Saturday, 29 March 2014

The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis: Genesis of a Novel

Richard, from Caravana de Recuerdos, is hosting a readalong for José Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. So as the resident Portuguese blogger I’m obliged to write a few words about it. Rather than repeating my review of it – in a nutshell: it’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read in my life – I figured I could provide potential readers with a bit of historical contextualization, some insights into the process of its creation and to suggest one way of reading the novel, based on what I understand to be the primary difference between Pessoa and Saramago regarding their approach to writing. I’ve written before about all this, but the information is scattered here and there in my blog, so this is mostly an effort of synthesis.

1) José Saramago discovers Ricardo Reis

José Saramago discovered Ricardo Reis circa 1940. At the time he was a student in a technical school. Saramago’s parents were poor and they couldn’t afford to pay further education since, at the time, a working class child wasn’t expected to rise above a mere labourer. So they enrolled him in a school where he could learn a practical craft to earn a living. Even so, he was luckier than most children at the time since the majority didn’t even have the meagre chances he had. But like I said, he wasn’t supposed to become anything other than a locksmith or carpenter, or at best, if he knew a bit of book-keeping and writing, an office clerk. The technical school was named Afonso Domingues. It was in this school, the novelist once reminisced, that he began writing The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. José Saramago in Cadernos de Lanzarote III describes his first meeting with the fictional poet. “One day, in one of my incursions to the school library (I was reaching the end of the course) I found a hardback that had inside, not a book as one expects a book to be, but a magazine. It was called Athena, and it was for me as if another sun had been born. Perhaps one day I’ll be capable of describing those moments. What I certainly won’t be able to explain is the reason I was so profoundly affected by the odes of Ricardo Reis (…).” We can surmise this was around 1940 from to the biography of João Marques Lopes, who’s researched the writer’s childhood and ascertained the years he spent in technical school. Fernando Pessoa had been dead for five years. José Saramago was only 18, and for some years now he had the habit, since he was too poor to buy books, to patronize Lisbon’s public libraries. Saramago continues: “At that moment (ignorant as I was) I really believed there was or had been a poet in Portugal called Ricardo Reis, author of those poems that fascinated and disturbed me at the same time.” For Saramago, however, Reis didn’t gain a magical statute until the “beginnings of the forties, when Adolfo Casais Monteiro published a Pessoa anthology” (he probably means the seminal Poesia de Fernando Pessoa, 1945), that he read some verses by him that “imposed themselves upon me like a banner, a point of honour, an imperative rule that would be my duty, forever, to uphold and abide by.” He meant this poem:

To be great, be whole: nothing
Yours exaggerate or exclude.

Be whole in each thing. Put your being
            In the least you do.

Thus in every lake the whole moon
            Shines for high she lives.

“It lasted a few years,” Saramago says. “I did what I could not to stay behind what it ordered me. Then I realized I did not have the strength for so much, that only a rare few could be capable of being everything in each thing. Pessoa himself, who was indeed great, even if another form of greatness, was never whole… So… I had no other choice than becoming human.” And here we have the genesis of the novel, or at least the beginning of Saramago’s infatuation with Pessoa and his heteronym.

2) José Saramago contra Ricardo Reis

Saramago’s biographer also gives us an idea of how he prepared himself to write the novel. “Saramago worked on the preparing and writing The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis between 1983 and the first half of 1984. Invoking his memories of Lisbon in the ‘30s, meticulously studying the collection of the O Século newspaper and other newspapers for the year 1936, reading Brazilian historian Edgar Carone or  pro-Salazar works, like the forgotten novella Conspiração, by Tomé Vieira, lodging himself in the actual Hotel Bragança and right in Room 201, going to Fernando Pessoa’s grave, then in the Cemitério dos Prazeres, and obviously reading Ricardo Reis and other texts of the Pessoan oeuvre, he went about constructing his novel.” Regarding the notebook, Saramago was keeping it to jot down events from 1936 to cover the novel with the presence of that annus horriblis fecund in heinous events.

