The History of the Siege of Lisbon

The final book in my missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize of 1996 long list is Jose Saramago’s The History of the Siege of Lisbon, originally published in 1989, and the fifth of his novels to be translated into English (by Giovanni Pontiero) in 1996. The novel tells the story of a proof-reader, Raimundo Silva, who inserts a deliberate inaccuracy into the history book of the title, a ‘not’ which reverses the assertion that the Portuguese were helped by the Crusaders in the retaking of Lisbon from the Moors in 1147. Strangely, Silva has no real idea why he does this:

“No one would be happier than I to find a satisfactory explanation.”

It is thirteen days before the publishers discover the ‘mistake’, an unwelcome professional discovery that leads to a more welcome personal one as Silva meets Maria Sara who has been placed in charge of the proof reading department. At first Silva is only aware that “the woman had not taken her eyes off him” during the course of his reprimand but the meeting will lead to a late flowering of love for a man who had given up hope of any such thing:

“I’m in my fifties, he says, who is going to love me at my age, or who am I going to love…”

The novel is, at heart, a love story, but one where love is pursued through The History of the Siege of Lisbon as Maria brings Silva the single uncorrected copy and suggests “you yourself should write a history of the siege of Lisbon in which the crusaders do not help the Portuguese.” Silva’s ability to do this has already been highlighted to the reader in an opening section which we assume is from The History until we are told:

“In his book the historian gave no such description.”

This introduces another theme of the novel, that of the uncertain border between historical fact and imaginative recreation. Silva must decide why the crusaders may not have helped the Portuguese:

“What that motive might have been, we must now investigate, if we are to give the slightest credibility and verisimilitude to this new account.”

Saramago also playfully applies these rules to his own work:

“Anyone concerned with logic mush be asking himself how it is conceivable that during all this time Raimundo Silva has not given anther thought to the humiliating scene in the director’s office, why it has never been mentioned for the sake of giving some coherence to a character and verisimilitude to events.”

As Saramago points out, the history is to Silva what the novel is to Saramago – “we are not dealing here with cinema or theatre, or even with life.” And so the two stories progress hand in hand, both overlapping, as at times we find Silva walking in the twelve century streets of his imagination, or jarringly juxtaposed, as when our experience of battle preparations is interrupted by a telephone ringing.

The siege of Lisbon becomes not only the siege of the Moorish city but, tongue in cheek, Silva’s seduction of Maria. On the day he decides to phone her he “awoke with a clear idea as to how the troops should finally be deployed on the ground for the assault, including certain strategic details of his own making.” And when he says, “Before I engaged in this battle, I was a simple proof-reader…” he is referring as much to the relationship as the siege. But there is also romance in evidence which Saramago demonstrates through the use of roses. The first time Silva delivers proofs to Maria she is wearing a white rose:

“Raimundo Silva, without meditating or premeditating, detached as he was from the act and its consequences, gently touched the white rose with two fingers…”

Later he sends her two roses, while keeping two himself, and also makes her a promise:

“No one should be able to give less than they have given before, roses shouldn’t appear today and a wilderness tomorrow. There won’t be any wilderness.”

In the history he is writing he incorporates a character to represent himself, and soon they too are in love.

The History of the Siege of Lisbon is both a novel of history and of love, but, above all, it celebrates the inexplicable. Silva cannot explain why he inserts ‘not’ into the proof; nor can he explain why he caresses Maria’s rose. It is perhaps a warning against definitive interpretations:

“The relationship between what we call cause and what we subsequently describe as effect is not always linear and explicit.”

With its long, leisurely sentences and frequent digressions, it may test the patience of some readers, but with Saramago the journey is more important than the destination. The second Nobel Prize winner on a long list which includes a number of writers who are automatically assigned the adjective ‘great’, choosing a winner for the missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize of 1996 will be far from easy.

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10 Responses to “The History of the Siege of Lisbon”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Sounds perfect Grant! It’s not one of his that I have, but from what you say about it, it has all the elements I love in Saramago. Obviously going to have to track it down….

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    I like what you say about the importance of the journey over the end destination in Saramago’s fiction. That certainly chimes with my experience of a couple of his novels, The Double and All the Names. Also, his interest in the blurring of the margins between the real and the imaginary reminds me of other Iberia writers such as Vila-Matas. A fascinating review as ever, Grant!

  3. Julé Cunningham Says:

    A wonderful write-up on one of my favorite authors and book. The nuanced layers of his work and the humor always draw me back to his books where there is even more to find.

    • 1streading Says:

      I can imagine that re-reading his work would be rewarding – although I’ve still a few to read for the first time! He is one of my favourite writers too.

  4. Stewart Says:

    Saramago is one of those writers I feel I’ve known about for ages but still, somehow, have never got round to reading. Maybe this is the year I dust off that copy of Blindness that’s been sitting, no doubt bored, on the shelf. Although this one definitely sounds up my street in its playfulness.

  5. The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 1996 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] The History of the Siege of Lisbon by Jose Saramago, translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero (Harvill Press) […]

  6. Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Winner 1996 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] The History of the Siege of Lisbon by Jose Saramago, translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero (Harvill Press) […]

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