Skylight, published in Portuguese in 2012 and in English (translated by Saramago’s usual interpreter, Margaret Jull Costa) in 2014 is not Jose Saramago’s final novel but his first. Usually such exhumed manuscripts, raised from the grave as their author is lowered into it, are a blight on their author’s memory, juvenile scribblings that the writer themselves had consigned to a drawer long ago. Saramago had certainly prevented Skylight’s publication while he was alive, but its story is slightly different. We can at least say that Saramago felt it was worthy of appearing in print when he sent it to a publisher’s in 1953, only for the publisher to lose the manuscript. Saramago did not write another novel for twenty years; when Skylight was rediscovered in 1989, however, he was a relatively famous novelist at the peak of his powers who had no interest in an early work suddenly appearing. That it’s available now, though, seems fair and proper, and, although Saramago will be remembered mainly for the great novels he wrote in the 1980s and 90s, Skylight is a valuable addition to his oeuvre.
Skylight utilises a simple premise, though one that is complex to accomplish: that of portraying the lives of a disparate group of characters united by their habitation of a particular apartment block. Saramago very cleverly introduces almost all his characters in the first chapter, connecting them with a series of ‘’Good mornings’. Immediately contrasts appear: between, for example, the happily married Silvestre and Mariana (“Neither of them had any illusions about the other and both were more than aware that the fire of youth had long since burned out, but they loved each other dearly”) and the miserably conjoined Justina and Caetano:
“The silence that filled the apartment from top to bottom, like a solid block, shattered at the sound of his laughter. Unaccustomed as it was to the noise the furniture seemed to shrink in upon itself.”
Their life is blighted by a dead daughter; Rosalia and Anselmo indulge their daughter Maria Claudinho though she is old enough to work. She is old enough to love, too, and desire is to be found bubbling beneath the surface of the block’s young women:
“Standing in front of the mirror, she unbuttoned her housecoat and her nightdress and looked at her breasts. A shiver ran through her and she flushed slightly.”
Isaura, who stays with her mother, her sister and her aunt, has a more uncomfortable sexual awakening:
“Slowly, Isaura’s hands moved towards her sister…one of her hands ran along Adriana’s arm from wrist to shoulder, where it slipped in beneath her hot, damp armpit and insinuated itself beneath one breast.”
When Adrian wakens she reacts in horror and finds it difficult to forgive her sister. These unconscious desires are contrasted with the experience of Lidia, a ‘kept woman’, whose apartment is paid for by her lover:
“She was not the kind of woman who relies solely on her body to attract men; instead she radiated sensuality from head to toe.”
Lidia is placed in direct competition with Maria when she asks her lover to find her a job; he does this as a favour to Lidia but soon his eye settles on Maria, something she does not entirely discourage.
Age and youth also compete when Silvestre takes in a young lodger, Abel. Abel arrives shortly after the novel begins and his departure signals its end. Interestingly, it is the cynicism of his youth which is contrasted with Silvestre’s optimism. Silvestre believes love is the answer: “loving each other with a lucid, active love, a love that can overcome hatred.” Abel dismissed this as utopian:
“Life is a fight to the death, always and everywhere. It’s a case of every man for himself.”
One can’t help but think this is an argument going on within Saramago, and one that is certainly not settled in the novel, with examples of both beliefs in evidence. Skylight may not be among Saramago’s very best novels, but it is beautifully constructed, told with his usual gentle empathy and fearless glance, and entertaining from first page to last.