Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Portugal will provide nothing other than the stone - Saramago's Baltasar and Blimunda

My other recent tour guide to Portugal has been José Saramago’s Baltasar and Blimunda (1982).  Where Antonio Tabucchi is an appreciative outsider, Saramago is a skeptical native.  Portuguese history and Portuguese culture are memorials of folly, universal human folly but also some particularly Portuguese folly.

The novel’s Portuguese title is Memorial do Convento, and much of the story of the novel is about the construction in the early 18th century of a convent of sorts, the gargantuan Baroque Mafra National Palace, a peculiar combination of Franciscan Monastery and royal residence.  The Wikipedia page has many photographs.  How I would like to visit it, however ridiculous the place is.  It may have been foolish to pour that much Brazilian gold and human labor into this monstrosity, but now Portugal is stuck with it.

Roughly speaking the argument is that just as Europe begins work on the Enlightenment, Portugal remains obstinately superstitious, brutal, wasteful, unscientific, venal, and backwards.

As the King João V thinks or says:

And if from this impoverished land of illiterates, rustics, and unskilled craftsmen one cannot expect refined arts and crafts, let them be brought from Europe for my convent at Mafra, and let all the other necessary adornments and embellishments be bought with the gold from my mines and revenues from my estates, whereby, as one friar will record for posterity, artisans abroad will get rich while we shall be admired for the splendors of our realm.  Portugal will provide nothing other than the stone, tile, and wood for burning, and men of brute force and empty hands.  (206)

Then follows a characteristically sinuous Saramago sentence that is much too long for me to type out.  The little slip in voice in that passage – “as one friar will record for posterity” – is part of my favorite aspect of the novel, Saramago’s brilliantly inventive use of omniscient narration.  He really can be anywhere and really does know everything, and as a result says some of the strangest things.

Saramago freely interrupts his free indirect passages.  Sometimes he adopts the “I” but the first person is always abandoned, or he gives the views of supernatural creatures (“Looking down on this activity, the devil marvels at his own innocence and compassion, for he could never have conceived such punishment to crown all those other punishments he metes out in hell,” 236).  The narrator’s attitude shifts, so that he often sounds like a man of the time of the story, but then argues with or mocks the beliefs of the characters.  He hops around in time, utterly unafraid of anachronism in his historical novel:

There is nothing worse than the life of a novice, save perhaps that of a shop assistant in years to come.  We were about to say that the novice is the shop assistant of God, as a certain Frei João de Nossa Senhora can testify, a former novice of this very same Franciscan Order, who will go [hmm, this sentence is also an awfully long one]…  A life of sacrifice always comes to the same thing, whether it be that of a novice, a shop assistant, or a recruit.  (301)

Much of the pleasure of the novel was seeing what odd claims the all-powerful narrator would make next, and then to see how, laid side by side, they were not so odd.  So more of that tomorrow, I guess.

This is the only Saramago book I have read.  I know what some of his other books are about, but I do not know what they are like, if this narrator, for example, is unique or typical.

Page numbers from the 1987 American first edition, translated by Giovanni Pontiero.


  1. I did not get to the Mafra Palace, but if a field trip is in the offing, count me in. All of this posting on Lisbon has me dizzy with desire to be there.

  2. I've not read this book, but I've read three others by Saramago, and the narrator you describe hear sounds very much like the one in the books I read, especially The Double. So I'd guess that this narrator is typical Saramago, and definitely not unique among his works.

  3. This is one of the few Saramago books I haven't read yet, but I concur with Teresa -- by your description it sounds very much like typical Saramago. I do, however, find his later books easier to ready -- I don't know if that's Saramago maturing or relaxing in his prose or if I just got more practiced with it.

  4. These useful comments also act as votes for more Saramago. The narrator was original and immediately appealing. No surprise that Saramago had more work to do with it. Thanks, Teresa and Isabella, for the help.

    Scott - I know, I know. Who can say when I will make it to Lisbon.

  5. I just finished reading my first Saramago, The Elephant's Journey, and the narrative style of that is similar to what you describe. Baltasar and Blimunda is next on my list :)

  6. Katherine, welcome. I do not believe we have met. Ah, your blog is new. Very nice. I linked to the Saramago piece.

  7. Every novel since and including Raised from the Ground, my favourite, is written in this style.

    It's funny you'd like to visit Mafra. Nothing has brought it as much fame in recent years as Saramago's novel, and I'm sure many foreigners now visit it thanks to it. And yet, he relates in his 1993 diary, the government of Mafra despises him for having allegedly ruined the town's good name, which, before him, no one had ever heard of.

  8. Ha ha ha ha! The power of literature! The restlessness of tourists!

    1. Ah, but they don't complain abut the number of tourists, I'm sure local business appreciates that. The matter is mostly political, what with Mafra being a traditionally right-wing town and Saramago a communist. In their view, his descriptions of Mafra and of the convent, of the thousands of people who died to build such a useless monument, is a question of embarrassment to the town. They want visitors to admire the convent without remembering the number of people who died building it.

  9. "Lonely Planet says you can stand right on the giant stone that squashed that guy in the novel!"