Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2018 Evelyn C. Leeper.


ALL THE NAMES by José Saramago:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/03/2015]

ALL THE NAMES by José Saramago (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) (ISBN 978-0-15-601059-7) is reminiscent of Saramago's THE DOUBLE--or rather, I suppose, the other way around, since ALL THE NAMES was written first. In both, the main character is looking for someone for reasons which are more metaphysical than practical. In THE DOUBLE, the protagonist sees someone who seems to be his double and goes searching for him; in ALL THE NAMES the protagonist accidentally picks up the record of someone in the Central Registry and feels compelled to find her.

This compulsion, by the way, leads to a philosophical digression about how one reaches a decision. Saramago writes, "Senhor José's decision appeared two days later." While we desire to believe we are in control and make our own decisions, he says, there is really no way to explain just how we would go about doing that. (This is an aspect of the "mind-body problem" in philosophy.) "Strictly speaking," he says, "we do not make decisions, decisions make us." As in many of Saramago's novels (including THE DOUBLE and BLINDNESS), the events take place in an unnamed city in an unnamed country. As in BLINDNESS we never find out the characters' names, although here we are at least told that his first name is José. (The translation calls him "Senhor José" though in an interview Saramago refers to him as "Don José". Since "Don José" is a quite normal form of address, I suspect Saramago used "Senhor José" in the novel to emphasize the missing family names.)

Saramago begins with a description of the Central Registry where Senhor José works. Inspired strongly by Jorge Luis Borges's Library of Babel and Franz Kafka's architectural creations, the Registry is unforgettable. The phrase used to describe the major part of it ("labirinticas catacumbas do arquivo dos mortos"--"the labyrinthine catacombs of the archives of the dead") is truly striking, even if illogical. They are not underground, and the method of their construction would seem to prelude any sort of "labyrinthine" layout, but this merely makes them seem almost a living thing, which grows and changes over time.

Senhor José's job--a clerk in an office, a metaphorical cog in a machine--is also reminiscent of Kafka's protagonists. And his statement that "the Central Registry's regulations permit of neither precipitate actions nor improvisation, the worst thing being that we don't even know what all the regulations are" is pure Kafka.

And towards the end, when Senhor José goes to the General Cemetery, he is confronted with another labyrinth, this one perhaps reminiscent as well of the cemetery in Saramago's "Reflux".

"... a bishop never excites curiosity, however pious his reputation, not like a cyclist or a Formula One racing driver." Lance Armstrong has about three-and-a-half million Twitter followers, but other than him, I suspect there are bishops who would far exceed the numbers for the cyclists and drivers. (And I will not even count the Bishop of Rome.)

To order All the Names from amazon.com, click here.


BALTASAR AND BLIMUNDA by José Saramago:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/20/2015]

BALTASAR AND BLIMUNDA by José Saramago (translated by Giovanni Pontiero) (ISBN 978-0-15-600520-3) is a novel of magical realism, if not out-and-out fantasy. One person is building a flying machine, another has what appears to be X-ray vision, and a third, by means of prosthetics for his missing hand, has superhuman abilities in handling things. (For example, his hook can handle hot objects without being burned and sharp objects without being cut.) Oddly enough, the flying machine is not entirely fantastical--the real Padre Bartolomeu du Gusmao is today considered a pioneer in the field of aviation.

Saramago has refined his cynicism to a level equal to Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, and other great satirists. For example, Saramago describe the auto-da-fe thusly: "the auto-da-fe is spiritually elevating and constitutes an act of faith, with its stately procession, the solemn declaration of the sentences, the dejected appearances of those who have been condemned, the plaintive voices, and the smell of the charred flesh as their bodies are engulfed by the flame and whatever little fat remains after months of imprisonment starts to drip on the embers." [page 39] That is, he starts with a description of great dignity and solemnity, gradually moves to an emotional description of the condemned, and then hits the reader with the slap in the face of a graphic description of charred bodies and dripping fat. "Wake up," he seems to be saying. "All this talk of serving God in this sacred ceremony is a load of horse puckey. This is brutal and horrifying and describing it any other way is obscene."

He also takes aim at hypocrisy (or I should say maybe other types of hypocrisy, since making an auto-da-fe something elevating is to my mind hypocrisy) when he writes, "[The King] will join the Chief Inquisitor for a sumptuous feast at tables laden with bowls of chicken broth, partridges, breasts of veal, pates and meat savouries flavoured with cinnamon and sugar, a stew in the Castilian manner with all the appropriate ingredients and saffron rice, blancmanges, pastries, and fruits in season. But the King is so abstinent that he refuses to drink any wine..." [pg 41] Indeed, this is an odd sort of abstinence.

Saramago gets the Immaculate Conception wrong when he writes, "[The] much-quoted immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary occurred but once so that our world might know that Almighty God, when He so chooses, has no need of men, though He cannot dispense with women." [pg 9] Clearly he is implying that the Immaculate Conception was the conception of Jesus without an earthly father, but in fact it is the conception of Mary without the stain of Original Sin.

But is it possible this is intentional? At another point, Saramago writes parenthetically of Padre Bartolomeu's lectures, "Iuris ecclesiastici universi libri tre, Colectanea doctorum tam veteram quam recentiorum in ius pontificum universum, Reportorium iuris civilis et canonici, et coetera." [page 135] According to my go-to Latin translator, "tre" should be "tres", "Colectanea" should be "Collectanea", and "et coetera" should be "et cetera", not to mention the noun declensions being wrong. Given that it is identical in the original Portuguese, the Spanish translation, and two editions of the English translation, this might suggest that Saramago was having a bit of fun with the pretentiousness of priests (and others) using Latin in an attempt to impress.

[Google Translate gave me "Of ecclesiastical law of the universe of the book tre, Colectanea of pontifical law of the doctors, both the old as modern ones in the universe, Reportorium of civil law and canon law, and the other," which is why I went to a real person to translate the translation.)

And later, Saramago writes of "the first five books [of the Old Testament], the so-called Pentateuch, which is known as the Torah among the Jews, and as the Koran among the followers of Mohammed." [page 164] Surely this must be an intentional mistake--I cannot believe that a copy editor would let this go by!

And he also has the priests saying that October 22, 1730, will be a Sunday (true), and also that October 22, 1740, will be a Sunday as well (false--it will be a Saturday). (He does say for the second calculation, "They struggled with their arithmetic and replied with some uncertainty.") All in all, I think these mistakes mostly attributable to priests in the story are purposeful, and intended to cast the Catholic Church in an even worse light than the descriptions of the Inquisition does.

Saramago talks about numeracy and mathematics, and relates a string of associations: "... you can begin with the first word, which is the House of Jerusalem, where Jesus Christ died for all of us we are told, and now the two words, which are the Tables of Moses, where, we are told, Jesus Christ placed His feet, and now the three words, which are the three persons of the Holy Trinity, we are told, ..." and so on through thirteen words. This sounds very much like the monologue of "The Soldier and the Deck of Cards" (made popular in 1948 by T. Texas Tyler, but dating back to the 18th century), though using numbers for the face cards rather the images themselves. (Actually, so does "The Soldier and the Deck of Cards" when it adds up the spots to get the number of days in the year.)