The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis came out in 1984. The moment of inspiration, however, surged in Saramago’s mind in 1978. In a hotel room in Berlin, resting after a writers’ meeting, his drowsy mind suddenly conceived the sentence the year of the death of Ricardo Reis, which, “mixed with past rancour and permanent admiration, conspired me to confront Ricardo Reis with the spectacle of the world in the year of his death which, in my logic, had to be 1936, that is, the year the Spanish War started, the year the Fascist beast occupied Ethiopia, the year Nazism consolidated positions, the year when Fascist Youths and militias were created in Portugal… In a convoluted time when all that was good was crumbling, when it was being incubated, in front of everyone, the egg of the serpent that would devour so many million people, Ricardo Reis, the poet of the marvellous odes, sat before the world, as if it were a sunset, and seeing what was going on, he felt wise.”

Between 1940 and 1984 a lot had obviously changed in José Saramago’s life. He had reached political maturity, and since early on he intended to give voice to the downtrodden and oppressed. Hailing from a working class background, and the grandson of poor Ribatejo farmers, he had experienced cruelty and injustice in the flesh. In Portugal, for most of his youth and middle-age, there weren’t many options for a man who wanted to position himself against the dictatorship, so he joined the communist party (PCP) in 1969, which made him part of a network fighting the regime. Unsurprisingly, this set him at odds with the temperament of Fernando As I’ve written before, Pessoa, after the 1926 military coup that overthrew Portuguese democracy, at first supported the regime and even expressed confidence in Salazar; politically he was a liberal conservative who valued the individual over the State, wary of revolutions and social upheavals. He accepted the flow of events so long as they did not interfere with him. In practice he was an unpractical dreamer who transferred his exuberant imagination and will onto the plane of immateriality. Reading about his life is reading about his mania for creating lists and plans, his half-finished books, his incomplete translations, and his disjointed fragments. He was always thinking of things to do in the future – start a publishing house, write a book, etc. – while wallowing in inaction. This torpor transpired into all his heteronyms. Although Pessoa is praised for having created three distinct personalities, the truth is that, under scrutiny, they all share Pessoa’s known revulsion for the concrete world: Alberto Caeiro is a man who abjures metaphysics, who placidly contemplates Nature without thinking, content with direct, sensory reality, intellectually lazy; Álvaro de Campos is an opium fiend who oscillates between drug-addicted fantasies and a thirst for trying all things at once, thus incapable of feeling anything at all, a precursor of ADHD; and the classicist Ricardo Reis, a cold fatalist who intellectualized carpe diem into a pessimistic ideology that precluded him from actually enjoying life. Saramago’s beef with him concerns one verse he wrote: Wise is he who satisfies himself with the world’s spectacle.

Saramago’s intention is to hurl Reis head-on into the annus horriblis, when the dictatorship was enjoying its tenth anniversary, making him witness the start of the war in Spain, forcing him to put up with the hordes of refugees that invade his hotel, sending the secret police (PVDE at the time, later it became better known as PIDE) to harass him because he is an expat recently returned from Brazil, where a communist coup had been thwarted recently, having him attend political rallies with moronic speeches, and putting him in front of the Tejo river on the day of a failed rebellion, where his mistress’ brother dies. It’s as if Saramago is asking him, “So, my dear Reis, do you continue to be satisfied with the world’s spectacle?” Saramago in La estatua y la piedra goes as far as to call the novel a “settling of accounts with Ricardo Reis.”

3) Engagement once again

José Saramago and Fernando Pessoa occupy the furthermost extremes of literature. One was accused of treason more than once. The other was a nationalist. One was a novelist who claimed for his fiction the duty of illustrating his positions as an active citizen. The other was an aesthete who lived in the clouds, entertaining himself with esoteric games about identity and poetic personae. One had opinions on everything and always uttered them, energized by polemics. The other preferred not to meddle in politics and economics because he confessed knowing nothing about them, a very timorous approach considering many of the regime’s best opponents could argue the same. Pessoa’s passivity remains a thorn in Portugal’s noble history of anti-fascist struggle; arguably he’s the only genius the nation produced in the 20th century, so his lukewarm support for the dictatorship gets politely ignored. That’s why Saramago’s novel is already polemic in reopening that wound. But Saramago’s purpose goes further, through Reis he indicts an entire people.

