Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Raised from the Ground

   Here, it’s mostly countryside, land. Whatever else may be lacking, land has never been in short supply, indeed its sheer abundance can only be explained by some tireless miracle, because the land clearly predates man, and despite its long, long existence, it has still not expired. That’s probably because it’s constantly changing: at certain times of the year, the land is green, at others, yellow or brown or black. And in certain places it is red, the color of clay or spilled blood. This, however, depends on what has been planted or what has not yet been planted, or what has sprung up unaided and died simply because it reached its natural end. This is not the case with wheat, which still has some life left in it when it is cut. Nor with the cork oak, which, despite its solemn air, is full of life and cries out when its skin is ripped from it.
There is no shortage of color in this landscape, but it isn’t simply a matter of color. There are days as harsh as they are cold, and others when you can scarcely breathe for the heat: the world is never content, the day it is will be the day it dies. The world does not lack for smells either, not even here, which is, of course, part of the world and well provided with land. Were some insignificant creature to die in the undergrowth, it would smell of death and putrefaction. Not that anyone would notice if there were no wind, even if they were to pass close by. The bones would be either washed clean by the rain or baked dry by the sun, or not even that if the creature were very small, because the worms and the gravedigger beetles would have come and buried it.
This, relatively speaking, is a fair-sized piece of land, and while it begins as undulating hills and a little stream-water, because the water that falls from the skies is just as likely to be feast as famine, farther on it flattens out as smooth as the palm of your hand, although many a hand, by life’s decree, tends, with time, to close around the handle of a hoe, sickle or scythe. The land. And like the palm of a hand, it is crisscrossed by lines and paths, its royal or, later, national roads, or those owned by the gentlemen at the town hall, three such roads lie before us now, because three is a poetical, magical, spiritual number, but all the other paths arise from repeated comings and goings, from trails formed by bare or ill-shod feet walking over clods of earth or through undergrowth, stubble or wild flowers, between wall and wasteland. So much land. A man could spend his whole life wandering about here and never find himself, especially if he was born lost. And he won’t mind dying when his time comes. He is no rabbit or genet to lie and rot in the sun, but if hunger, cold or heat were to lay him low in some secluded spot, or one of those illnesses that don’t even give you time to think, still less cry out for help, sooner or later he would be found.
Many have died of war and other plagues, both here and in other parts, and yet the people we see are still alive: some perceive this as an unfathomable mystery, but the real reasons lie in the land, in this vast estate, this latifundio, that rolls from high hills down to the plain below, as far as the eye can see. And if not this land, then some other piece of land, it really doesn’t matter as long as we’ve sorted out what’s mine and thine: everything was recorded in the census at the proper time, with boundaries to the north and south and to the east and west, as if this were how it had been ordained since the world began, when everything was simply land, with only a few large beasts and the occasional human being, all of them frightened. It was around that time, and later too, that the future shape of this present land was decided, and by very crooked means indeed, a shape carved out by those who owned the largest and sharpest knives and according to size of knife and quality of blade. For example, those of a king or a duke, or of a duke who then became his royal highness, a bishop or the master of an order, a legitimate son or the delicious fruit of bastardy or concubinage, a stain washed clean and made honorable, or the godfather of a mistress’s daughter, and then there’s that other high officer of the court with half a kingdom in his grasp, and sometimes it was more a case of, this, dear friends, is my land, take it and populate it to serve me and your offspring, and keep it safe from infidels and other such embarrassments. A magnificent book-of-hours-cum-sacred-accounts-ledger presented at both palace and monastery, prayed to in earthly mansions or in watchtowers, each coin an Our Father, ten coins a Hail Mary, one hundred a Hail Holy Queen, Mary is King. Deep coffers, bottomless silos, granaries the size of ships, vats and casks, coffers, my lady, and all measured in cubits, rods and bushels, in quarts, pottles and tuns, each piece of land according to its use.
Thus flowed the rivers and the four seasons of the year, on those one can rely, even when they vary. The vast patience of time and the equally vast patience of money, which, with the exception of man, is the most constant of all measurements, although, like the seasons, it varies. We know, however, that men were bought and sold. Each century had its money, each kingdom its man to buy and sell for maravedis, or for gold and silver marks, reals, doubloons, cruzados, sovereigns or florins from abroad. Fickle, various metal, as airy as the bouquet of a flower or of wine: money rises, that’s why it has wings, not in order to fall. Money’s rightful place is in a kind of heaven, a lofty place where the saints change their names when they have to, but not the latifundio.
A mother with full breasts, fit for large, greedy mouths, a womb, the land shared out between the largest and the large, or, more likely, joining large with larger, through purchase or perhaps through some alliance, or through sly theft, pure crime, the legacy of my grandparents and my good father, God rest their souls. It took centuries to get this far, who can doubt that it will always remain the same?
But who are these other people, small and disparate, who came with the land, although their names do not appear in the deeds, dead souls perhaps, or are they still alive? God’s wisdom, beloved children, is infinite: there is the land and those who will work it, go forth and multiply. Go forth and multiply me, says the latifundio. But there is another way to speak of all this.
(First chapter of Raised from the Ground,
translated by Margaret Jull Costa) (1)