Saramago has a character describe the Portuguese as "a race known for its pride and lack of perseverance," and one suspects this may reflect Saramago's own thoughts. This is a common enough combination of characteristics that one often sees in individuals, and in countries.

(In passing, I will not that this king is King Joao V, not the King Joao III of THE ELEPHANT'S JOURNEY.)

All in all, this is a rich novel, and definitely has its science fictional and early aviation aspects (though I guarantee that the real Padre Bartolomeu du Gusmao did not use the same method of buoyancy that Saramago attributes to him here).

To order Baltasar and Blimunda from amazon.com, click here.


BLINDNESS by José Saramago:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/30/2004]

I decided to skip José Saramago's BLINDNESS, though it's hard to judge whether the problem was Saramago or the translator or the fact that I was stuck reading it in a large-print edition. Certainly whoever decided that the use of quotation marks or paragraphing were unnecessary for dialogue is partly to blame.

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/11/2014]

BLINDNESS by José Saramago (translated by Giovanni Pontiero and Margaret Jull Costa) (ISBN 978-0-15-600775-7) was chosen as the discussion book for both the science fiction group and the science fiction book-and-movie group. (These are in two different libraries, but at this point have almost identical memberships, so the former will probably cover the book and the latter the film and the transition process.) The premise is that there is a sudden plague of blindness. How it starts is never explained; it is contagious, but how is also never explained. Saramago also treats his unnamed and unlocated city as isolated--there is no indication of whether the plague exists outside the city, but also no indication of help or even curiosity from outside. (There is mention of an airplane crashing when both pilots when blind during a landing, so theoretically the plague could have spread to the rest of the world, but this is never examined or mentioned.)

Saramago asks, "What do names matter?" and says, "Names are of no importance here." But he still occasionally has to identify characters, and so he is reduced to descriptors such as "the doctor's wife" or "the boy with the squint." But this is at least one of the origins of names, at least of family names: "John Taylor" was originally a tailor, "Tom Hunter" was a hunter, and so on. Just because "Doctor", "Doctorswife", and "Squint" are not capitalized does not mean they are not names. (All this is reminiscent of my discussion about names in ANTHEM by Ayn Rand in the 06/13/14 issue of the MT VOID.)

Saramago is limited by this lack of names. He starts with a half-dozen major characters: Patient 0, Doctor, Doctor's Wife, Thief, Boy with Squint, and Girl with Dark Glasses. He then adds five more: Pharmacist's Assistant, Hotel Maid, Taxi Driver, Policeman, and Patient 0's Wife. He briefly mentions the Employee from Surgery, Man from Hotel, and Hotel Policeman, but after that hardly any new characters are introduced, which is just as well considering how difficult it is to keep track of characters with long names, especially given Saramago's peculiar attitude toward dialogue and punctuation. Hint: In long stretches of dialogue, capitalization indicates a change of speaker.

Saramago's characters describe themselves as "blind in eyes and blind in feelings, because the feelings with which we have lived and which allowed us to live as we were, depended on our having the eyes we were born with, without eyes feelings become something different, we do not know how, we do not know what, you say we're dead because we're blind, there you have it. Do you love your husband, Yes, as I love myself, but should I turn blind, if after turning blind I should no longer be the person I was, how would I then be able to go on loving him, and with what love, Before, when we could still see, there were also blind people, Few in comparison, the feelings in use were those of someone who could see, therefore blind people felt with the feelings of someone who could see, therefore blind people felt with the feelings of others, not as the blind people they were, now, certainly, what is emerging are the real feelings of the blind, and we're still only at the beginning, for the moment we still live on the memory of what we felt, you don't need eyes to know what life has become today..." [Due to Saramago's bizarre punctuation, this is actually a dialogue between two characters.]

Now there are two ways of looking at Saramago's contention here (or more precisely, his characters' contentions, but it seems clear that Saramago is at least to some extent supporting them). One is that the idea that blind people's feelings are qualitatively different from seeing people's feelings. But this seems to make blind people into almost another species, and hence not human in the way sighted people are. This is the negative interpretation. A more positive interpretation is that blindness leads to different feelings, but they are just different--not better, not worse, not more, not less. This is a more positive interpretation. The problem with trying to apply the latter interpretation is that Saramago has made the life of blind people so unpleasant, so repulsive, that it is hard to say the feelings that go along with this are not actually worse than those of the sighted people. (The sighted people do not act in the noblest fashion either, but one can argue that their existence does not end up as degraded as the blind, whose "descent" from civilization is what Saramago is portraying.

As I alluded to in the previous paragraph, Saramago paints a much more horrific--and realistic--picture of the results of (near-)universal plague of blindness than books such as John Wyndham's THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS. Science fiction--at least traditional science fiction of the ASTOUNDING/ANALOG variety--prides itself on asking "what if?" and then using scientific analysis and reasoning to come up with an answer. Yet no one (except perhaps Tom Godwin) has been willing to accept the "inconvenient truths" that this leads to, so we get science fiction that somehow manages to avoid many of the obvious negative results by hand-waving. (For example, in EARTH ABIDES, potable water continues flowing through the plumbing system much longer than it would in reality, and the effects of all the dead bodies seem considerably muted.) Instead, we usually get what has been called "cozy catastrophe."

The result of Saramago's unflinching look is a very unpleasant book to read, much as realistic war films are unpleasant films to watch.

To order Blindness from amazon.com, click here.


CAIN by José Saramago:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/25/2013]

CAIN by José Saramago (translated by Margaret Jull Costa, ISBN 978-0-547-41989-3) is Saramago's last novel and follows in a tradition of speculative fiction both in and out of the "science fiction" marketing category. One could argue, I suppose, that John Milton was one of its earliest practitioners, the tradition being that of re-telling Biblical stories from a different perspective. Within science fiction, the leading modern author of these works is James Morrow, with his "Bible Stories for Adults", but other examples abound.

In CAIN, Saramago follows the eponymous character as he travels through space and time, somehow being present at all the important Pentateuchal events. And he sees nothing admirable in God's behavior at any of them, and indeed, expresses what many modern theologians feel in his questions of why a god would order a man to sacrifice his own son, why destroying all the innocent children in Sodom was justified, how God giving Job ten new children makes up for the ten He killed (especially to those ten, and for a wager, no less), why God thought destroying all humans except for Noah and his family was going to produce a better human race than had developed before, and so on.

