Thursday, May 10, 2012

Take careful note. No one can narrate everything. - Saramago provides information

This information is being provided, first because it is true and the truth is always worthwhile, and, second, to assist those who enjoy deciphering crisscross patterns of words and events.  (13)

Hey, that’s me!

Dolce Bellezza, a fan of a later Saramago novel, also took a crack at Baltasar and Blimunda recently.  If I am characterizing her post correctly, she found herself crushed under the weight of Saramago’s details.  The novel was much like the enormous stone, “the mother of all stone,” that lies in the portico of the church at the Mafra Palace:

To complete this description, once it has been carved and polished in Mafra, it will be only fractionally smaller, thirty-two by fourteen by three in the same order of dimensions, and one day, when measurements will no longer be taken in spans but in meters, others will describe the stone as being seven meters long, three meters wide, and sixty-four centimeters deep.  Take careful note.  (223)

There is that narratorial slippage again.  The narrator actually transforms into a modern tour guide:

Now let us pass to the next room, for we still have some way to go.

But the reader of Baltasar and Blimunda returns to the 18th century, where Saramago, along with the title character Baltasar, four hundred oxen, and “hordes of men,” spends an entire chapter moving the stone from the quarry to the construction site.  It is a dazzling showoff chapter in a novel that is not characterized by Saramago holding back.  Every stage of the movement of the stone is presented, along with lists of equipment and names.  Some minor characters have to be developed in order to crush at least one of them.

One of the workers improvises a story each night, a sort of fragmented fairy tale.  It does not have a satisfying ending:

José Pequeno protested:  One’s never heard such a tale narrated bit by bit.  Manuel Milho reminded him: Each day is a little bit of history, and no one can narrate everything.  (239)

Saramago gives it a shot, though.  I have no idea how much of the information about the stone and its transport is true and how much or what Saramago invented.  I would guess that, as I found with Sebald, the scene is lightly researched, that most of the historical detail can be found in one or two books.  It is easy enough to imagine Saramago, on a tour of Mafra, perhaps even as a child, being told about the giant stone and thinking “Now that could make a good story.”

A number of other chapters are similar, and just as good.  For example, the description of the logistics of a royal wedding, really an exchange of princesses between Portugal and Spain, which requires an enormous chain of carriages, horses, and servants.  The movement of the princess, of one person, is as difficult, is as great a folly, as the movement of a 31 metric ton stone.

“One day, the errors on which history is based will finally be clarified,” the narrator says in that chapter, a bit cryptically (277).  Saramago’s project is perhaps not so different than Sebald’s.  New, purposeful, fictional errors are set against old, accidental, factual errors.


  1. You make me want to read this again. The intrusive narrator is one of the things I admired about Saramago. His controversial book on Jesus Christ was my favorite.

    I think we read the same edition (1987). I later learned this version was "disowned" by Saramago as it was an edited one and a restored version came out.

  2. What! Disowned! Edited! Not that I do not believe it - all too common.

    Seeing this narrator in operation clarified how some of the other books must work. How The Gospel According to Jesus Christ distinguishes itself from other retellings of the Gospels, for example.

  3. This type of narrator was specially effective in communicating his skepticism of religion. And maybe his communist politics. I'm not sure of the extent of editing, but it could be not that major. ("Disowned" may not be the right word.)

  4. “One day, the errors on which history is based will finally be clarified” -- that's sounds like a reference to Saramago's later novel, The History of the Siege of Lisbon.

  5. Huh, yeah, Siege of Lisbon seems to be directly about that sort of thinking. I just noticed the joke of "clarified" - the errors will not be corrected or remove, just clarified.

  6. "Take careful note" and that bit about eventually clarifying "the errors on which history are based" are both good gags. I should prob. get around to finishing The History of the Siege of Lisbon one of these days, but that will likely have to wait because I finally found a copy of Eça's Cousin Bazilio at a bricks and mortar bookstore this week--an off-topic first for me! Obrigado for Saramago week, by the way.

  7. Why would a bookstore carry such a book? Are they trying to go out of business? But you, like Borges and Bioy Casares, should find some good stuff in that book.

    Saramago two-days is more like it. Tomorrow, something merely related.

  8. Hmmmm, I hate to think I was crushed under a stone, but in fact, it seems I was. Still, I appreciate the opportunity to read at least half of it, Tom, and I thank you for bringing it to my attention.

  9. Metaphorical stones fortunately do little harm when they metaphorically crush one. Yes, thanks a lot for the spur to read this.

  10. "extraordinary how a man or a woman are formed, regardless, there inside the ovary, and protected from the outside world, even though it is this very same world that they will have to confront, as king or soldier, as friar or assassin, as an English whore in Barbados or a condemned woman in the Rossio, always as something, never as everything, and never as nothing. For, after all, we can escape from everything, but not from ourselves."

    José Saramago from Baltasar and Blimunda

    This is favorite of mine. I fall to pieces when ever I think of the end. I am enjoying wandering around the long halls of your blog....

  11. Oh, that's a good line. Saramago so often sees things from surprising points of view.

    I did not comment, but I enjoyed your recent Stendhal post. Stendhal is a mystery to me. Every clue helps.