"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

January 6, 2013

"The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis" by José Saramago (Book Review)

José Saramago (1922-2010) is one of Portugal's major novelists, who in 1998 received the Noble Prize in Literature.

Saramago had come late to literature. His parents were poor farm workers, his mother never learned to read. Because of lack of funds, Saramago couldn't go to grammar school, but had to start working in odd jobs at a young age. Among these jobs was also that of translator and critic for a publishing company. He educated himself by spending long hours reading in libraries. At age 25 he published a first novel, which was not succesful, and Saramago decided he “had nothing to say” at that time and stopped writing. But finally, in the mid-seventies, after finding himself out of a job due to the cooling down of the 1974 democratization process (the “Carnation Revolution”) in which he had whole-heartedly participated, Saramago decided to become a fulltime writer. His first novel of this new writing period appeared in 1977 (when he was 55), and from then until his death at the advanced age of 87, he wrote more than 15 novels plus nonfiction work, such as personal memories and a travelogue, on such a high level that already in 1998 he was awarded the Nobel Prize.

[José Saramago. Photo Wikipedia]

Saramago was a man of strong opinions. Politically, he was a communist, perhaps as a reaction to the fact that until 1974 he lived under a fascist dictatorship. Besides being politically against the grain, he also harbored strong stylistic idiosyncresies, as readers will immediately notice. He skips quotation marks, dialogue is only indicated by a comma followed by a capital letter. This gives his writings a dreamy quality, as if even discussions are filtered through the mind of the narrator. His rambling sentences run on and on and he uses paragraphing only sparingly. Saramago also frequently digresses from the story, giving ample authorial philosophical comments on the significance of situations encountered in the story.

Saramago finds his themes in Portugal, its culture and politics, but always with a wider relevance for the general human condition. He also criticized religion and when his novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ was sidetracked for a European prize by the Portuguese government, in order “not to offend Catholics,” he left Portugal and started living on the island of Lanzarote in the Spanish Canaries.

One of Saramago's best works is The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis), a surreal, magic-realist novel published in 1986 (English translation: 1991) and in my view one of the great novels of all time.

Ricardo Reis is a medical doctor and poet who after having lived for 16 years in a sort of self-imposed exile in Brazil, returns to Portugal in the last days of 1935. Alone, he stays in a hotel and in the rainy winter weather walks the streets of Lisbon. On his strolls Reis observes the changes that have taken place since he left for Brazil; the city almost becomes a character in the novel. Reis also is an avid newspaper reader, even studying the advertisements to see what they reveal about modern culture. In this way he also learns about the gathering clouds of European fascism. Portugal itself, which has lost its empire but not its pride, has become a European backwater and fallen into the hands of the Fascist dictator Salazar. The newspapers warmly applaud the rise of Hitler in Germany and the coup by General Franco in neighboring Spain, as well as the "heroic" war against Ethiopia by Mussolini.

Reis strikes up relationships with three persons: two women, and a dead poet. The first woman is the hotel-maid, Lydia, who secretly shares his bed at night, and later, after Reis has rented his own apartment, in addition provides free house-keeping. Saramago stresses the class difference between doctor and maid (still a factor in the 1930s), which always keeps them apart, but also shows that Reis gradually learns this warm person has her own mind and sense of independence.

The second woman is Marcenda, an aristocratic, virginal women with a paralyzed arm who once a month comes to Lisbon with her father to see a specialist (her father uses that as a cover for his own visit to a prostitute). When Reis once happens to touch Marcenda's broken hand, there is a romantic and even sexual surge that surpasses any more physical encounter. Marcenda is, however,  circumspect about their friendship and in the end disappears from Reis' life.

Reis also meets an old friend, the poet Fernando Pessoa, who has died a few months ago but whose ghost, passing through walls and doors and clad in his funeral suit, visits him at odd times for various deep discussions.

A visitation by a dead poet almost seems like a ghost story, but here we have to step outside the novel for a moment as Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) is a historical person – in fact, Pessoa was the greatest Portuguese poet of the 20th century. And the character of Ricardo Reis was not made up by Saramago, but was one of the many pseudonyms under which Fernando Pessoa wrote his poetry. In fact, “pseudonym” is not the right word. Pessoa gave his numerous adopted personages their own biographies and he wrote poetry in a different style for each character. Pessoa therefore didn't speak of pseudonyms or personae, but he called these multiple authorial selves “heteronyms.”

[Fernando Pessoa. Photo Wikipedia]

So this is also a novel about Ferdinand Pessoa, a literary figure of surprising postmodernity, who left most of his oeuvre on thousands and thousands of fragmentary slips of paper. Pessoa himself was a great flaneur, like Reis in the novel – he even wrote a walking guide to Lisssabon. He was born in Portugal, but educated in South Africa where he learned to speak and write in English. He spent the remainder of his life in Lisbon where by day he worked as translator and by night was a figure on the local modernist literary scene.

Among Pessoa's different personae, the one called "Ricardo Reis" was a meditative pagan who wrote classical odes, with as philosophy: “'See life from a distance. Never question it. There's nothing it can tell you.” After all, even the gods look upon us with indifference. Reis accepts fate with tranquility, also in Saramago's novel where he is a pure observer, even of the people around him – only Marcenda fills him with life and he withers away after he cannot see her anymore. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Saramago talked of his love for the poems by Ricardo Reis / Fernando Passoa – he knew many of Reis' poems by heart and indeed, individual lines lie scattered throughout the novel.

Saramago writes in a style that is extremely dense, full of conceits and circumlocutions and echoes of other Portuguese literature. There are also subtle in-jokes, such as the frequent references to a book Reis is reading – it is The God of the Labyrinths by one "Herbert Quain," and readers of Jorge Luis Borges Ficciones will recognize this as a non-existent book invented by Borges in his short story “A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain.”

And in the end, when time is up also for Ricardo Reis, he meekly accompanies his dead companion Pessoa to the tomb. After all, what life has a heteronym after its author is already dead?

A true masterwork by one of Europe's major writers who deserves to be better known. I read the novel in English translation as a Harcourt paperback.