It is all summed up in Cain's dialogue with the angels outside Job's house:

"If I've understood you rightly, god and satan made a wager, but this man job isn't to know that he is the object of the gamblers" agreement between god and the devil, Exactly, exclaimed the angels as one, That doesn't seem very fair of the lord, said cain, if it's true that I've heard, that job, for all his wealth, is also a good and upright man, and very religious too, he has committed no crime, and yet, for no reason, he is about to be punished with the loss of all his money and possessions, now it may be, as many people say, that the lord is just, but I don't think so, it reminds me of what happened to abraham, whom god, in order to put him to the test, commanded to kill his son isaac, so it seems to me that if the lord doesn't trust the people who believe in him, I really don't see why those people should believe in the lord, the ways of the lord are inscrutable, not even we angels can fathom the workings of his mind, Oh, I've had enough of all this nonsense about the lord's ways being inscrutable, answered cain, god should be as clear and transparent as a pane of glass and not go wasting his energies on creating an atmosphere of constant terror and fear, god, in short, does not love us."

[punctuation and capitalization sic]

To order Cain from amazon.com, click here.


THE CAVE by José Saramago:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/18/2015]

THE CAVE by José Saramago (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) (ISBN 978-0-15-602879-0) is the story of a potter and his interactions with family, neighbors, and "the Center", where he sells his pottery and his son-in-law is a security guard.

Saramago has said that he feels THE CAVE is the third part of a trilogy beginning with BLINDNESS and ALL THE NAMES. In these, there is a unity of intention in talking about the world and the life we are living. [EPOCA, 01/21/2001] And THE CAVE does emphasize respect for manual labor and "the work of the hands," a theme that also showed up in RAISED FROM THE GROUND and THE ELEPHANT'S JOURNEY.

As always, there are many little nuggets throughout the book. Saramago, for example, has a character muse on the non-existence of [cardinal] numbers: "He got annoyed with himself, it was nonsense, utterly absurd to worry about existence, yes, that was right, he had never thought of that before, numbers don't really exist, things couldn't care less what number we give them, it's all the same to them if we say they're number thirteen or number forty-four..." This is a disputed philosophical point among mathematicians: do numbers have an objective existence, or are they merely philosophical constructs?

Dog-lovers will like Saramago's attitude toward dogs: "[The] disinterested joy of a dog can reconcile us for one brief minute to the pains, sorrows, and disappointments of this world."

The main character is a potter/sculptor, so Saramago can digress and write, "Many of the best-known gods choose mud as the material for their creations, but it is hard to know now if that preference represents a point in mud's favor or a point against."

When the main characters move to "the Center" we get two descriptions of the Center, which make it sound like a combination of the Mall of America, the Dubai Mall, and the New South China Mall:

"[The elevator] traveled slowly past the different floors, revealing a succession of arcades, shops, fancy staircases, escalators, meeting points, cafes, restaurants, terraces with tables and chairs, cinemas and theaters, discotheques, enormous television screens, endless numbers of ornaments, electronic games, balloons, fountains and other water features, platforms, hanging gardens, posters, pennants, advertising billboards, mannequins, changing rooms, the facade of a church, the entrance to the beach, a bingo hall, a casino, a tennis court, a gymnasium, a roller coaster, a zoo, a racetrack for electric cars, a cyclorama, a cascade, all waiting, all in silence, and more shops and more arcades and more mannequins and more hanging gardens and things for which people probably didn't even know the names, as if they were ascending into paradise."

"[From the elevator on the other side] they would have been able to see, during the slow ride upward, as well as the new arcades, shops, escalators, meeting points, cafes and restaurants, many other equally interesting and varied installations, for example, a carousel of horses, a carousel of space rockets, a center for toddlers, a center for the Third Age, a tunnel of love, a suspension bridge, a ghost train, an astrologer's tent, a betting shop, a rifle range, a golf course, a luxury hospital, another slightly less luxurious hospital, a bowling alley, a billiard hall, a battery of table football games, a giant map, a secret door, another door with a notice on it saying experience natural sensations, rain, wind, and snow on demand, a wall of china, a taj mahal, an egyptian pyramid, a temple of karnak, a real aqueduct, a mafra monastery, a clerics' tower, a fjord, a summer sky with fluffy white clouds, a lake, a real palm tree, the skeleton of a tyrannosaurus, another one apparently alive, himalayas complete with everest, an amazon complete with Indians, a stone raft, a corcovado christ, a trojan horse, an electric chair, a firing squad, an angel playing a trumpet, a communications satellite, a comet, a galaxy, a large dwarf, a small giant, a list of prodigies so long that not even eight years of leisure time would be enough to take them al in, even if you had been born in the Center and had never left it for the outside world."

[As always with Saramago, the capitalization--or lack thereof--is Saramago's.]

I love that one of the billboards says, "WE WOULD SELL YOU EVERYTHING YOU NEED, BUT WE WOULD PREFER YOU TO NEED WHAT WE HAVE TO SELL," because that so sums up one of the big functions of advertising: convincing you that you need what the advertiser is selling.

And notice the attitude of the government (or rather of the Center) is, "Yes, but people have to learn not to be curious, to walk on by, not to stick their nose in where it isn't wanted, it's just a question of time and training."

In fact, while one of the major underlying themes of THE CAVE is commercialism, another is the replacement of the government by "the Center", that is, by a large commercial entity. It is not a multinational corporation, but it has the size and power of one. Saramago has had books with "international" scope, but many of his works that would seem to call for it (e.g., BLINDNESS) are instead very constrained, and given that there is no real reason for a wider scope in this story, making the Center an international corporation would add unnecessary complications.

[SPOILER] Saramago also plays a bit of a trick on the reader. The reader thinks he understands the meaning of the title, but he is wrong. [END SPOILER]

[The translation seems to have a couple of hiccups. I think the plural of "aurora borealis" should be "auroras borealis", and I think the quote about dogs above should have said "one brief moment" rather than "one brief minute" (which just seems too precise a time period).]

To order The Cave from amazon.com, click here.


DEATH WITH INTERRUPTIONS by José Saramago:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/28/2008]

DEATH WITH INTERRUPTIONS by José Saramago (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) (ISBN-13 978-0-15-101274-9 ISBN-10 0-15-101274-1) is a straightforward fantasy novel, written by a major author and published by a major publisher, yet it has received surprisingly little coverage by reviewers of fantasy novels. (A review at sfgate.com seemed promising, but it turned out to be the "San Francisco Chronicle" website.) The reason seems to be that the author is too major--Saramago did win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. Either the reviewers figure that people will hear of this book a lot elsewhere, or that it is somehow above being reviewed by "mere" genre reviewers. Neither seemed to affect them in the case of Philip Roth's THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA. though, so I am confused. (And there was a review of Saramago's science fiction novel BLINDNESS in "Locus", back in 1999.)

The premise is certainly not new--it is basically "Death Takes a Holiday". In a small country somewhere (it feels like South America, though I cannot pin down why), on the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, death ceases. Well, to be more precise, human death ceases--all the other animals and plants seem to be dying in normal numbers. At first, people are overjoyed, but soon the consequences become more obvious and what had seemed a blessing becomes a curse. The Church, the undertakers, and the insurance companies see the negative aspects first, followed by hospitals and nursing homes. Halfway through the novel, death (who insists on a lower-case "d") takes a slightly different approach, which I will not reveal. I will say that the second half is weaker than the first.

