The History of the Siege of Lisbon, by Jose Saramago

After 60 or so pages, author Saramago introduces into this 1989 novel an interesting, provocative premise. But he uses the first sixty pages to set up that premise, which depends on his main character, the proofreader Raimundo Silva, inserting a “not” at a crucial point in a history book he is proofing. He does this arbitrarily, acting, as he says, as a Mr. Hyde rather than a Dr. Jekyll. But because his action is so arbitrary, Saramago must spend those initial sixty pages setting up his hero’s action. And, in the process, this delays when the action of the novel truly starts, for he must first both convince us of the man’s unsettled character and establish his particular role in the world of publishing.

What the inserted word “not” does is confound Portuguese history. For it makes the book of history our hero is proofreading say that the Crusaders, on the way to the Holy Land, did not stop to help free Lisbon from its occupation by the Moors. When, of course, they did stop to do exactly that.

As a result of his inserting the one word, falsifying history, a woman, Maria Sara, is hired by his publishing house to manage both him and other proofreaders to be hired for subsequent works. Raimundo meets with her and learns he will not be punished, because of his long and faithful service to the publisher. But she reveals she is intrigued by his bravura insertion, and she provocatively proposes that he himself write a book, one in which the Crusaders do fail to help in the recapture of Lisbon from the Moors.

Raimundo at once rejects the idea, but when he goes home it begins to intrigue him. Just as Maria Sara does. And he starts speculating how and why the Crusaders would reject the king’s appeal. Which leads to typical Saramago speculation about the various possibilities. And then leads to Raimundo one day visiting the castle that was the headquarters of the Moors—whereupon, the answer comes to him.

Except, author Saramago is not one to immediately reveal his hero’s insight. Instead, the proofreader delves still deeper into the process by which the Crusaders might decide to deny their services in his new version of history. He decides this means the Crusaders would enter into negotiations. They would ask how they will be rewarded if they help defeat the Moors, and the answer Raimundo’s king comes up with is that just as God has helped the Christians in other battles in Portugal, he will help the Crusaders enjoy such a victory if they agree to join in retaking Lisbon from the Moors.

The Crusaders’ answer is a kind of blasphemy, for they say that since God has brought you victory in the past, you surely do not need our help. The king is mollified, however, when a few token Crusaders do agree to help. Whereupon, Saramago switches from Raimundo’s imaginative speculation to the reality of Raimundo’s life. The proofreader decides to bring a book of poems he has proofed to his publisher. And just as the man weighs the possible outcome of every encounter, whether in his own life or in his fiction, his indecision is amplified when he is faced with the attractive Maria Sara as he delivers the book of poems. Since this is the first time, half way through the book, that he has finally made a connection with another person, one anticipates Saramago, at last, picking up the pace.

But, instead, Saramago develops his story on three levels. He concentrates on the viewpoint of the Moors under siege, especially a blind muezzin to whom is described the movement of troops below. Then he switches to Raimundo at his writing desk but also thinking of Maria Sara. And finally, he gets inside the writer Raimundo, who is evaluating the impact on the king of most Crusaders abandoning the siege and heading off to sea, while a few troops remain behind to join the besiegers. The overall impact is that of watching Raimundo figure out how to write a book that contradicts history. Which approach Saramago continues in the following chapters, moving back and forth, in and out, ending with Raimundo hesitantly approaching Maria again.

And for the first time, about three quarters into thus work, there is a human connection. But what is not clear to me at this point is Saramago’s intent in writing this book. The title suggests the goal is a portrait of history. And that as a novelist he knows he must approach this purpose through a human being, his proofreader. But we don’t sense the humanness of this proofreader until now. When it briefly takes over the book.

But then, in his finale, the author returns to the siege of Lisbon, and spells out in detail how the siege could have ended, even though, in history, it did not end that way. In his version, Saramago also tells the story of a knight and his concubine Ouroana. And how a common soldier Mogueime declares his love for her and how she replies. This suggests a parallel to the love of Raimundo and Maria Sara, with the common soldier standing in for the common proofreader. Just as Saramago’s history of the siege stands in for the real siege without repeating it.

