Thursday, 28 November 2013

José Saramago: The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis

By now everyone knows that I did not hold a José Saramago month this November. I hope I did not disappoint anyone. If we still had the honour of having him amongst the living, last November 16 he would have celebrated his 91st anniversary. I never planned to make last year’s event a habit, it just grew organically out of my interests at the time, something I thought about over a period of months. In a way, I never stop celebrating José Saramago, before November I had already read four books by him and written twice about them. As it often happens, I have more ideas for my blog than time to write about them (and the books related to said ideas), and thus, without any planning, this November I found myself occupied with a series of posts showcasing some 19th century Portuguese writers. Having completed that goal, however, I knew I could not let the month end without celebrating his memory. I always hoped I’d have time for a short tribute. As I slowly grow nearer the point where I have read his entire oeuvre, it becomes harder to continue writing about him. At first I wanted to write about Os Apontamentos, the collection of articles and editorials he wrote when he worked as a newspaper editor between 1972 and 1975. But when I actually read it I found it a monotonous stew of politics, propaganda and demagogy, and even I, so receptive to engaged writers, had trouble digesting it, and had no desire to inflict excerpts upon my readers. So I decided to re-read The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis.

I first read this novel almost ten years ago, maybe late 2004 or early 2005. I know this because Seeing had just come out. I had accompanied my mother to a medical appointment, and she left her things with me in the hallway, including this novel. Now several times before I had tried to read Saramago but always collided against his thick paragraphs, long sentences and unmarked dialogues. At the time I considered him unreadable. But when I opened the cover of Seeing and started reading the first lines everything fell into place at last, something clicked inside me, I saw the light, choose your metaphor. But I only had the time to read a few pages before my mother returned. For the first time, however, I thought I could read one of his novels, but I decided to start cautiously and choose one whose story and themes would interest me. So I read The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, because of Fernando Pessoa and Ricardo Reis, poets I greatly admired. Looking back, I could have started with an easier book. I not only chose his longest novel but also one that, uncharacteristically, has almost no plot. In Saramago’s novels anything can happen, but in this one not a lot does.

True, the title already contains a remarkable premise. Published in 1984, the novel chronicles the last nine months in the life of Ricardo Reis, poet, doctor and monarchist who exiled himself in Brazil in 1919 in the wake of a botched counter-revolution that sought to reinstate the monarchy in Portugal. In December 1935, following the news of the death of poet Fernando Pessoa – Reis receives a terse telegram from poet Álvaro de Camps, his companion from the days of the seminal literary magazine Orpheu – Reis returns to Portugal to start a new life. This premise doesn’t sound remarkable unless the reader knows – and every Portuguese reader does – that Ricardo Reis existed only as a figment of Fernando Pessoa’s fanciful imagination, as one of the poetic personae he invented throughout his life, what he called a heteronym, not a mere pseudonym, but an autonomous conscience with a birthday, biography, astrological chart and even a poetic style. Pessoa made Reis a classicist poet with pagan beliefs, a fatalistic composer of odes. He wrote poems distinctively different than the ones by Pessoa-himself, and even prose. The simplest ideas astonish us, and now it seems incredible that before Saramago no one had the simple idea of turning one of the heteronyms into a fictional character. But this also poses a question about the novel’s reception by non-Portuguese readers: how many get the joke? And if they don’t get it, how does that change their perception of the novel?

