The History of the Siege of Lisbon
“Every novel is like this, desperation, a frustrated attempt to save something of the past. Except that it still has not been established whether it is the novel that prevents man from forgetting himself or the impossibility of forgetfulness that makes him write novels.” ― José Saramago, The History of the Siege of Lisbon
With this engaging postmodern narrative Jose Saramago has created a complex tale that encompasses many themes including language, history and historiography, and war in the medieval world. At the same time the story dwells on the power of Eros over the mind and imagination and what results therefrom.
At the heart of this novel is Raimundo Silva, a middle-aged bachelor and proofreader in a contemporary Portuguese publishing house. However the focal point for Raimundo and the reader is the siege of the Moorish city of Lissibona (Lisbon) in 1147 by Portuguese forces under Christian King Alfonso I, its conquest and the expulsion of the Moors-a battle in which as many as 150,000 perished. Under the sway of his own fertile imagination, a dangerous thing for a proofreader, on one day Raimundo writes his own alternative history of the siege by changing a single word in a manuscript, thereby implying, contrary to the historical record, that the Crusaders refused to help the Portuguese besiege and capture the city.
Why does he do this? It seems that he is in love with the city of Lisbon as seen when the narrator says, "for it might well be that Lisbon, contrary to all appearances, was not a city but a woman, and the perdition simply amorous". But he is also enamored of his younger, iconoclastic boss, Maria Sara, with whom he falls in love. He is inexplicably encouraged by her to rewrite the entire history of the siege. He does so by continuing to weave a web of chivalrous deeds, love and intrigue around the bare historical record. The romantic affair with Maria blossoms, the apparent present and the imagined past meld into one another in a complicated narrative that shifts constantly between past and present tenses. In doing so it 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. Another major theme is Saramago's appreciation of the Reconquista, a central element in the history of Portugal as well as Spain, of which the conquest or re-conquest of Lisbon by Christians and its transformation into the capital of Portugal is a key event.
On one level, Saramago is exploring the thirst for power, religious and political fanaticism, intolerance, hypocrisy and jingoism, as well as the human need for love, companionship, sex. On another level, of more import for this reader, he is developing his abiding theme that history is a form of fiction, a selective reordering of facts. This reminds me of Tolstoy's philosophic musings near the end of War and Peace. Saramago's prose style does take some extra effort to adjust to with a stream-of-consciousness technique, long paragraphs, and serpentine sentences; but it is worth the effort and, like Faulkner and others with difficult prose styles, repays the reader who perseveres. This is nevertheless a mesmerizing tale that engages the reader's mind and emotions.