In an Afterward, translator Giovanni Portiero explains why Saramago has written this novel in this way. That he prefers “stories inserted into history.” That “the central concern of Saramago’s novel focus[es] on our ability to distinguish truth from falsehood, to differentiate between reliable and suspect historical reporting, and the difficulty of drawing the frontier between the two.” As Saramago himself says, “The truth is that history could have been written in many different ways and this idea of infinitude and variation are the essence of my writing.”

And so we have a work of fiction in which the fiction merely embellishes a literary philosophy, rather than explores human relationships. This is not for me true fiction, but I must also acknowledge that this work has made me aware of a moment of Lisbon history that I knew nothing about. Which, in a way, is perhaps Saramago’s intent. To make history come alive, by inserting his own fiction, by showing, in the translator’s words, that “history and fiction are constantly overlapping.” (December, 2018)

Cain, by Jose Saramago

This atheist author, in the last year of his life, decided to abandon the detailed modern world of reality that characterizes most of his work and turn to a portrait of the god he despised. This lower-case god is a cruel, merciless, authoritarian being—i.e., one with very human characteristics. And Saramago, in 2009, creates this portrait of God through the story of Cain. But, except that Cain does kill his brother Abel, this is not the Cain who briefly appears in the Old Testament, but rather a time-traveling Cain who happens to witness many Biblical stories through many books of the Old Testament.

Once Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden, the author makes an initial break from tradition. Adam and Eve are no longer seen as our first parents, for when they leave the Garden they are told by an angel that other humans exist. And so, they encounter a caravan of wanderers who take them in. Whereupon, Cain is born, followed by Abel. Which is soon followed by Cain’s jealousy of Abel, when the Lord accepts the younger brother’s offering but not that of Cain. Whereupon, Cain kills his brother, is given the traditional mark on his forehead, and is ordered to wander the earth for the rest of his life.

And, indeed, he does so—literally. For Saramago sends Cain wandering through the Bible for the rest of this novel. And during these travels, like in a time-travel fantasy, he emphasizes the horrors of Biblical history. That is, as Saramago deepens his portrait of the God of the Old Testament, he furthers his philosophical exploration of God in human terms.

First, however, he bypasses the Bible to tackle the legend of Lilith, which says that Eve was not Adam’s first wife. That it was Lilith, that she refused to be subservient to Adam, and that she left him to settle in her own palace. Whereupon, in his first wandering outside the Garden, Cain encounters Lilith, and becomes both her guard-servant and her lover. Indeed, Saramago here begins an account of Cain’s sexual life that will last until the end of this novel.

But even as the narrative of Cain’s adventures expands, Saramago uses techniques we are familiar with. That is, the human conversations, the negotiations, the down-to-earth details that characterize his novels set in the modern era—all are present here. Indeed, this is what gives these events of fantasy their reality. He is also, of course, emphasizing the humanity of the Biblical characters, particularly the human nature of the god Cain encounters—and whom Cain continually debates as an equal.

It is at this point that fantasy has truly entered. And along with it a critique of god that Saramago now introduces in earnest. For whether it is Abraham’s immanent sacrifice of his son Isaac, the creation and destruction of the Tower of Babel, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and all its inhabitants, or Moses’ revenge on those who adore the golden calf—every opportunity is taken to show the cruelty, the insensitivity, the arbitrariness of this god. Saramago, through Cain, particularly focuses on the innocent children who are slaughtered along with their sinful parents. Cain’s mistake, an angel says is “to assume that guilt is understood in the same way by god and by men.” That is, Saramago, through Cain, is continually comparing this god in human terms, unlike traditional scripture.

At about two-thirds of the way into this fiction, I considered abandoning it. But curiosity led me to continue. Where was the author headed? What was his point? And so I followed Cain to Jericho, where Joshua is laying siege to the city, and where more innocent people die.