José Saramago’s fame, and infamy amongst the Portuguese who hate him (and they aren’t few), stems from the mordant way he criticises his country’s history. The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis forms a triptych with Raised from the Ground (1980) and Baltasar and Blimunda (1982) in that they recreate periods of Portugal’s history that were rife with injustice, violence, oppression and cruelty: the first spans the 20th century as it dismantles the collusion between government, church, national guard and big capital to keep the labourers of the Alentejo region under their yoke; the second brings to life an 18th century Lisbon lit with the blazes of the autos-de-fé conducted by a stifling Inquisition; and the third shows us a rainy, melancholy Lisbon, living in denial of the darkness that has enveloped it. The reader would have to know our embellishment of our own history to appreciate why Saramago was so troublesome. More than one thinker has identified messianism as one of the defining traits of the Portuguese psyche: we’re not only a people who believe we’ve been touched by God and live under His protection, but that divine providence has singled us out to lead Mankind into a Golden Age, what we call the Fifth Empire. Pessoa, who was extremely nationalistic, believed in this so strongly he wrote Message as a result. When the regime incorporated this poem into their propaganda, well, they had good reasons to assume, even though they were wrong, that Pessoa was on their side. Saramago’s novel explores also this mentality.

The regime could not leave anyone indifferent who believed in democracy and freedom. In 1926, after sixteen years of a limping Republic, the army staged a coup and installed a military dictatorship to solve the nation’s problems of order and finances. They made a pig’s mess of it, of course, because you don’t entrust finances to generals and coronels, so they went to a Professor of Economy and former seminarian, António de Oliveira Salazar, whose ties to Acção Católica, a reactionary, right-wing Catholic organization where he began his political career, made him the ideal man to straighten out the country’s disorderly finances. In no time Salazar became the most important person in government and the country’s de facto leader, and as ruler he initiated the cult of his own personality. It was clear that the dictatorship was not going to be, as initially promised, a quick interregnum to “clean up” the country before a triumphant return to a revitalized democracy; not with Salazar in power, a man who, according to the aforementioned Casais Monteiro, once compared himself to Jesus Christ, and considered himself Portugal’s saviour. He wasn’t going to abandon Portugal to the wolves when he could do so much for it. One of the consequences of this grim prognostic was the radicalization of intellectuals. Men of letters, journalists, historians, teachers, scientists, writers, anyone who held human values high, had no alternative but publicly declaring themselves enemies of the regime if they wished to live in accordance to their consciousnesses. Amongst the opposition there was an extreme fringe of writers that declared its allegiance to communism, the natural alternative to Salazar. Let’s put aside the fact that if communism had triumphed in Portugal, it would have become a Soviet Republic that wouldn’t have hesitated sending those same writers to Gulags. The real problem was all the bad literature that came out of it. At the end of the 1930s Portugal created its most productive literary movement: Neo-realismo. The fact that I’ve never written about a single neo-realist book in my blog should give the reader an idea of what I make of these books, quality-wise. To me, they were slightly better than Soviet socialist realism. But these people exerted tremendous power in intellectual circles, to the chagrin of far more talented writers. Jorge de Sena couldn’t stand them, with their blind devotion to the USSR, their crude syntax and primary school vocabulary, their political ingenuity, their heartfelt indignation distracting the reader from their one-dimensional approach to society, class and politics.

