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)

The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)

This 2014 work is certainly a professional job, a detective story expertly presented and traditionally resolved. But my emotional commitment was to the detective, Cormoran Strike, and to his glamorous assistant, Robin Ellacott. Their personal stories and their evolving relationship drew my interest more than did learning who the dastardly killer would be.

The author probably had fun writing this novel. Because it is about writers, publishers, editors, and agents, a world she herself now belongs to. It is about the murder of Owen Quine, who dies gruesomely, exactly like the main character does in his latest novel. Was the killer his wife Leonora, as the police think? Or was it his ex-friend and rival writer, Michael Fancourt? Perhaps his editor Jerry Waldegrave or his agent Elizabeth Tassel? Or even his publisher Daniel Chard, or his mistress Kathryn Kent?

Actually, it does not matter, at least to me, who the killer is, for Quine was an adulterer, a seducer, a blackmailer, a betrayer, and a pornographer—plus a bad writer. Which means, of course, that many had a reason to murder him. And that I didn’t really care. Moreover, identifying the killer resides more in the reading of character than in the reading of clues. Indeed, much of the interest in this work lies the subtle motivations inside each of these angry, envious, deceitful suspects.

Perhaps it is the complexity of such characters in their complex world that explains why the author required 450 pages to tell this story. We continually confront these characters as Strike goes back and forth questioning them. Other pages, moreover, revolve around Robin as she tries to please both her boy friend and her boss Striker. While others pages are used to describe other cases Striker is working on, apparently to emphasize his praiseworthy struggle to succeed financially.

Striker’s own personal story is interesting, that he lost the lower part of his right leg to a bomb in Afghanistan, and now must endure the consequences of that loss. But what became aggravating was the number of times that we are reminded of the pain he endures while walking up and down and around the streets and stairs of London, even being forced to remove his artificial limb at times and use crutches. As a reminder of his suffering character, it became a little too much for me.

Another, and more serious, frustration came toward the end of the book. Strike states that he knows who the killer is, and he has a plan to prove it. The author, however, withholds his theory from the reader, and, instead, describes his going about with Robin and others to implement his plan. But he never tells what they are actually doing, what the proof is that they are seeking. This withholding of information is to create suspense, of course, and it is a familiar technique employed by many mystery authors. But it is always frustrating.

What is also aggravating is the final revelation. That is, there is little drama. Strike simply confronts the killer, and goes into a long description of what the killer did and why—until the killer’s reaction becomes the confession. It is, again, a technique used by many mystery novelists, but it is a copout. It is a tired formula, not a creative means to develop unbearable suspense—such as, for example, putting someone’s life at stake. And since the reveal is about a murderer and a victim that I care little about, the impact is even less.

But the twists and turns to reach that final scene are, as I indicated, fascinating. My interest never flagged, not least because the gruesomeness of the murder promised an equally dramatic conclusion. And if such a conclusion never resulted, the twists and turns to reach it did work. As did the exploration of a variety of characters, and the internecine rivalry that drove the actions of this small literary group.

Indeed, one wonders how much of this novel about a novel that is a roman a clef is itself a roman a clef. Roman a clef means, literally, a novel with a key, with the key being which fictional characters represent real characters. The Silkworm here is the anglicized title of the novel Quine has written, which portrays in an evil light fictional versions of the characters in the Galbraith novel. Which prompts one to wonder if the characters in this novel we are reading are versions of people Rowling has met in her literary world as a result of the popularity of Harry Potter.

It is an intriguing thought. And one might assume that she has legitimately appropriated here at least character types for her fictional purposes. Of course, one might also challenge the literary value of that fictional purpose. For Harry Potter lives in a marvelous fictional world, whereas these Cormoran Strike novels are merely detective stories. Yes, professional detective stories at a high level, but they stake no new ground. They merely build on past duos: of Mr. and Mrs. North, of Holmes and Watson, etc.

Perhaps a reason that Rowling as Galbraith is less ambitious here is that she was exhausted in a literary sense, and wanted to take a break. But she did want to continue writing, and saw the English detective story as a legitimate avenue to explore, yet one that would not tax her resources—although one that would allow some originality, in this case an exploration of the Jacobean horror angle in the juxtaposition of today’s literary world.

Yes, this novel invites one to search out the two other Cormoran Strike novels. But I wonder if there will be more. Or will Rowling strike out in another direction? In the meantime, I note that a new Harry Potter work is due this summer. Will it be merely a rehash of the past, or will it continue Harry’s story but in a new direction? One hopes for the latter, along with an expectation that it will again offer something original. (February, 2016)

NOTE: The new Harry Potter is a dramatic play that explores Harry in his thirties with a son— where the postscript to the series left us. Rowling plotted the play, but did not write the dramatic script. (June, 2016)