Saturday, December 1, 2012

History is indifferent to the fine points of literary composition - Saramago's The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis

Oops, my schedule has slipped a bit.  I can tell you why: shame.  Book blogging shame.

Miguel at St. Orberose has spent November making other book bloggers look bad.  No offense.  He has been celebrating José Saramago month by writing and translating and making some sense of a fascinating and diverse range of material – plays, diaries, journalism, even a science fiction epic in verse.  Most of the texts he wrote about are otherwise unavailable in English.

What a resource.  When have I done anything this useful?  When have I wanted to work this hard?  It’s humbling.

Miguel spurred me to read Saramago’s 1984 novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, translated by Giovanni Pontiero, which follows Baltasar and Blimunda, the one I read earlier this year, and of course stars the great imaginary poet Ricardo Reis.

Reis returns to Lisbon from Brazil after years of exile.  His friend and fellow poet Fernando Pessoa has just died.  Salazar has been “Prime Minister” of Portugal for two or three years; dictator, really.  Reis is a monarchist, so he has some sympathy for certain aspects of Salazar’s rule. He does not really comprehend the rise of fascism, news of which, in Germany and Spain, runs through the novel.  Saramago’s novel is a political novel, but for the character the point is that his old beliefs have become irrelevant.  “[H]istory is indifferent to the fine points of literary composition” (295).

Despite the big events in the background, little happens in foreground of the novel:  Reis begins an affair with a chambermaid that deepens in surprising ways, pursues an affair with another woman of his own class – some surprises there, too - half-heartedly restarts his medical practice, and writes poems.  He also meets, once in a while, the deceased Fernando Pessoa:

He recognized him at once, though they had not seen each other for many years.  Nor did he think it strange that  Fernando Pessoa should be sitting there waiting for him.  He said Hello, not expecting a reply, absurdity does not always obey logic, but Pessoa did in fact reply, saying Hello, and stretched out his hand, then they embraced.  Well, how have you been, one of them asked, or both, not that it matters, the question is so meaningless.  (64-5)

Not that this is so absurd, given that Ricardo Reis is an imaginary poet created by the actual poet Pessoa, that all of the biographical details (medicine, monarchism) are the invention of Pessoa, that Reis’s poems are written by Pessoa.  Why shouldn’t he outlive Pessoa by nine months?  In the real world, Pessoa has outlived Pessoa.

What else is in the book?  Lisbon, what a fine Lisbon novel.  Some time with Google maps was helpful, and also feasible, because Reis mostly stays in a small central area.  I could follow the “itinerary of the statues” on page 352, including Eça de Queiros and the epic poet Camões.

Saramago’s previous novel, Baltasar and Blimunda, is in the novel, mentioned a couple of times.  For example, out of almost nowhere, Saramago muses that Blimunda is a strange name.  The beauty of the voice Saramago developed is that it can go anywhere he wants.  I guess any author can do that, but few do.


  1. Shame? Good. This isn't schadenfreude. Pleases me that you're not a copy-producing machine. Glad you brought St. Orberose to my attention. He's been suitably blogrolled. Gospel According to Jesus Christ is probably my favorite Saramago, although I really liked Death with Interruptions, too.

  2. Death With Interruptions, which I read a couple of weeks ago, is the only Saramago I've read; it's a very fine book that I find myself recommending a lot. I have no idea where to go next with Saramago. Somewhere, though. I must go somewhere next with him.

  3. A Saturday post from you? Wow, what's next, a holiday post from one of your cidre-drinking vacations in France? Miguel's not the only hard-working, Portuguese-lit reviewin' blogger in town, I guess, which is a little shame-inducing in and of itself in that this post reminds me that I need to get back to Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet and Saramago himself one of these days to better appreciate all the heteronym in-jokes and stuff. Until then, "history is indifferent to the fine points of literary composition" is a more than OK line to savor this weekend.

  4. "He knows, of course, because common sense, the only repository of knowledge which common sense itself assures us is irrefutable, tells him so..."

    I have to stay away from the "s" section of my library or I might be tempted not to read anyone else.
    Saying that, I will humiliate myself on your erudite blog to make the point of Saramago's genius, and say that I was nearly at the end of the book before I quite randomly discovered that Reis was a creation of the poet Pessoa. I was glad to know, but then again - it didn't really change anything.

    Some books linger in words, some in images - for me, his do both.

  5. Tom, thank you so much for the kind words!

    Reis is a monarchist, so he has some sympathy for certain aspects of Salazar’s rule, he does not really comprehend the rise of fascism, news of which, in Germany, and Spain, runs through the novel. Saramago’s novel is a political novel, but for the character the point is that his old beliefs have become irrelevant.

    José Saramago got the idea for this novel from a verse by Reis:

    "Wise is he who is satisfied with the spectacle of the world."

    So Saramago decided to thrust him into a world torn apart by fascism, civil war and dictatorship in order to ask Reis if he continued to believe in merely being satisfied with the spectacle of the world. This of course has to do with Saramago's conviction that writers should be engaged with the world and its problems around them.

    Tom, did you know Pessoa wrote a Lisbon tourist guide, in English? Apart from Message, it's the only book he ever completed.

  6. The beauty of Saramago's conceit for this novel - I am addressing soveryvery - is that there is no need whatsoever to know that Reis is the invention of Pessoa, or that his poems are real, or frankly that Pessoa is real. More knowledge just adds more levels, but the same is true of knowing how Lisbon fits together (I've never been there) or reading The Lusiads or understanding the career of Salazar. It all just keeps building up.

    Having read two novels, I feel am about 15% of the way towards actually writing about Saramago. Miguel's series contributed a substantial number of points to that total.

    I did know about the tour guide, Miguel, but skipped it. Maybe before I go to Lisbon, whenever that might be.

    I believe the rest of these fine comments stand on their own merits.

    One more thing, though. I am amazed by how well so many book bloggers do without knowledge, how much insight people sometimes have after one read and a rummage for quotes. Not always - not often - but sometimes. I mean, specific knowledge - knowing how to read literature well is the base skill.

    But writing from knowledge is when things really get moving. Really, Miguel, outstanding work. And "work" is not a metaphor in this case. The translations alone!

    1. Knowledge is fun!

      I have been to Lisbon and it is wonderful to read books in which you feel you really can walk the same the streets, breath the same air. Not necessary by any means, but fun all the same. I remember reading The Leopard, and then reading it again whilst in Sicily in the towns that Lampadusa modeled his after - what joy!

  7. Mmm, Lampedusa in the right spots in Sicily - that does sound nice. Followed by lunch at a table next to Inspector Montalbano.

  8. oh you are singing to the choir now!