Saramago is not an easy author to read. Thank goodness the book is short (238 pages), because the sentences are very long and complex. The second sentence of the novel (for example) is 91 words long, with fifteen commas. And I suppose one might observe that some of the consequences will be obvious to readers familiar with fantasy. But Saramago covers much more than the obvious. For one thing, there is a long dialogue about its effect on religion, a topic carefully avoided in earlier genre treatments of the same premise. And there are other topics, such as a discourse on how the initial display of the country's flag by a few people who used it as a symbol of gratitude for (one supposes) Divine pleasure with the country turned into an effectively compulsory requirement: "Anyone who doesn't hang our nation's immortal flag from the window of their house doesn't deserve to live. Anyone not displaying the national flag has sold out to death." (Sound familiar? I can remember shortly after 09/11 someone asking us why we weren't flying a flag in front of our house, as if that were some sort of requirement, like keeping your lawn mowed.)

In spite of the "run-on" sentences, this is clearly a book worth reading, and I suspect will probably be better than the Hugo nominees, yet it is so off-the-radar of most fans that its chance of being on the ballot are vanishingly small.

To order Death with Interruptions from amazon.com, click here.


THE DOUBLE by José Saramago:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/30/2015]

THE DOUBLE by José Saramago (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) ISBN 978-0-15-101040-0) is one of the two Saramago works made into feature films available in the United States. The film based on THE DOUBLE was called ENEMY and should not be confused with the film a year later called THE DOUBLE but based on the Fyodor Dostoevsky story of that name. (The other film was BLINDNESS, based on the novel of the same name.)

The set-up of THE DOUBLE is simple: While history teacher Tertuliano Afonso Máximo is watching a movie, he sees an actor who is his exact double. For some reason, he finds this disturbing. He eventually figures out the actor's name, Daniel Santa-Clara, but there is further difficulty in finding him until he discovered that that is just a screen name, and the actor's real name is Antonio Claro. So Saramago here has in a sense a third identical person. Given that the original Tertulian was an early Christian theologian who was the first to use the term "the Trinity" and who invented the phrase "three persons, one substance," I doubt the choice of name for the protagonist is accidental.

Saramago has a couple of other stylistic quirks. Several times, he will diverge in a seemingly random fashion--for example, noting that Tertuliano did not have monkfish for dinner and then spending a full page discussing the nature and habits of the monkfish, and how Tertuliano came to know them, only to finish by saying, "Responsibility for this tedious piscine and linguistic digression lies entirely with Tertuliano Máximo Afonso for having taken such a long time to put a man like any other in the VCR ... since Tertuliano Máximo Afonso has, in the interval, done nothing worth telling, we had no option but to improvise some padding to more or less fill up the time required by the situation. Now that he has decided to take the video out of its box and put it in the VCR, we can relax."

He also makes at least one "meta-reference": In describing a shower, he writes, "It was as if a long-delayed blessing had just descended from the shower, as if another purifying shower, not the one enjoyed by those three naked women on the balcony, but the one enjoyed by this man ... were ... compassionately freeing his body from grime and his soul from fear." The three women showering on the balcony is a scene in Saramago's novel BLINDNESS.

One suspects that in the early exchange between Tertuliano and the mathematics teacher, Saramago expresses his feelings about (traditional) science fiction:

"... you're interested in astronomy, you might well enjoy science fiction, adventures in outer space, star wars, special effects, As I see it, those so-called special effects are the real enemy of the imagination, that mysterious, enigmatic skill it took us human beings so much hard work to invent, Now you're exaggerating, No, I'm not, the people who are exaggerating are the ones who want me to believe that in less than a second, with a clock of the fingers, a spaceship can travel a hundred thousand million kilometers, You have to agree, though, that to create the effects you so despise also takes imagination, Yes, but it's their imagination, not mine, You can always use their as a jumping-off point, Oh, I see, two hundred thousand million kilometers instead of one hundred thousand million, Don't forget what we call reality today was mere imagination yesterday, just look at Jules Verne, Yes, but the reality is that a trip to Mars, for example. and Mars, in astronomical terms, is just around the corner, would take at least nine months, then you'd have to hang around there for another six months until the planet was on the right position to make the return journey, before traveling for another nine months back to Earth, that's two whole years of utter tedium, a film about a trip to Mars that respected the facts would be the dullest thing ever seen, Yes, I can see why you're bored..."

Tertuliano see the first signs of sunrise and Saramago writes, "This is how he knew that the world would not end today, for it would be an unforgivable waste to make the sun rise in vain, merely to have the very entity that first gave life to everything witness the beginning of the void." If one of Tertuliano's hobbies is astronomy, he is either a very poor astronomer or a very shallow thinker (or Saramago is one of these), for clearly at any given instant, the sun is rising somewhere, and so by Tertuliano's logic, the world can never end.

It is possible that Saramago was confused about astronomy, of course, because he also compares the lives of teachers to "an arduous journey to Mars through an endless rain of threatening asteroids." Given that the vast majority of the asteroids are outside the orbit of Mars and would not interfere with an Earth-to-Mars trip, let alone form "an endless rain," One suspects astronomy was not one of Saramago's hobbies.

I wondered, does Portuguese really use such idioms as "to be handed the world on a silver platter"? So I found the original Portuguese and, yes, it does.

Saramago talks about two ways of looking at history. There is the usual way of starting with antiquity and working our way chronologically towards the present. But there is also starting with the present and working our way backward, trying to see each step, each decision that got us here.

Saramago writes of Tertuliano's girlfriend, Maria da Paz, "[But], being a woman, and therefore closer to things fundamental and essential..." [page 103] This was in 2004, which indicates that perhaps we have not progressed as far as we thought from 1963, when Bantam put the following blurb on the back of a book by Margaret St. Clair: "Women are closer to the primitive than men. They are conscious of the moon-pulls, the earth-tides. They possess a buried memory of humankind's obscure and ancient past which can emerge to uniquely color and flavor a novel.

To order The Double from amazon.com, click here.


THE ELEPHANT'S JOURNEY by José Saramago:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/14/2015]

I persist in thinking of THE ELEPHANT'S JOURNEY by José Saramago (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) (ISBN 978-0-547-35258-9) as "The Journey of the Elephant". Of course, in Portuguese--and all the other Romance languages--it is, which makes it all the stranger. Why do the descendent languages of Latin, which has a possessive case for nouns, all lack one (so far as I know), but English, related primarily to languages which lack a possessive case for nouns, has one?

In any case, THE ELEPHANT'S JOURNEY is based on a true story: in 1551 King João III of Portugal sent an elephant to Vienna as a wedding present for Archduke Maximilian. One presumes that Saramago kept the bare facts, but Saramago concentrates on what is behind those facts. In particular, he focuses on Subhro, the elephant's mahout. As an outsider (born in India), Subhro looks at everything from a different perspective. His main concern is Solomon, the elephant. Solomon, in turn, seems a bit fantastical at times, but maybe it is just a high level of intelligence and instinct.