Saramago, who joined the clandestine PCP, had all the traits to become a neo-realist novelist, but in fact his pen remained silent (relatively speaking; his fought through his journalism) throughout the heyday of Neo-realism. With the fall of the regime in 1974, the need for militant literature disappeared, and his fourth novel, Raised from the Ground (1980) was once described by a critic as the final nail on neo-realism’s coffin; in fact it set out to accomplish everything the neo-realists aspired to, to paint a heart-wrenching picture of misery and injustice through literature, while being aesthetically light-years ahead of their heavy-handed efforts. To help me better explain the difference, I’ve recently come across a handy passage by Casais Monteiro in O País do Absurdo (1974) where he reconsiders the meaning of Sartre’s engagement: “Not to complicate it, to sum the question up as much as possible, we can say this: Sartre used that word to indicate the intervention of the writer, but in no way his submission. He meant, on using it, not the dependence on a party, but interest, participation. The engagé writer will then be he for whom it’s indispensable to intervene in the problems of his time, who doesn’t consider himself an isolated being, exempt from responsibilities in what happens in the world arena, and who, on the contrary is more obliged than anybody else to take an active part in events. In sum, the engagé writer is the one who isn’t in the margin, or above what’s going on, but on the contrary is fully immersed in life, and is, as much as or more than anybody, responsible.” Ironically, Casais Monteiro, who helped discover Pessoa’s poetry, was one of the Salazar’s staunchest opponents.

Even so men like Casais Monteiro and the peddlers of neo-realist fiction, whatever sensibility separated them, formed a group that at least defined itself against the regime. Outside that group was the majority of the population. More than settling accounts with Reis, Saramago is pointing the finger at the Portuguese and asking, “How were you capable of allowing the regime to exist? The longest-surviving regime in Western Europe? Didn’t you realize what was going on?” Reis is but a pretext, a guide to take the reader through a somnolent Lisbon that lives oblivious to, or maybe just not very concerned about, its loss of freedom. It is like the tourist guide Pessoa wrote, but instead of guiding the reader through monuments that exalt the nation’s greatness, Saramago unfurls a long list of petty humiliations and cruelties. Nothing too serious happens in the novel: it’s basically about a bourgeois doctor who has a few affairs with women. It’s not a novel about tyranny in the classic sense, it’s no A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It’s unnerving exactly because of its pusillanimity, its hyper-real tedious domesticity, because it’s a novel about mental amputees who can no longer dream or imagine, who live in a suffocating orderly regime that regulates life for them, ironing out surprises and desires, leaving them only with a vague, cowardly happiness for participating in a regime of perpetual order, thankful for being demanded only immobility, that will make the country great again. Reis is the Portuguese and the Portuguese are Reis. This is one of the many possible ways of reading the novel.


  1. Miguel - What a treat to read this just after finishing the novel myself last night. I knew I was handicapped by a lack of knowledge of the context (though I think Saramago does a formidable job of making his novel accessible to readers with little knowledge of the dictatorship or of Fernando Pessoa, for that matter). So your post is rather heaven-sent, a very welcome explication of both the events of the year of the death of Ricardo Reis and of Saramago's engagement with Pessoa - and with Portugal. A truly fine post for a truly fine novel.

    1. Scott, I'm glad this was of help to you.

      I'm anxious to read your thoughts on the novel.

  2. I have an uncle who's 85 years old and he has told that when the ships were sunk in the failed rebellion, the sailors who swam to Almada were rescued while the ones who swam to Lisboa were greeted with gunfire.

    1. Toutjour, that's a remarkable thing to know, amazing how Saramago didn't include that in the novel.

  3. Thanks for this post, Miguel, and in particular for writing about the novel again even though you'd already done so before. As you might imagine, the political and the literary backdrop you present is almost entirely new to me. I had a hard time writing about the novel last night because it is many novels in one, and my shorter post lengths don't afford much time to investigate all the various strands of something as complex as Ricardo Reis without the leisure of multiple posts. That being said, I hope to read the novel again someday and will maybe have more to say about it then. It's a terrific work, so I can certainly appreciate why you rate it so highly.

    1. I'm glad I could fill in some gaps. I agree it is many novels in one, that's why I stated I was suggesting one possible reading of it. One could also read it as a novel about Lisbon, or focus on the game of unreality that Saramago plays with Reis, constantly alluding to his false existence. And it's also a love story, and a novel about art. It's a rich, inexhaustible novel.