Perhaps it doesn’t change much, at first. Once the early sense of wonder vanishes, Saramago doesn’t treat Reis differently than any other fictional character. His mission remains the same, to give content to the void, to imbue ideas with life, to shape Pessoa’s broad strokes – classicist, doctor, monarchist – into a fully functional personality capable of interacting with the world and getting involved in situations. But Reis’ presence brings into question the entire unreality of fictional writing, the reader in the know can only smile at the magic trick in front of him. The reader knows he doesn’t exist, that someone called Fernando Pessoa just made him up. Reis defies the reader’s natural predisposition to believe in the reality of the characters. A reader can believe in Anna Karenina or Hans Castorp, they come to us in a pure state, that is, they carry no association of ideas, whereas with Reis we know a magician is playing a magic trick in front of our eyes. Saramago, however, is just writing Reis the way he first encountered him. When he was a young man and discovered his poems in a public library, he actually thought he was a real person. The idea for this novel, then, can be traced back to his teenaged years. To emphasize Reis’ illusion he even has him reading a non-existing book, Herbert Quain’s The God of the Labyrinth, from Jorge Luis Borges’ short-story. And the narrator never ceases to bring attention to this trick. “I’m alive, he murmured, then out loud, sonorous, I’m alive, and since there was no one to disprove him, he believe it.” Indeed he only has the life Saramago gives him, he knows Pessoa didn’t give him a lot to work it. When Reis signs the register at a hotel the text tells us that “he picks up the pen, and writes in the register book, about himself, what is necessary for one to know who he is, on the ruled page, name Ricardo Reis, age forty-eight years, born in Porto, civil status single, profession doctor, lasts residence Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, whence he arrived, travelled via the Highland Brigade, it seems the beginning of a confession, of an intimate autobiography, everything that is hidden is contained in this single manuscript line, now the problem is finding out the rest, just that.” The rest becomes the bulk of the novel. Reis doesn’t have true memories. “He remembers having sat there in other times, so distant that he can doubt if he himself lived them.” The key word here is himself. Ricardo Reis is a figment of Pessoa’s mind, and now he’s a figment of Saramago’s, his memories exist only insofar as Saramago creates them. Let’s look at another scene: Reis is reading the news about Pessoa’s death. “This newspaper doesn’t say more, another says the same in a different way, Fernando Pessoa, the extraordinary poet of Message, a poem of nationalist exaltation, of the most beautiful things recently written, was buried yesterday, death surprised him on a Christian bed in the S. Luís Hospital, Saturday night, in poetry he wasn’t just himself, Fernando Pessoa, he was also Álvaro de Campos, and Alberto Caeiro, and Ricardo Reis, there it is, the mistake, the lack of attention, writing from hearsay, when we well know that Ricardo Reis is in fact this man who is reading the newspaper with his own open and living eyes, doctor, forty-eight years of age, one more than Fernando Pessoa’s age when his eyes were closed, those in fact dead (…)” Here’s the ultimate paradox, the incoherence at the heart of the novel’s reality: in this world it is public knowledge that Reis is one of his heteronyms, so how is it possible that he’s also an autonomous protagonist? As a paradox, it has no solution, the reader just has to accept it and move on.

Although the reader can doubt Reis’ existence, the world he moves in is very real. Saramago was fourteen in 1936 and used his memories of the time to recreate this fateful year. Furthermore he went to libraries to read newspapers and he filled a diary with dates, events, ads, trivia, etc. When Reis arrives in Portugal, after sixteen years in Brazil, a taxi driver tells him that he’s going to find “great changes around here, and with these words the driver suddenly shut up.” War vessels rest at Lisbon’s docks, expectant; there’s a feeling of melancholy and menace in the air. The narrator describes Lisbon in dark tones, a rainy, still, sad-looking place, dying, if not dead already, without knowing it, thinking itself alive thanks to vigorous fascist propaganda that paints a country headed towards a new era of glory. The taxi driver leaves him close to the hotel, he goes in to book a room, “then he imagined himself returning from the hotel, with a room or still without it, and the taxi nowhere, gone with the luggage, the clothing, the everyday objects, his papers, and asked himself how would he live if he were deprived of these and all his other goods.” Like in so many instances in the novel, the line is blurred regarding which thoughts belong to Reis and which ones are narratorial intrusions, this after all can be read as an ironic jab at the dictatorship’s economic policy that subjected most of the population to poverty, and also the power the state has to deprive a man of freedom. What Reis is merely imagining is what thousands of political prisoners actually experienced. Later in the novel, he’ll be watched by the police. Once Reis books a room at the Hotel Bragança, what happens? Not much. He starts a sexual relationship with a hotel maid, Lídia, and a platonic one with Marcenda, a middle-class woman with a paralyzed hand. He reads newspapers, watches the Carnival, goes to Fatima, reads a rubbish novel called Conspiração – recommended by Marcenda’s father, Doctor Sampaio – that extols the dictatorship’s patriotic policies, and towards the end of the novel he attends a fascist rally, not because he supports it, but because he wants to understand why people go. “Interesting changes” happen to Reis towards the end, the narrator states, ironic. Reis doesn’t change at all. He also happens to meet and chat with Fernando Pessoa from time to time, who continues to live nine months after his death, for the nine months he spent in the womb. They discuss politics, women, books, life and death, but it all seems trivial, with a wink at the reader, nothing taken too seriously. Reis himself is a very frivolous character, although a poet and a doctor, an educated man, his thoughts are average, almost superficial and banal. He’s an observer, not a thinker, and his observations don’t stimulate him to great actions or decisions, he’s a walking hesitation, a conformist. His biggest change in the novel is to move from Hotel Bragança to a rented house, and even that decision is motivated by the fact that the hotel staff starts giving him sideway glances after the police calls him in for questioning, and also to have more privacy to see Lídia, who sacrifices her free time to become his housemaid. The narrator does not abstain from criticising Reis for this inactivity. “Therefore let us not ask the poet what he thought or felt, it was precisely not to have to say it that he makes verses.” This is harsh, but not undeserved.