A sample of the writing (the capitalization et al are Saramago's):

"People have mistaken ideas about elephants. They imagine that elephants enjoy being forced to balance on a heavy metal ball, on a tiny curved surface on which their feet barely fit. We're just fortunate that they're so good-natured, especially those that come from india. They realize that a lot of patience is required if they are to put up with us human beings, even when we pursue and kill them in order to saw off or extract their tusks for the ivory. Among themselves, elephants often remember the famous words said by one of their prophets, Forgive them, lord, for they know not what they do. For 'they' read 'us,' especially those who came here to see if suleiman would die and who have now begun the journey back to valladolid, feeling as frustrated as that spectator who used to follow a circus company around wherever it went, simply in order to be there on the say that the acrobat missed the safety net."

While THE ELEPHANT'S JOURNEY is not as fantastical as many of Saramago's other works, neither is it as quotidian as books like SKYLIGHT. I suppose it qualifies as magical realism, though that is a hard term to define. In any case, I recommend it.

To order The Elephant's Journey from amazon.com, click here.


THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS CHRIST by José Saragmago:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/28/2010]

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS CHRIST by José Saramago (translated by Giovanni Pontiero) (ISBN-13 978-0-156-00141-0) is easier to read than some of Saramago's other works, even though it has the same quirks: incredibly long sentences and paragraphs, no quotation marks, and no new paragraphs with each change of speaker. But maybe Saramago's point of view is what makes it interesting. For example, when Jesus was serving as an assistant to an old shepherd named Pastor, Pastor tells him to choose a sheep ("unless you really are a eunuch"). Jesus is horrified and tells Pastor this is an abomination. "Then Pastor raised his arms and called out to his flock in a commanding voice, Listen, my sheep, hear what this learned boy has come to teach us, God has forbidden anyone to copulate with you, so fear not, but as for shearing you, neglecting you, slaughtering you, and eating you, all these things are permitted, because for this you were created by God's law and are sustained by His providence."

And Saramago's style is very immediate, as if we were actually there when everything was happening: "Distracted by these reflections, which are not entirely irrelevant to the gospel we have been telling, we forgot, to our shame, to accompany Joseph's son on the last leg of his journey to Jerusalem, where he is just now arriving, penniless but safe."

This book is not for everyone. Saramago has his own perspective on what is important in Jesus's life and what isn't, on what various events meant, and indeed on exactly what happened (which does not always exactly match the gospels). But I found it intriguing.

To order The Gospel According to Jesus Christ from amazon.com, click here.


THE HISTORY OF THE SIEGE OF LISBON by José Saramago:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/07/2014]

THE HISTORY OF THE SIEGE OF LISBON by José Saramago (translated by Giovanni Pontiero) (ISBN 978-15-600624-8) is yet another example of unrecognized "fantastika" (to use John Clute's coinage for works of science fiction, fantasy, horror, or the surreal). Raimundo Silva is a proof-reader who one day impulsively inserts the word "not" into a sentence, changing it from saying that the Crusaders will help the Portuguese retake Lisbon from the Moors to saying that the Crusaders will not help the Portuguese retake Lisbon from the Muslims. The result is an examination of counterfactuals (alternate histories).

(Actually Silva is more a copy editor, since his function seems more to be finding and correcting such errors as anachronistic coats of arms and flags, inaccurate descriptions, and so on.)

The counterfactual element is actually somewhat limited. Silva's alteration is discovered, and his publisher suggests/orders him to write "The History of the Siege of Lisbon" assuming the Crusaders had abandoned it. [Slight spoiler] But Silva feels obliged to have the end result be the same--Lisbon is taken by the Christians from the Moors. [End spoiler]

The development of the alternate history is told in parallel with the story of Silva's own life and relationship with Dr. Maria Sara, his new supervisor, though when I say "in parallel" I do not necessarily mean that there are parallels between the two, just that the novel alternates back and forth. These plotlines are interspersed with musings on history, and on cause and effect.

For example, "Going further, somewhat rashly, these authors argue that all the visible and recognizable causes have already produced their effects, and that now we need only wait for them to manifest themselves, and they also insist that all effects, whether manifest or about to be made manifest, have their inevitable causality, although our manifold limitations may have prevented us from identifying it in terms of establishing the respective relationship, nor always linear or explicit, as we said at the outset." [page 104]

Saramago seems more conscious of cause and effect in history than many authors of alternate history. He has Silva think, "... there must have been some serious motive behind their refusal to assist the Portuguese with the siege and capture of Lisbon." He then goes through a list of possibilities: climate, dryness of the land, pestilence. None of these will serve, so Silva concludes that it must have been something in the king's speech, and then works out what that might (must?) have been. [pages 111-114]

He also has a few comments on modern society, such as, "Throughout the journey from the publishing house back to his apartment he had managed not to think... For a few moments he had allowed his thoughts to well on Sonhora Maria, but now his brain was vacant once more. To make sure it stayed that way, he went through to the sitting-room where he kept the television and switched on the set." (page 80)

(The translation was done into British English, so Pontiero uses the Anglicism "biro" rather than the more universal "pen", as well as the British style of not using periods after most titles such as "Mr" and "Dr".)

To order The History of the Siege of Lisbon from amazon.com, click here.


Journey to Portugal by José Saramago:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/21/2018]

JOURNEY TO PORTUGAL by José Saramago (ISBN 978-0-15600-713-9) is a travelogue through Portugal. It is extremely poetic, but if you are not familiar with Portugal, or are not interested in details of every church in the country, after a while it becomes repetitious and hard to follow. Clearly written primarily for a Portuguese audience, it is probably not going to appeal to most readers, even fans of Saramago, outside that country.

To order Journey to Portugal from amazon.com, click here.


THE LIVES OF THINGS by José Saramago:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/06/2015]

THE LIVES OF THINGS by José Saramago (translated by Giovanni Pontiero) (ISBN 978-1-84467-878-5) was first published in 1978, but not translated until 1994. Part of the reason may be the difficulties in getting a non-Portuguese audience to appreciate the stories, in particular "The Chair".

"The Chair" tells the story of a chair, its substance eaten away by beetles (referred to only by their order, Coleoptera). The occupant of the chair is killed by the collapse, when his head hits the floor and that causes a brain hemorrhage. As with the beetles, Saramago is very circuitous about describing the person, and only if you know that Antonio de Oliveira Salazar was the dictator of Portugal from 1932 to 1968, when he was reported to have suffered a brain hemorrhage when his chair collapsed, do you know who and what Saramago is writing about. In reality, Salazar was not killed by the fall. However, he was not expected to survive and so was replaced as head of state. When he did recover consciousness, his aides could not bring themselves to tell him he had been replaced, so they let him "rule" in private until his death two years later.

(I say "reported" because recent testimony indicates Salazar might have fallen in his bath instead of having a chair collapse--apparently falling in one's bath was considered too undignified for a way for the country's leader to have died.)

