although the word is old in 1993

While they speak and utter important things like this

One person is scratching enigmatic lines on the floor which can be either a portrait or a declaration of love or the word left to be invented

The reader at first doesn’t know who these people are. The poem isn’t clear with answers, it takes its time. The narrative slowly accumulates details and images. Later we read that

The inhabitants of the city sick with the plague are gathered in the great square which became known like this because all the others were clogged with ruins

People are ordered to stand in attention for no purpose. They live not for themselves but for absent rulers. Their existence knows only servitude and misery, taking orders and living in buildings where elevators no longer work. Their lives are carefully controlled, curfews exist, and those who break them are severely punished:

The interrogation of the man who left his home after the curfew hour started fifteen days ago and hasn’t ended yet

The inquirers ask a question every sixty minutes twenty-four each day and demand fifty-nine answers for each one

It’s a new method

They believe that it’s impossible that the true answer isn’t amongst the fifty-nine that were given

There are humans living outside the city they once lived in. Inside the city is inhabited by creatures metaphorically called wolves, who prey on men. Other humans live underground. There are humans allowed to remain in the city, and these are counted every night three times. They’re not allowed to keep their doors locked:

It’s important that the doors be permanently open in order not to waste the time of those keeping the census


The first count is made by rats the second by snakes the third by spiders

The inhabitants prefer the snakes and the rats in spite of the cold and scaly contact of the snakes and the fine scratching of the rats’ claws

But the spiders bring the greatest fear

A verse informs that ‘every night two or three inhabitants in the city go mad.’

Then the great uprising begins, the fire of rebellion starts burning in man’s spirit again, and a bloody war is fought, between mechanical eagles and elephants and hungry humans with sticks and spears. With the victory of mankind over its mechanical rulers, people rediscover the earth under their feet again, the world becomes fertile again to provide to the species with everything it needs, slavery is abolished and men learn to live off their own work and not the exploitation of others. The finale is written in a way of prophecy, and it may well be the most uplifting thing Saramago ever wrote, this may the most hopeful of his books, the hopes and dreams of a man who started writing this book when he still lived under a dictatorship and finished it during a democracy that, for a short while, allowed him to believe the world really could one day become his book’s paradise.

Next Friday, the end.


  1. I had no idea that Saramago wrote anything like this. I tend to like the science fiction genre even when handled by much less skilled and innovative authors. The fact that this is in the form of an epic poem is surprising, but intriguing!

  2. Saramago was a huge fan of science fiction since his childhood. Some have even remarked that Blindness has plot similarities with John Wyndham's classic The Day of the Triffids.

    I too was surprised by this epic poem, but for a poem about the rebirth of Man, I think it's the only appropriate literary genre.

  3. Hello Miguel.

    I look forward to read 'O Ano de...' some day. Only problem is my scant limited knowledge of Portuguese. I am learning it though. Have read most of Saramago novels but the plays and poetry I wish to read as well.
    Your review is a good account on the book. Thanks.
    And I liked the blog. Interesting.


    1. Thank you for the nice words. Have fun reading The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis; don't worry about learning Portuguese, just read the translation and enjoy :)