But at least there is an explanation of Cain’s frequent time travel. It seems that each experience involves not an advance into a different future, but rather that Cain exists in a new and different present. And while he himself cannot explain why this is happening, there is an implication of a higher power. One wonders if it could even be the Satan who appears occasionally on these pages.

The climax arrives when Cain encounters Noah as he is building his ark. Again, Cain fits naturally into this human environment. Indeed, the ark’s women also find him sexually attractive. And Noah himself encourages his women to couple with all available men. For, since they are the last human survivors, is it not up to them to generate the new human race?

And at last we reach the point of this novel, which is that creating the human race has been God’s mistake. And so begins Cain’s final revenge on this God, a revenge which began when Cain killed his brother because God recognized Abel’s offering and not his own. It is a grand concept, I acknowledge, but Cain is acting for petty reasons, for human reasons. Saramago has blended his own denial of God with Cain’s jealousy of God.

And so Saramago ends his novel with a contradiction, just as he began it. He began with Adam and Eve encountering other humans outside the Garden of Eden, meaning they could not be the first parents. And he ends his novel with Cain refuting the human race, even though human history has continued and proven otherwise. The result is only cynical wishful thinking.

The overall impression I get of this work is that of an author having fun with tales that many believe reflect the weakness of mankind and the fairness and mercy of God. But since this author does not accept God, he attacks Him by ascribing to Him those very human weaknesses. Which is legitimate, perhaps, in literary terms, but certainly not in spiritual terms. Thus, every inconsistency Saramago, through Cain, encounters in scripture, he attributes to the stupidity or forgetfulness of God. This is how he makes God very human. Except, of course, God is not human. Which means that the believer, like Lot’s wife, looks back on these tales with a grain of salt.

And this is, note, a series of tales. It is not a novel in the traditional sense—if Saramago could ever write a novel in the traditional sense. My point is that he moves Cain through a series of disconnected tales, connected solely to enable the author to make a series of human points about God’s failings. Whereas, I much prefer those works of Saramago that challenge the everyday conditions of life and the failings of men. (October, 2017)

The Double, by Jose Saramago

Saramago remains an intriguing and distinctive author. He is distinctive because of his style, even in translation, a style in which his paragraphs are pages long, with much in each paragraph being an exchange of dialogue between two characters. And yet one is seldom confused about who is talking, primarily because even when the dialogue is separated only by commas, the responding dialogue always begins with a capital letter. And even more, because the succeeding dialogue is a true response—as the perspective, the angle of view, changes.

It is a unique style, and one wonders what prompted it originally. Surely it was not that a new paragraph as each person speaks would require more space and therefore more paper to be bought by the publisher. In any event, his style is unlike that of any other author I know. And yet it is a pleasure to read. It is also a challenge, but one reward is the pleasure in knowing one is following the dialogue. Another pleasure is in certain exchanges, such as with the main character’s own conscience. And still another, I must admit, stems from occasional humorous remarks by the author, as well as his directly addressing the reader, suggesting what fools these mortals of his might be.

But what about the story being told in this style in this 2002 work? One senses that for each of his novels, Saramago tries to identify a human situation, and then stretch it to a logical but extreme depth that reveals something of human nature or human society. He looks at a normal situation, and then asks, “what if…?” In this novel, however, I feel that he has stretched his template too far.

The hero, Tertuliano Maximo Alfonso, a bored high school history teacher, rents, for diversion, a recommended movie. Tertuliano then wakes in the middle of the night, discovers his movie being replayed on his VCR, and becomes aware of a scene he had missed, in which a minor actor in a hotel desk scene is his exact duplicate, his double. It is a moment of surrealism to introduce a surrealistic possibility. But what follows is on a naturalistic level, such as Tertuliano’s convoluted search for the actor who plays the hotel clerk, whose real name turns out to be Antonio Claro; his fear to tell anyone, even his mother and his girl friend Maria da Paz, that such a twin exists; and then, after long indecision, his interaction with, first, the actor’s wife and then with the actor himself. And from there, the author stretches subsequent events step by step, almost to the breaking point.