In 2010, after José Saramago died, I re-read two novels in his memory: one was Seeing; the other was Raised from the Ground. After decades struggling to make a name for himself, this was the novel that instantly brought literary fame to Saramago; he was 58. The reader won’t have difficulty finding critics who declare, and certainly with good reason, that Saramago wrote greater novels: The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Blindness, Baltasar and Blimunda (I have my doubts about this one), The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. Be that as it may, Raised from the Ground is one of the best novels I’ve ever read. It’s a simple novel about simple people, the people Saramago grew up amongst, poor people who plied their rustic trades with their dirty hands, shoemakers and shepherds, the peasants who toiled the land for their sustenance, illiterate people crushed down by the weight of history and class and politics, treated as slaves by ruthless landowners, terrorized by the authorities, and numbed by religion. If Saramago ever wrote an epic, this is it, his epopee about Alentejo, his squalid birthplace, and the people who lived and died in it, from the final years of the monarchy to the chaotic years after the Carnation Revolution, an historical novel that mixes facts and fiction about the landless peasants’ struggles for a better life, better wages, a better world, if nothing else, to affirm their dignity as human beings in the face of a merciless world that treated them as automata and considered them less valuable than beasts of burden.

The novel, which follows three generations of a poor family, starts with the journey of Domingos Mau-Tempo, shoemaker by trade, drunk and wife beater by nature, to Monte Lavre with his wife Sara Conceição and their baby son, the mysteriously blue-eyed João. A restless and tempestuous man, Domingos alternates between fits of violence and frequent long absences away from his family. Of Domingos there’s little to report for he kills himself in the early pages, the bulk of the story is carried by João and, after his marriage to Faustina, his son, António Mau-Tempo. Another important character is Manuel Espada, married to António’s sister, Gracinda, who gives birth to Maria Adelaide.

When João is born, Portugal isn’t a Republic yet. When Maria Adelaide is born, Portugal isn’t yet a democracy again. Between those two dates nothing changes in Alentejo. The reader is thrown into the cruel world of the latifúndios, the vast agricultural estates farmed and kept by hired workers. These estates are like independent countries, where the landowners make their own laws, the corrupt and brutal authorities enforce them and the local priest gives his blessing while remembering the poor that their suffering on this world will be rewarded in the next one. The first Republic, after a weak breeze of optimism, brings no to change the abject conditions of the workers; the dictatorship, instituted in 1926, aggravates the matter since any attempt at conducting strikes, any kind of protest, however justified it may be, is interpreted as Marxist subversion and is immediately and violently quelled. In spite of the overwhelming forces against them, the characters in the novel, little by little, develop a political consciousness and fight back the best they can. The reader will find the characters participating in marches and protests that truly happened, fought for the sake of better wages or to decrease the working period from twelve to eight daily hours. The reader won’t have to know what is factual and what is fiction, I didn’t the first time I read the novel. This aspect of the novel is universal to every human being, I presume, who has ever cared about freedom, so it’s in fact the easiest part to appreciate.

The hardest part will probably be the descriptions of torture, ignorance, injustice, misery and hunger. No one is safe from the hardships of life in this novel, not even children. After Domingos hangs himself in a tree, Sara Conceição gets a job for her ten-year-old son. “And João Mau-Tempo, who knows about life, asks, Am I going to dig, mother, Sara da Conceição, if she could, would say, You’re not, my son, you’re only ten, it’s not work for a child, but what will she do if in this latifúndio there aren’t ways of subsistence and the dead father’s trade is badly haunted.” The workers’ great nemesis is the National Guard, a military organization that watches over them, arrests them, steals from them, harasses them and humiliates them. This is a novel of light and darkness, cruelty and tenderness, hope and despair, revolution and the fact that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The novel is a list of horrors, and the workers aren’t just attacked economically and physically, but especially in their identity as people:

