Posts Tagged ‘jose saramago’

The History of the Siege of Lisbon

January 6, 2021

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.


February 9, 2015


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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.


September 7, 2012

Although there are still volumes of Nobel Prize-winner Jose Saramago’s work appearing in English (most recently a collection of short stories, The Lives of Things, with an earlier novel, Raised from the Ground, to appear this year), Cain was the final novel that he wrote. It bears comparison with his earlier The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. It was this savage, satirical attack on religion that led to Saramago leaving Portugal for Lanzarote where he lived until his death in 2010. Although Cain is written in his usual style, with little regard for breaking the story down into the basic components of grammar (sentences and paragraphs), it is a much shorter, lighter read, similar to his previous novel, The Elephant’s Journey.

This is not to suggest that Saramago’s anger has somehow dissipated, though certainly tolerance for attacks on religion (in Western Europe at least) has increased. If The Gospel According to Jesus Christ targeted the New Testament, then Cain targets the Old. From the beginning (and it is the Beginning, the story of Adam and Eve) we are presented with a fallible God:

“When the lord, also known as god, realised that adam and eve, although perfect in every outward aspect, could not utter a word or even make the most primitive of sounds, he must have felt annoyed with himself, for there was no-one else in the garden he could blame for this grave oversight.”

His humanity is evident when he discovers that Adam and Eve have eaten the apple: he speaks in a “mocking tone” (“the lord’s irony was becoming more and more marked”), but as the authorial voice points out:

“…the lord showed a lamentable lack of foresight, because if he really didn’t want them to eat that fruit, it would have been easy enough simply not to have planted the tree or to have put it somewhere surrounded by barbed wire.”

Angels, too, take on a more human aspect, as when a starving Eve persuades one to collect fruit for them from the now out-of-bounds Garden of Eden (“Alright, I’ll bring you some fruit, but don’t tell anyone”).

Above all, God is seen as proud and cruel. Cain complains of his pride after Abel’s death:

“…you had the freedom to stop me killing abel, which was perfectly within your capabilities, all you had to do, just for a moment, was to abandon that pride in your infallibility…”

Saramago then allows Cain to wander through the books of the Bible: he prevents Abraham from sacrificing Isaac with God arriving a few moments too late; he witnesses the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; he sees Moses return from Mount Sinai to slaughter those who have abandoned God to worship a golden calf; he joins Joshua in battle, visits Job in his suffering, and finally journeys with Noah. Throughout it is God’s incomprehensible cruelty that mystifies him:

“Burning sodom and gomorrah to the ground had evidently not been enough for the lord, for here, at the foot of mount sinai was clear, irrefutable proof of his wickedness, three thousand men killed simply because he was angered by the creation of a supposed rival in the form of a golden calf.”

Cain is, of course, the ideal accuser: the original murderer, he points out God’s own record when it comes to killing, making it clear he does not accept that all these deaths are necessary:

“What about the children, said cain, surely the children were innocent?”

Ultimately Cain comes up with his own solution in the final chapters when the novel does darken and adopt a bleaker tone. Cain works well as a satire, though its targets may seem rather obvious and easy to hit. It does suggest, however, that in his battle with God, Saramago had the final word.