"Embargo" is a nifty little horror story centering around the OPEC oil embargo of 1973, which targeted the Netherlands, South Africa, and Portugal, as well as the United States. Here, at least, the long queues at petrol stations and signs indicating no petrol will be comprehensible to American readers, even if their presence in Portugal may come as a surprise. Something about this reminds me of the atmosphere of Thomas M. Disch's "Descending", with its feeling of the inevitability of events and the control of machinery over us.

"Reflux" is almost a companion piece to Saramago's later work, DEATH WITH INTERRUPTIONS. Both deal with death: "Reflux" is about the attempt to avoid any reminder of death, while DEATH WITH INTERRUPTIONS is what would happen if there actually were no death. In addition, in "Reflux" there is an economic boom as all industries are conscripted into the effort to "hide" death, while in DEATH WITH INTERRUPTIONS several sectors suffer an economic collapse because of what has happened.

"Things" is another story about the treacherousness of inanimate objects, though in a very different way. "Embargo" and "Things" are very early examples of the "fantastika" (to use John Clute's term) of Saramago. Neither "Embargo" nor "Things" would seem at all out of place in a magazine such as THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION. But as I have often said (possibly to the level of tediousness), Saramago is an author whose works are almost all science fiction, fantasy, or horror, and who has won a Nobel Prize to boot, yet is almost entirely unknown to genre science fiction readers.

"The Centaur" was a elegiac tale of the last centaur, but in my opinion it suffered because of the title. It begins with passages such as, "The horse was thirsty. He approached the stream which seemed quite still beneath the night sky, and as his front hooves met the cool water, he lay down sideways on the ground. Resting one shoulder on the rough sand, the man drank at his leisure despite feeling no thirst." It is not until six pages in that Saramago's prose finally reveals that the man and the horse are one ("two persons, one substance"?--shades of Tertullian/Tertuliano), but the title gives it away from the start. (And, yes, the title was the same in Portuguese.)

I cannot think of anything to say about the last story, "Revenge", because it seemed to have no purpose, but I felt I should mention it just for completeness' sake.

So six stories, four of which are horror or fantasy--and noticed by no one in the field. We complain that people in the mainstream do not recognize us, but we are not exactly perfect in this regard either.

To order The Lives of Things from amazon.com, click here.


MANUAL OF PAINTING AND CALLIGRAPHY by José Saramago:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/20/2015]

MANUAL OF PAINTING AND CALLIGRAPHY by José Saramago (translated by Giovanni Pontiero) (ISBN 978-0-547-64022-8) was Saramago's first novel, and did not do well initially; Pontiero speculated that the title made critics and readers think it was a handbook for art students. The good news for readers is that Saramago had not yet developed his punctuation quirks, so there are quotation marks setting off direct speech, and sentences end with periods.

Early on, the narrator (called only H.) says if he were more assertive, "I would not be this triple man who for the third time is going to try to say what he has unsuccessfully tried to say twice before." This refers to the fact that he is painting a portrait of a businessman, but with which he is dissatisfied. So he starts a second, secret portrait, but that also is not working out, so he starts a manuscript describing the process--this book. To me it seems as though these correspond to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but this may be based on a non-Catholic perspective: the second painting seems like a child of the first, but the manuscript seem to be of a very different quality/substance.

This idea of a "triple man" recurs in THE DOUBLE (in which the main character has a double who is an actor who has not only his real name and personality, but also a stage name and personality).

And again later, H. talks about examining the subject and then "fabricating a double without flesh or blood but with a threatening illusion of reality." So is the triple/Trinity the subject, the first portrait, and the second portrait, or the first portrait, the second portrait, and the manuscript? Or is it all like an infinite regression of a picture that contains a representation of itself?

Then suddenly we are reading a first-person narrative by Robinson Crusoe ... what the heck is going on here? After a long paragraph of this, we get "Since starting to write, I have copied texts on a number of occasions for one reason or another: .... Here I have done it to keep my hand in training, as if I were copying a picture," and we cannot help but flash back to Jorge Luis Borges's "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote". (Well, I cannot help it; maybe you can.) And the whole chapter touches on what John Searle writes about in "The Logical Status of Fictional Discourse"--when H. writes "My name is Robinson Crusoe," that is a lie, but when we read Defoe's novel, we do not think of it as a series of lies.

Portiero uses the words "artemages" as a parallel with "art" and "artifact." The problem is that there is no such word, so the meaning is not clear. Later, he uses the word "remiges" and says that both "remiges" and "artemages" are Gallicisms; however, "remiges" is a real word.

H. says, "Taken refuge in [a monastery] overcome with remorse ... is what the pilot did who dropped the bomb over Hiroshima (or was it Nagasaki?)," but neither Paul Tibbetts nor Charles W. Sweeney (the pilots for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings) entered a monastery nor even expressed regret for their actions.

H. expresses the idea that in Vitale de Bologna's painting of "The Life of Saint Antony Abbot", the "various planes with multiple perspectives, which place the viewer at every possible angle simultaneously" the effect "is probably the same as that created by representing a fourth dimension wherein one can imagine an additional dimension." Or maybe it is just that Vitale had a poor grasp how perspective.

Saramago toys with alternate history when he has H. muse, "If Jesus had died on the Mount of Olives from that hemorrhage [described in Luke 22] which turned out to be benign and not fatal, would there have been any Christianity? And without Christianity history would have been altogether different, the history of men and their deeds; so many people would not have been immured in cells, so many people would have met a different death, not in the holy wars nor at the stake with which the Inquisition tried to justify its own relapsed, heretical and schismatic nature. As for this attempt at autobiography ..., I am convinced it, too, would be different. For example, what would Giotto have painted in the Chapel of Scrovegni? Arcadian orgies of a mythology which persisted into the Middle Ages, if not to the present day? Or would he simply have been a house painter who was there not to paint the chapel but simply to whitewash the walls in the Scrovegni household?"

Of St. Peter's, Saramago writes, "On the right once stood Michelangelo's 'Pieta', which some suspicious madman vandalized." This refers to the attack on the sculpture by Laszlo Toth on May 21, 1972. It was repaired and returned to its place, but presumably after Saramago wrote MANUAL OF PAINTING AND CALLIGRAPHY in 1974.

Speaking of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, Saramago writes, "Salazer continued to govern, then fell from his throne, rotted and died." As i noted in my comments on "The Chair", this is not a mere figure of speech--Salazar really was reported to have died because he fell off a chair (or rather he had it collapse under him), but only after lingering for two years.

Saramago makes reference to several leaders in Portuguese history, and who influenced them. Salazar I have already discussed; when Saramago says, "Marcelo Caetano ... looks at the world around him and can find no one to follow," he is talking about the leader who followed Salazar after the latter's accident, from 1968 to April 1974, when he was overthrown by the "Carnation Revolution." Given the 1974 copyright of the book, one suspects that Saramago wrote it before Caetano's ouster, and so this is another example of a book being overtaken by current events (though Saramago does add of Caetano, "The hour of his putrefaction is nigh").