Indeed, the climax became for me the breaking point. Even early on, I sensed the author was playing with his audience, as he doubled up the complexity of Tertuliano’s situation. But the real breaking point was not the teacher debating with himself: how will he handle the situation? Nor his decision not to tell his girl friend or his mother of this duplicate. And not when the two men communicate, first by phone, then by mail. It was the attempted double twist of the ending. Because it revealed the author was not exploring in this novel the ramifications of more significant shifts in what humans take for granted, such as that we shall die or that we shall not lose our sight. It was because he was exploring a personal situation, a subject less profound and less significant than the premises of his earlier novels.

I might also note that while the two characters are exact physical duplicates, they are completely different inside. The actor is more confident, more outgoing, while the teacher is withdrawn and depressed. And this difference is not deftly explored. It would seem to offer a source of irony that is not taken advantage of. Perhaps John Banville in the New York Times is close to the truth, when he says the two doubles are not created in depth, which results in the reader being more interested in the situation than in the characters themselves and what happens to them.

I should acknowledge that the Boston Globe review calls this work “a wonderfully twisted meditation on identity and individuality.” And that description, within limits, is justified. On the other hand, I also felt Saramago did not probe deeply enough into Tertuliano’s psychological reaction to his situation. Our hero seemed more concerned about his relationship to his girlfriend and mother than in how he should confront himself and the world.

I should also note that Richard Eder in the Times says that this is one of Saramago’s two or three best novels. Not because of the situation, however, but because of the way the author handles it. Meaning the give and take, the back and forth among the characters. For me, however, the give and take involves merely the structure, not the heart of the situation, the heart of the novel. Which is: how is Tertuliano affected inside? Perhaps his final decision, the sudden trickery by this man slow on the uptake, indicates a change, but for me it is a change that reflects more the author’s handling of the situation than anything coming from within the teacher himself.

I was speculating, in fact, that, given the modesty of the situation, the author would come up with a surprise ending to lend his novel a greater impact. Perhaps, I thought, the two characters would swap lives, which might also include a bit of irony. Well, you might say I ended up half right, but the outcome is developed more naturalistically. And is also achieved by introducing sudden death, which was a surprise but not a convincing one. But perhaps Saramago was not convinced either, for he adds on an extra twist, and I believe an unnecessary one. Irony was certainly intended there, but it also was unconvincing, indeed, coming out of left field. Unless, but I don’t think so, it was intended to mirror the lives of actors, such as Antonio Claro, who take on many roles.

I shall certainly be interested in reading more of Saramago’s work. Whether or not he is a Communist or an atheist, he knows how to explore, with originality, the idiosyncrasies produced by nature or by the logical distortions of human nature. He is one of his kind. And, come to think of it, perhaps the complexity of his style helps the reader to become more deeply immersed in the bizarre complexity of his situations. (December, 2016)

All the Names, by Jose Saramago

With each novel, Saramago creates his own world, his own physical world, metaphysical world, and literary world. He creates a premise, an uncommon premise, and then stretches its ramifications as far as his imagination will take him. And he evokes these ramifications in page-long paragraphs of dialogue among his characters, but within which the reader is never confused by whom is talking. While this review features certain plot revelations, what matters here is not the story itself but how Saramago tells his story.

This 1997 novel is the tale of a clerk, Senhor Jose, who works in his city’s Central Registry. The Registry is highly organized under the dictatorial Registrar, and contains the official records of everyone in town, their birth, marriage, and death certificates, etc., all on paper and all meticulously filed, the still living in one area, the dead in another.

Our hero, Senhor Jose, has the hobby of collecting information about famous people, such as in newspaper or magazine articles, along with copying their official records. And one day, while collecting the records of five unnamed famous figures, he finds attached to them, mysteriously, the record of an unidentified woman. Who is she? He becomes obsessed with finding out. And with this premise, Saramago takes off into his unique world.

