Some Novels of Jose Saramago
José Saramago, Portugal's only Nobel winner (1998) was born on this day in 1922. In an interview several years before his death in 2010, Saramago said that he thought the best place to start for anyone unfamiliar with his unusual novels would be Journey to Portugal, his 1981 travel book (If this book is as good as Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk I would agree, but unfortunately I have not read the Saramago work). Perhaps he's right, but I am more familiar with his novels, especially The History of the Siege of Lisbon, Blindness, and All The Names.
All The Names is the story of a middle-aged civil servant named Senhor Jose, who works as a clerk in the Central Registry for births, marriages and deaths. He is the only person named in the story–all the remaining characters in the novel are referred to by their titles or descriptions: The Registrar, the woman in the apartment, and so on. It is an interesting literary device, given the title of the book, but not surprising if you read this as an allegory. Senhor Jose, still a bachelor in his fifties, lives a quiet life with no social life, or family to visit. At his work and the hierarchical structure and discipline of the institution does not allow for personal exchanges of any kind. He has spent a lifetime alongside co-workers that know nothing significant about him. In order to maintain a connection with humanity, he clips articles out of newspapers and magazines and keeps his own personal registry of stranger’s lives. He secretly cross-checks his files with those of the official labyrinth files at the Central Registry. One day the filing card of “an unknown woman” sticks to the other files he has surreptitiously borrowed for his hobby. The file of the unknown woman begins to haunt his life. In response he steps out of his lonely existence to try to track her down and , in doing so he becomes a sleuth and a forger and much more. The tension through the novel builds as we begin to learn more about the unknown woman and this tension exhibits itself in Senhor Jose, who comes under the suspicion of his boss. The remainder of the novel takes on a Proustian stream-of-consciousness internal monologue with the reader drifting in a sort of haze of metaphor and allegory that is the most beautiful consequence of this novel. It has been compared to a Kafkaesque experience.
In the novel Blindness Saramago uses a quotation from the Book of Exhortations as the epigram: "If you can see, look. If you can look, observe". Near the end of this novel, when the blind people are getting their vision back, he has one of his characters remark:" I don't think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see" (p 292). These two quotations suggest the political and philosophical intention of the novel. The greatest problem with an allegorical novel like Blindness is that it grants too much freedom to the reader. It allows too many interpretations. Saramago uses blindness as a metaphor for both personal misfortune and social catastrophe. The story begins when the first blind man loses his vision in his car while waiting for a traffic light to change. The man who helps him get safely home goes back and steals his car. The next day the wife of the first blind man takes him to see the eye doctor. Within a few days, the wife of the first blind man, the car thief, the doctor and all of the patients in his waiting room also go blind. The only character in the novel that miraculously avoids the affliction of blindness is the doctor's wife. Saramago's writings have often been discussed as an example of "magic realism". However, it has been suggested that Blindness has more in common with Kafka's allegorical novels than it does with works by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Salman Rushdie. The fundamental problem posed by allegorical novels is how to locate their political and social meaning. Saramago provides his readers with few clues to guide interpretation.
My favorite of Saramago's novels is The History of the Siege of Lisbon in which Raimundo Silva, a proofreader at a Portuguese publishing house alters a key word in a text to make it read that in 1147 the king of Portugal reconquered Lisbon from the Saracens without any assistance from the Crusaders. After doing this he is inexplicably encouraged by his supervisor, Maria Sara, to rewrite the entire history of the siege. From this kernel the novel develops into a complex meditation on the meaning of both history and words as well as a romance and parable of life under authoritarian rule. Saramago's prose style does take some extra effort to adjust to with long paragraphs and serpentine sentences, but it is worth the effort and, like Faulkner and others with complex prose styles, repays the reader who perseveres. While I have not read all of Saramago's novels this one stands out among those I have read as his best.