The people were made to live dirty and hungry. A people that washes itself is a people that doesn’t work, perhaps in the city, well, I won’t say it doesn’t, but here, in the latifúndio, he’s hired away from home for three or four weeks, and months even, if Alberto wants it, and it’s a matter of honour and manhood that during the whole time of the contract he won’t wash his face and hands, nor shave his beard. And if he does, a naïve hypothesis for being so improbable, he can count on the mockery of his employers and even his companions. That’s the luxury of the time, the sufferers glorify themselves about their suffering, the slaves about their slavery.

Not all slaves think like this, though, and some carve for themselves their ounce of self-respect. One of them is Manuel Espada, a young man when he performs a feat that reverberates throughout the latifúndio for years to come. Assigned to work on a mill, he abandons his work post because of the inhuman conditions. He’s joined by three friends and together they go about walking in the fields. For this audacity, the National Guard arrests them for questioning. After ascertaining that they’re not communists but just foolish kids, the authorities release them. When they try to find work, however, the landowners refuse to hire them, for the ‘latifúndio has a good memory and easy communication.’ Eventually Manuel Espada finds a job guarding cattle with António Mau-Tempo. Later, the men organize a strike; in spite of having their demands met, the supposed masterminds, Manuel included, are arrested and taken to a distant town for questioning. Once they’re let go, the men, without money for bus fare, face the difficulty of returning to Monte Lavre. But the landowners cynically and patronizingly send them carts to fetch them back, a gesture of their benevolence. Manuel Espada refuses and prefers to walk all the way back to Monte Lavre, to defend his dignity, making him a small hero to the people. When the time comes to ask Gracinda’s hand to her father, João, the old man accepts of courses:

Yes indeed, but if there were thirty-three reasons for Manuel Espada’s dating request to be well received by the spirit of Gracinda’s parents, the first one, if João Mau-Tempo ever confessed it to himself, were the twenty kilometres walked on foot, the boy’s heartfelt rejection, his affirming himself as a man for four hours with his persistence under the sun, hitting his boots on the asphalt, as if he were taking a great flag that couldn’t demean itself to go in the latifúndio’s carts. In this manner, and as it has always happened since the world is world, the old learned with the new.

Another means of fighting against the latifúndios is joining the Communist Part, of which João Mau-Tempo is made a member. At the time the PCP was a clandestine organization and meetings were held in secrecy, in remote places, between a handful of people who didn’t reveal their names to each other. Their tasks were mainly to distribute pamphlets, leave them in places where lots of people could find them, like public bathrooms and roads, and mobilize the workers. Saramago, who was made a member in 1969, knew full well the dangers these people constantly lived in, and illustrates it with the harrowing arrest and torture of João Mau-Tempo. It starts with a guard going to the latifúndio to take him to the outpost. Calmedo’s is one of the many mini-stories within the novel:

José Calmedo is a guard amongst guards, if he happens to be in the formation, you won’t notice him, he doesn’t have more figure than anyone else in the corporation, and when he’s outside it, on duty patrol and enquiring, he’s a discreet man, of good peace, as if he did everything distractedly, thinking about other things. One day, without anyone expecting it, perhaps not even himself, he’ll hand over to the commandant of the Monte Lavre outpost, to dispatch it, his resignation request, and will go with his wife and two sons to somewhere far away, he’ll learn to settle down like a civilian and spend the rest of his life forgetting he was a guard.

João is ordered to stop working and go see Calmedo, who reassures him that he’s only being called for a routine interrogation, a mere formality. When they arrive at the outpost, João discovers he’s being arrested for being a communist:

They took him into the room used as cell, it was again José Calmedo who took him, it seemed there was no one else in the outpost, and João Mau-Tempo, before he let himself be locked up, still said, So that’s how you tricked me, and José Calmedo at first didn’t answer, he felt offended, he wanted to do good and this was his reward, but he couldn’t stay silent as if he had committed a crime, I didn’t want you to come worried, this José Calmedo really doesn’t deserve the uniform he wears, so he’ll take it off one day and will start a life in a land where they don’t know he was a guard, and this is everything we’ll know about his life.