The crappy novel Reis reads, with the exact cover described in it
Of the novel’s three epigraphs, two of them, one by Reis, another by Bernardo Soares, restate the idea of not acting. Soares says that finding “ways of not acting” were his life’s purpose. And Reis defends that wise “is the man who satisfies himself with the world’s spectacle,” a verse from one of his odes. He’s a man preoccupied with not being bothered by things too much. In 1919 he leaves Portugal because of a failed monarchic revolution in Porto. In 1935 he leaves Brazil also because of a revolution (his life seems eerily similar to poet Jorge de Sena’s itinerary). When he arrives he finds a euphoric population, strangely hopeful, celebrating the dictatorship’s tenth anniversary. It wasn’t just the official propaganda that projected a construct of a happy country, the nation did support the dictatorship, and the reasons can be better explained in Vasco Pulido Valente’s excellent history books. To keep a long story short, in 1911 republicans overthrew the monarchy and created a republic regime, but they never got full support from the population and their power was restricted mainly to Lisbon: although democratic in appearances, the first republic was itself a dictatorship that persecuted Catholics, anarchists, socialists, unionists, workers and anyone who opposed the republican party, filled prisons with thousands of political prisoners, and used state terrorism to further its goals; it never managed to create a stable regime and governments seldom lasted, so when the military dictatorship overthrew the first republic in 1926, people didn’t miss it – for them it was the promise of a new beginning, a stable, orderly, safe Portugal. Considering that just a few years before one was likely to die from a terrorist bomb or a shot in the middle of the night, this was a step up. Although the first republic has been enshrined in modern times, few acknowledge that it was but a preview of the Estado Novo. Fernando Pessoa, as we should all know by now, was one of those who initially welcome the new military regime. Pessoa himself was a conservative liberal in the classic tradition who didn’t dabble in politics, a neutral personality that transpires into most famous heteronyms: Alberto Caeiro is a poet who just observes Nature without drawing metaphysical illations from it, and we know already what Soares and Reis thought.

Although we’re led to believe that Ricardo Reis is the protagonist, I think the title is misleading at the same time it’s honest. The year of the death of Ricardo Reis. 1936. As I re-read the novel it became so clear to me that it is as much about him as it is about this fateful year. Fascism is rearing its ugly head all over Europe: Portugal is already ruled by Salazar; Spain is on the brink of a civil war that sends waves of Spanish refugees into Portugal; Italy is waging a war against Ethiopia; and Hitler is putting the finishing touches on his war of world domination. Ricardo Reis is always reading the newspapers – a leitmotif – which inform him of the world’s many horrors. Still he barely has a formed opinion about most events. Lídia, and her brother, a communist sailor, is more outspoken than him acts as moral counterweight to Reis’ passivity. Although he’s absent from the action, Lídia’s brother informs part of the narrative, for being a communist he becomes the one who supplies her with facts and news that she discusses with Reis, a counter-voice to the official propaganda. He’s also one of the sailors who takes part in the sailors’ September 8 Rebellion, an actual event in which two war ships tried to leave Lisbon’s harbour and give the government an ultimatum, only to be caught by fire from land batteries. So Saramago deploys Reis in this world falling apart. Faced with all this horror, Saramago seems to be asking, how can you remain neutral, my dear Reis, indifferent? What will you do? Reis’ final decision is anti-climatic but wholly in line with his personality.