Senhor Jose is a bachelor, middle-aged, subservient, cautious, and shy. He seems to be the last person to pursue the identity of this woman. And yet he does, drawing us into a world of regulation, of conformity, of tragic irony, of both the trivial and the search for elusive truth. On awarding Saramago the Nobel Prize, the Swedish Academy cited, “parables sustained by imagination, compassion, and irony,” which The Times of London called, “a description which perfectly captures [this] novel.”

The pursuit by Senhor Jose takes him to an elderly neighbor of the unidentified woman, to the school she attended, into the bowels of the Registry at night, and to a cemetery. And the richness of this novel comes through the extended description of these scenes. Senhor Jose has fabricated an official letter to legitimize his search, and when the elderly neighbor sees through this subterfuge, he confesses the truth and she becomes his only friend. Then, in a marvelously moody, tense, and hilarious scene he breaks into the woman’s school at night, even sleeping on the headmaster’s couch, in a futile attempt to learn more about this woman.

Living in a house adjoining the Registry, Senhor Jose continually sneaks into it at night in search of the woman’s papers, and, on discovering she is dead, explores the dark and dusty halls the dead people’s papers have been exiled to. He also must report to work each day, or create excuses for not doing so. And at one point, the dreaded Registrar seems to take an interest in him that neither his colleagues nor this reader understands. It certainly gives him more freedom for his search, but does this reflect the author’s need to explain this freedom, or did I miss an ulterior motive?

Senhor Jose’s visit to the cemetery is the philosophical climax of the novel. He goes there to learn more of the woman, finds her grave identified only by a number, and sleeps there overnight. He awakens in the morning surrounded by sheep, and the shepherd explains that his practice is to shift the numbers on the graves, explaining “that it’s possible not to see a lie even when it’s right in front of us.” The lie of the numbers Senhor Jose takes to heart, as he witnesses a burial and then changes its number. Whereupon, in typical Saramago fashion, he speculates that the shepherd may return and himself also change the number, returning ironically the original one.

At the novel’s actual end, the Registrar confronts Senhor Jose and explains that he knows what our hero has been doing. But, he explains, it is keeping with his own idea, a new idea, that the dead should not be separated from the living, as if they no longer exist. “Just as definitive death is the ultimate fruit of the will to forget, so the will to remember will perpetuate our lives.” And at the end, he sends off Senhor Jose to find the woman’s death certificate and place it in her living file. She will live on in everyone’s memory, just as she has in Senhor Jose’s life.

This is apparently Saramago’s celebration of life. That we live on in this world in the minds, the records, of others. It is consistent with his belief in a natural but not a supernatural world. While a believer in the supernatural, I have no problem with any of his works, since the literary world itself is limited, with rare exceptions, to the natural world.

To sum up, this is typical Saramago, inventive, elusive, ironic, parabolic, and intense. It exists more on the surface of the page than within its characters, and that surface has been stretched to its limits. And so, ironically, while the title of this novel refers to a sign at the cemetery gate, none of the characters in this work actually has a name—except Senhor Jose. The people are more symbolic than real, more reflective of the anonymity of their eventual death. And the message of this volume is to suggest that we return them to the world of the living, or at least to the card catalog of the living, so that they will not cease to exist but will be remembered.

The anonymity is deepened when we realize that none of the people here are described much less given a name. But, in contrast, there is a precise description of the Central Registry, its history, its architecture, the layout of its furnishings, the clearly defined hierarchy of its staff, and the exact rules of internal communication, all offered with extensive detail.

The book jacket cites, “The loneliness of people’s lives, the effects of chance and moments of recognition, the discovery of love, however tentative.” Yes, love. In his relationship with the elderly neighbor, but also a metaphor for his complex fascination with the unidentified woman.

This is not the best of Saramago’s novels, but it works in its own terms. It establishes a truth about one’s identity; and, to demonstrate this, stretches the familiar world to realistic limits—well, to limits of realistic absurdity. (June, 2015)