I am biased when it comes to anything related to Portugal. Food? Oh yes, please. Weather? Beats UK every time. Wine? Do I even need to answer that? I even find the language, which a lot of people consider to be harsh and hissing, beautiful. When several years ago I discovered Fernando Pessoa, a Portuguese poet who lived in first third of the 20th century, it was love at first sentence. He wrote wonderfully depressing things like: “I made the journey, bought the useless, found the indefinite,/ And my heart is the same as it was: a sky and a desert.” Isn’t he an excellent word-smith?
Pessoa also had a very interesting writing quirk: I call it literary schizophrenia.
Pessoa’s writing method was to create new distinct personalities (also known as heteronyms), complete with full biographies, world views, and writing styles that were sometimes completely opposite to Pessoa’s own, and write from their perspectives. Some of the more prominent ones were Alberto Caeiro – an uneducated shepherd, Álvaro de Campos – a naval engineer, who studied in Glasgow, then travelled to the Orient, Bernardo Soares – a bookkeeper in Lisbon, and Ricardo Reis – a doctor, a monarchist, who left Portugal to live in Brazil. Pessoa had over seventy of similar heteronyms, some more developed than others.
And this is where José Saramago comes in, a contemporary Portuguese writer. First of all, he is amazing in his own right. I have read his Blindness (there’s a film too) and The Elephant’s Journey a while ago. While the latter was full of warmth and wit, the former – one of the most bleak portrayals of society breaking down in the face of a disaster that I’ve ever read. Ursula Le Guin once said: “I will let a writer torture me only if I accept his reasons for doing so.” I accept Saramago’s reasons, it is absolutely worth it. However gloomy he might get he remains optimistic yet without sentimentality.
Ah, the fickleness of mankind, so niggardly with the little time they have to live, always complaining that their lives are short, leaving behind only the hushed hiss of effervescence, yet they are impatient for these minutes to pass, such is the strength of hope.
– José Saramago, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis
Saramago’s way of writing can seem a little daunting at first. He likes to use a comma where one would normally use a full stop. The text flows in an intimidating torrent appearing as a block of text on a page. Sometimes, reading a dialogue, it’s hard to tell if a line belongs to one character or another. After finishing The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis I’m starting to believe that it doesn’t really matter.
In The Year of the Death Ricardo Reis comes back to Lisbon after spending sixteen years in Brazil, because Fernando Pessoa has died. When Reis visits the grave of the poet, Pessoa joins him in a ghostly form. He explains that in the same manner as a child spends nine months in the womb before birth, he is granted nine months to walk amongst the living. I really liked this idea of balance; preparing to be born, preparing to be dead.
The personal life of Ricardo Reis unfolds in a background of political developments across Europe coming in through newspaper articles and radio, which are saturated with propaganda. It is 1936, and a lot of interesting things are happening in Europe (Salazar, Franco, Mussolini, Hitler). The parts describing what some of the people, misguided or naïve, thought about the events at the time were fascinating because I knew the consequences that came later. The lies we, people, tell ourselves!
…only the other day one of our leaders said, No mother who has ever begotten a son could guide him to a loftier and nobler destiny than that of giving his life in defense of the fatherland. The bastard. We can just see him visiting maternity wards, probing the bellies of pregnant women, asking when they expect to give birth, telling them that soldiers are needed in trenches, which trenches, never mind, there will be trenches.
– The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis
I feel Saramago has captured the spirit of Pessoa flawlessly: the detachedness of Ricardo Reis, the musings about life and identity. Most importantly he produced the same ‘heavy’ feeling I get when reading Pessoa. You know, the feeling of learning something profound. A feeling that resonates with the hole in your chest.
In short, it’s a wonderful book! Though I wouldn’t recommend reading it, if you haven’t read anything by Saramago before. I’d say start with The Elephant’s Journey instead. I picked it up, because I found the cover beautiful, and was drawn in by the language and the story. I think, you’ll appreciate the ‘heavy’ bits more, if you know how ‘warm’ Saramago can be.