[This is why Ken Liu's solution in THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM by Cixin Liu (no relation) is excellent: he footnotes historical references that the Chinese readers would know but that English-speakers would be unfamiliar with. Ken Liu discusses this and other translation issues on an episode of the Coode Street Podcast.]

An example of another of the problems of translation is found towards the end of the book. In English, it reads, ""'My love.' To repeat those two words on ten pages, to go on writing them uninterruptedly without any clarification, slowly to begin with, letter by letter, carefully tracing out the humps of the handwritten m, the loops of the y and the l, the startled cry over that o, the deep riverbed excavated by the v and the slack knot of the e." Except, of course, in the original Portuguese, the words were almost definitely "meu amor", and while some of the letters are the same, many are not. Yet this is an important passage, because it emphasizes that H., as an artist, is not concerned only with the meanings of words, but with their form and the shapes of their letters (hence calligraphy rather than merely writing).

This novel does not have a standard structure: it starts with the narrator musing on his painting of portraits, then intersperses chapters discussing paintings and other artwork the narrator has seen on a trip to Italy, and finally jumps (rather abruptly) into a political novel. So far, it is the most atypical Saramago novel I have read.

To order Manual of Painting and Calligraphy from amazon.com, click here.


THE NOTEBOOK by José Saramago:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/18/2015]

THE NOTEBOOK by José Saramago (translated by Amanda Hopkinson and Daniel Hahn) (ISBN 978-1-84467-614-9) is a collection of the entries on Saramago's blog from 2008 and 2009. One of the things he wrote about was the idea that Spain and Portugal would unite into an Iberian Federation. Given that I read this a couple of days after Catalonia voted to begin formulating to secede from Spain, this does not seem entirely likely. (On the other hand, I suppose that one could have an Iberia with three partners rather than two, or even four if Andorra joins in.)

Confusingly, in 1976 Saramago wrote a book called THE NOTES. It is less confusing in Portuguese, where the 1976 book is O APONTAMENTOS and the 2009 book is O CADERNO. In my opinion, titling the 2009 book "The Journal" in English would have been less confusing.

To order The Notebook from amazon.com, click here.


JOSÉ SARAMAGO EN SUS PALABRAS by José Saramago:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/18/2015]

José SARAMAGO EN SUS PALABRAS by José Saramago (edited by Fernando Gomez Aguilera; translated by Roser Vilagrassa (from the Portuguese sources), José Luis Lopez Munoz (from the English and French sources), and Carlos Gumpert (from the Italian sources)) (ISBN 978-607-11-0677-3) is not listed in most of Saramago's bibliographies. I suppose that traditionally collections of quotes from someone are not considered their books, but it would seem as though they should be. This volume is in Spanish, which means that many of the quotations are doubly translated, first from Saramago's original Portuguese into (e.g.) French, and then from French into Spanish.

I did not read the entire volume, but I found the chapter which included Saramago's comments on his own works to be very useful in understanding some of what Saramago was trying to do.

To order José Saramago en sus palabras from amazon.com, click here.


RAISED FROM THE GROUND by José Saramago:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/10/2015]

RAISED FROM THE GROUND by José Saramago (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) (ISBN 978-0-15-101325-8) was written in 1980 but not translated into English until 2012. In general, this is not a good sign, and the fact that even after Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, it still took fourteen years for it to be published in English.

RAISED FROM THE GROUND was reviewed in "The Guardian" by Ursula K. LeGuin, who wrote of Saramago, "Saramago left journalism and began writing novels late in his life, as if a fine old apple tree should suddenly grow heavy with fruit." LeGuin compares RAISED FROM THE GROUND to two other "novels of the oppressed": UNCLE TOM'S CABIN and THE GRAPES OF WRATH.

And that, oddly, may be the reason for the delay. Most of Saramago's later novels have some fantastical element, but RAISED FROM THE GROUND is a realist novel. One wonders if publishers had decided that people expected something "unusual" from Saramago, and so this was put on the back burner.

To order Raised from the Ground from amazon.com, click here.


SEEING by José Saramago:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/25/2015]

SEEING by José Saramago (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) (ISBN 978-0-15-603273-5) is a sequel to BLINDNESS, although it takes over a hundred pages to get more than just a passing reference to the first novel. When it does show up, it is in a chapter that pretty much gives up on subtlety for everything, and so we get conversations such as: "Appoint a commission of inquiry, minister. To reach what conclusions, prime minister. Just set it to work, we'll sort that out later."

[Reminder: Saramago eschews normal punctuation and capitalization, and delivers each character's lines as a single sentence with what would be normal sentences separated by commas.]

Other examples:

"...everything is possible in this world, no doubt our finest torture specialists kiss their children when they get home, and some may even cry at the cinema."

"...demonstrations never achieve anything, if they did, we wouldn't allow them."

"... the proof that there is a conspiracy lies precisely in the fact that no one talks about it, silence, in this case, does not contradict, it confirms."

"I've learned from my experience in this job that things half-spoken exist in order to say what can't be fully expressed."

"As I've learned in this job, not only are the people in government never put off by what we judge to be absurd, they make use of absurdities to dull consciences and to destroy reason."

The book begins with an election in an unnamed country (again, as with BLINDNESS, it feels South American to me, but is probably supposed to be Portugal). In most of the country everything goes normally, but in the capital city, two things happen. First, bad weather seems to keep people home most of day, but then they all come out at the end of the day, causing long queues at the voting stations. And second, 70% of the ballots cast in the capital were blank. The government calls for a re-vote in the capital, and that has 83% of the ballots blank.

In addition to the odd punctuation and capitalization that characterizes all of Saramago's later work, SEEING continues the conceit Saramago used in BLINDNESS: he does not name any of his characters. In BLINDNESS, this is fairly natural--the characters had little occasion to introduce themselves or talk about each other. But in SEEING, we have the problem of policemen talking to their superiors about "the ophthalmologist", "the ophthalmologist's wife", "the man with the eye patch", and so on. News reports all say things like "a superintendent, an inspector and a sergeant, whose names, for security reasons, we are not authorized to reveal," and even feebler excuses.

Saramago also references his other works, other authors' works, and the real world. For example, "... in order for death to cease to exist, we would simply have to stop saying the word we use to describe it," reminds one of his DEATH WITH INTERRUPTIONS. The lines, "You resigned. No, I walked out," and indeed the entire premise echoes in some sense Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener". Saramago also mentions fictional detectives (Sherlock Holmes, Jules Maigret, Hercule Poirot, Philip Marlowe) a few times.

"Here, we each have our own grief and we all feel the same sorrow" is a line that can apply to every disaster: natural disasters, terrorist attacks, epidemics, ... But if there is re-assurance, there is also unease, as when Saramago writes, "Purged of its troublesome members, the cabinet was, at last, a cohesive whole, one leader, one will, one plan, one path." This is just another way of saying, "Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer."