João is taken to Caxias, the legendary prison used to keep and torture political prisoners. He stays inside its walls for thirty days, enduring beatings and humiliations, surviving only thanks to the comradeship of the older inmates, veterans in these matters. Then one night he’s unexpectedly released. Hungry, weak, and disorientated for not knowing Lisbon, he walks to the train station, where he learns that a train won’t be able to take him home until the next morning, and as he’s preparing to spend the night in the station a man offers him help:

The man is older than João Mau-Tempo, but stronger and lighter on the legs, so he has to restrain himself in order to keep up with the resurrected man’s pained walk, and to cheer him up he says, I live nearby, in Alfama, and has already turned into Rua da Alfândega, João Mau-Tempo has recovered his spirits, then they entered some wet and steep streets, a narrow flight of stairs, an attic. Good night, Ermelinda, this gentleman sleeps here tonight, tomorrow he’s going home and he has nowhere to stay, and Ermelinda is a fat woman who opens the door as if she were opening her arms, Come in, and João Mau-Tempo, may the delicate and those who only care about and esteem great dramatic scenes forgive him, the first feeling he has is of the smell of food, a bean and cabbage soup that has been kept warm, and the man says to him, Make yourself home, and next, What’s your name, and João Mau-Tempo is already seated, a sudden fatigue enters his body, but he says his name, and the other reciprocates, My name is Ricardo Reis, and my wife is Ermelinda, they’re the names of people, it’s what we know of them, little more, and also these soup plates on the kitchen table, Eat as you will, the cold is already decreasing, a gentle land after all, Lisbon (…)

Still others search for a better life outside Portugal. António, inheriting his grandfather’s restless spirit, illegally crosses the border and works in Spain and France. He joins hundreds of thousands of Portuguese who tried to start a better life abroad during the years of the dictatorship. Like Saramago once wrote in a newspaper before 1974, Portugal should apply for the title of world champion of emigration. António returns many times and many times leaves again, always with new stories of a big new world most people in Monte Lavre will never see with their own eyes, Lisbon being the end of the known world for them.

Not even the restoration of democracy in 1974, when Maria Adelaide is already a young woman, brings significant changes to these characters’ lives. If during the dictatorship there was an exodus of workers, in the early years after the revolution there was an exodus of capital, as the rich landowners abandoned their estates for fear that the revolutionaries would kill them. Left without employers to give them work, and seeing the lands rot around them, the last chapter chronicles the workers’ historical occupation of fields and estates and the creation of the ill-fated agricultural cooperatives, a good idea destroyed when the landowners, returning to Portugal after they realised the country was not going to turn into Cuba, reclaimed the property that the farmers meanwhile had turned valuable again. The innocent reader who reads the novel without knowing this, will read a book with a beautiful happy ending. I apologise to my readers for stealing this illusion away from them. Raised from the Ground was José Saramago’s most communistic novel ever, perhaps even the best communist novel ever written, but Saramago wasn’t naïve. Like I wrote above, this is a novel about how the more things change, the more they stay the same. This in nothing changes what matters most importantly in the novel, the humanity found between the covers and these ordinary characters with their gigantic spirits.

1 All other translations are by me.


  1. Sounds terrific but perhaps a little difficult to take.

    You wrote,

    "this is a novel about how the more things change, the more they stay the same."

    In the very limited amount of Saramago that I have read, this theme seems comes up on multiple occasions

    1. Brian, it's not difficult at all to take. It's a harsh novel, but no more than life in general. It's very beautiful, very sensitive, very lyrical too.

      In the very limited amount of Saramago that I have read, this theme seems comes up on multiple occasions

      Yes, Saramago oscillated between great hopes for mankind to embrace love and tolerance, and pessimism that human nature would never allow this to happen. As such his novels tend to have a bittersweet tone; in his novels nothing changes save for the characters, that's where change begins, and it tends to be enacted against the oppressive forces around them. His characters are good people living in a horrible world, trying to remain themselves.

  2. Just finished this one, and it is a wonderful book. I wasn't sure about the style at first, but it grew on me the longer the novel lasted. I should also praise Margaret Jull Costa as a translation like this can't be easy to produce :)

    1. I'm glad you liked it, Saramago becomes a special writer once you get into his prose and narrative tricks. I now hope you'll read more novels by him.

      Margaret Jull Costa has done a lot for Portuguese literature, her translations of Saramago, Pessoa, Eça and Lobo Antunes are very good! I hope she continues to translate their work for years to come!

  3. Here's my review :)

    1. Tony, I've just read it. It's very good.

      I'm happy you're enjoying Saramago :)