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, with 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.