But what is most notable is that Saramago seems to be contradicting a major premise of BLINDNESS: In BLINDNESS, people left on their own with no government or police descend into savagery; in SEEING, they continue to function in a perfectly civilized manner.

This is a somewhat borderline fantasy, more a political allegory than a fantasy. Yet a division of Saramago's works into the fantastical and the non-fantastical would have to find this on the fantastical side of the line.

To order Seeing from amazon.com, click here.


SKYLIGHT by José Saramago:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/22/2015]

SKYLIGHT by José Saramago (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) (ISBN 978-0-544-09002-6) was Saramago's first novel, written in 1953, but when he sent it to a publisher, the publisher misplaced the manuscript and never responded to Saramago. Saramago was so discouraged by this apparent disregard that he did not write anything for another twenty years. Even when it was re-discovered, after Saramago had become successful. Saramago insisted that it not be published until after his death.

One reason for the (implicit) rejection might have been the big cast of characters (particularly in a 300-page book). There is the cobbler Silvestre, his wife Mariana, and their lodger Abel; the four women upstairs who have come down in the world (Aunt Amelia, Candida, and Candida's daughters Isaura and Adriana), Justina and her husband Caetano; Rosalia, Anselmo, and their daughter Maria Claudia; Carmen, Emilio, and their son Henriquinho; and Lidia (an ex-prostitute and now the mistress of a rich businessman).

It also does not have a strong premise the way his later novels do. There is no plague of blindness, Iberia does not break loose and drift westward, the main character does not have a mysterious double, Death does not take a holiday, and no one is visited by the ghost of his dead author. (Given the premises of Saramago's other novels, I find it ironic that the dust jacket copy describes him as "the master of the quotidian.")

In the end, this is a realist novel somewhat overloaded with characters and not (in my opinion) representative of his later work. Probably of interest to Saramago completists only.

To order Skylight from amazon.com, click here.


THE STONE RAFT by José Saramago:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/15/2015]

THE STONE RAFT by José Saramago (translated by Giovanni Pontiero) (ISBN 978-0-15-600401-1) is definitely fantastic: the premise is that the Iberian peninsula breaks off and sails west across the Atlantic Ocean. The novel focuses on five characters: Joana Carda, Joaquim Sassa, Pedro Orce, José Anaico, Maria Guavaira. They each have a connection to the fissure. Carda may have caused it by drawing a line in the dirt with an elm stick, or Sassa may have caused it by throwing a heavy rock a long distance into the sea. Orce felt (and still feels) the tremor that no one else can detect; Anaico seems to be followed around by a flock of starlings (Alfred Hitchcock is invoked a few times). And Guavira is unraveling a blue sock that never gets any smaller.

Saramago has a lot more humor in this book than in (say) BLINDNESS. One sample: "In ... the villages and the hamlets dotted along the coastline, there was not a living soul to be seen. The dead souls, having died, stayed behind, with that persistent indifference that distinguishes them from the rest of humanity..."

Or another, this a mathematical/grammatical conundrum: "... there are lots of Deux Chavaux on the road, the expression is awkward but there is no mathematical contradiction."

A knowledge of Iberian geopolitics is essential to understand completely this book. For example, when Saramago writes that Deux Chevaux is the only Portuguese car driving to see Gibraltar sail past[*], he notes that this "does not bother Deux Chevaux one way or the other, his ancient grief is called Olivença..." So first, you need to understand that Gibraltar has been disputed between Spain and Great Britain for a couple of hundred years, so when the Iberian peninsula detaches itself and Gibraltar stays put rather than sailing with Spain, this has political meaning, a sort of message from God or the Universe that Great Britain's claim is the correct one.

[*] Saramago's characters know that it is really they who are sailing past Gibraltar, but they observe that to them, it will look as though it is Gibraltar sailing past them.

Then you need to know that Olivença is a town disputed between Portugal and Spain, and at the time of the book's composition was administered by Spain. (In 2008 it became part of a "Euroregion", which seems to be sort of shared-dominion area.)

And finally, you have to know that Saramago, as a Portuguese, may want to show that just as Spain's claim to Gibraltar is faulty (as shown in the book), so is their claim to Olivença (which is not anywhere near the fissures that form, so God or the Universe has not ruled yet).

Similarly, Saramago writes, "... but matters were complicated in the case of Andorra, which we were inexcusably forgetting, that's what tends to happen to little countries, which could just as easily have turned out to be bigger." (Andorra ends up attached to the peninsula, meaning the newly created island consists of Spain, Portugal, and Andorra.)

(Oddly, the Balearic Islands--Majorca, Menorca, Ibiza, etc.--do not seem to travel with Spain either.)

In one section, all over Europe people are spray-painting graffiti that say, "We are Iberian, too," wearing buttons that say, "We are Iberian, too," waving flags that say, "We are Iberian, too," and so on. Does this sound familiar?

In addition to everything else, this book (written in 1986) references Saramago's THE YEAR OF THE DEATH OF RICARDO REIS (written in 1984) in the continuation of the sentence about dead souls, giving an example of the foolishness of someone saying that Fernando Pessoa visited Ricardo Reis--which is precisely what happens in THE YEAR OF THE DEATH OF RICARDO REIS. (Pessoa is a dead author; Reis is a character who has one of Pessoa's pen names, so his live/dead/imaginary status is unclear.)

There is also a film made of this book, reasonably faithful, but with a few differences:

To order The Stone Raft from amazon.com, click here.


THE TALE OF THE UNKNOWN ISLAND by José Saramago:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/06/2015]

THE TALE OF THE UNKNOWN ISLAND by José Saramago (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) (ISBN 978-0-15-100595-6) is not a novel, or even a novella or novelette. At slightly over 7000 words, it is a short story, padded out with some minimalist drawings by Peter Sis, and made thick enough by having the book's dimensions smaller than usual. I have nothing against publishing short works stand-alone--I just want to make sure you know what it is.

This was a 1978 work that was not translated into English until 1999, the year after Saramago won the Nobel Prize for literature, and one suspects it was published to capitalize on that, since Saramago's next novel was not published in Portuguese until 2000, and in translation until 2002. Certainly it is a very lightweight piece.

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THE YEAR OF THE DEATH OF RICARDO REIS by José Saramago:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/02/2013]

THE YEAR OF THE DEATH OF RICARDO REIS by José Saramago (translated by Giovanni Pontiero, ISBN 978-0-156-99693-8) is set in Portugal in 1936 when Portugal, and indeed all of Europe, is in turmoil. Ricardo Reis has returned from Brazil to Portugal where he meets a woman of the same name as that in his poems, and is also visited by the ghost of the author Fernando Pessoa. Since Ricardo Reis is a pen name for Fernando Pessoa, there is clearly more going on here that might be obvious. And it is certainly true that I would have gotten even more out of the novel had I been more familiar with Portuguese politics of the time. Still, very well-written and poetic in its own right.

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