Although a lot is praised and criticised about Saramago’s run-on sentences, long paragraphs and unmarked dialogue, I think few appreciate what makes his prose so exuberant, it’s not facile things like long sentences and unmarked dialogue, it’s the total concession he makes to prose freedom, nothing is too bizarre for him to write, no digression is impossible, there’s nothing the narrator can’t say or think or show. Saramago writes as if there were no rules, and indeed he proves there aren’t, language is a tool to serve the writer, to go where he wants, not to impose him rigid forms. I’m sure I wrote it once, if I didn’t I’ve thought it often, that the best character in Saramago’s novels is the omniscient narrator. There’s hardly any plot, like I said, but since we’re in the company of a master storyteller it doesn’t matter, he can enlarge the most mundane of situations. Let’s just consider this passage where Reis thinks about his unborn son:

He remembers Lídia is pregnant, with a boy, according to her every time she says it, and that boy will be born and will go to the wars being prepared, it’s still too soon for the ones of today, but others are being prepared, I repeat, there’s always an after for the next war, let’s do the math, he’ll come into this world around March next year, if we give him the approximate age one tends to go to war, twenty-three, twenty-four years, what war will we have in one thousand nine hundred and sixty one, and where, and why, in what abandoned plains, with the eyes of imagination, but not his, Ricardo Reis sees him riddled with bullets, brunet and pale like his father, son only of his mother because his father won’t claim him.

In 1961 Portugal started the infamous Colonial Wars to block its African colonies’ processes of independence. The narrator makes a long leap in years here to comment on events that haven’t happened in the novel yet, I don’t know another novelist who’d have the courage, perhaps that’s the wrong word, the poor taste to break verisimilitude like this, because in the end what Saramago does is writing like a man of poor taste, a man ignorant of all the refined rules the realist novel enshrined during the 19th century and which so many continue to idolize. With the eyes of imagination, but not Ricardo Reis’, this is the core of José Saramago’s novelistic style, above and behind the characters a greater imagination looms, far freer than them. This presence exists in all novels, even in the ones that strive for realism or use first-person subjective narrators, he just has the dignity of being more honest than the others.

This review was written for the 2013 European Challenge.


  1. I have only read Saramago in translation. However, through the translation I really also really appreciate his prose and his style. It can be a bit difficult at times, but in a way, he seems to be conveying something of the way we humans think and see the world, that is, is some ways, more effective then if his writing were more orthodox.

  2. Very keen to read more Saramago, but I'm not sure this will be the next one I try...

  3. This one is super. It is worth reading Pessoa in depth just to enjoy this book more. Also worth it for its own sake.

    Just as Miguel wonders about how the book works without knowing Pessoa, I wonder how it works for readers who do not know the significance of the history Miguel describes, who do not know about The Year.

    But I wonder that about a lot of books, including ones I have read - how did I get anything out of that, I was so ignorant?

  4. Brian, after I read Saramago I need a period of adjustment to get into normal prose again, words and sentences just seem so mundane in other people's books. I get the same feeling reading Nabokov and Torrente Ballester, novelist who celebrate the total freedom of prose.

    Tony, it didn't hurt me to start with this; just remember you're in the safe hands of Saramago's omniscient narrator, nothing bad will happen to you.

    Tom, super indeed; after re-reading it I maintain that it's his best novel, alongside The Gospel According to Jesus Christ.. Why, I don't know, it's like all his novels, just more, more refinement, more linguistic virtuosity, more irony.

    Your last post, I hear you, I also fear to miss a lot of stuff from foreign books whose histories I don't know, but I detest those 'universal' books where everything is simplified for a mass audience, I do prefer local writing, and let the reader do the hard work.

  5. Raised from the Ground finally arrived by mail. A belated thank you. I wouldn't have short-listed it unless you'd made a positive remark about it. Cheers.

    1. That makes me immensely happy to know. I hope you like the novel very much!