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(April 19, 2002)

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José Saramago


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Saturday, August second, 2008

Strength of Voice

Meanwhile the guest returns to the reception desk, somewhat out of breath after all that effort. He takes the pen and enters the essential details about himself in the register of arrivals, so that it might be known who he claims to be, in the appropriate box on the lined page. Name, Ricardo Reis, age, forty-eight, place of birth, Oporto, marital status, bachelor, profession, doctor, last place of residence, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, whence he has arrived aboard the Highland Brigade. It reads like the beginning of a confession, an intimate autobiography, all that is hidden is contained in these handwritten lines, the only problem is to interpret them.
The three books I have read so far by Saramago are all quite recent; now I am going back much further, to 1986's Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, one of the earliest of his major works. But it is instantly recognizable as the work of the same author based on his distinctive style and on his manner of expression -- I can't picture the construction "so that it might be known who he claims to be" coming out precisely that way from any other author's pen. This book is not translated by Margaret Jull Costa but by Giovanni Pontiero -- the similarity of voice gives me confidence in the abilities of both translators.

I see Saramago's habit of deconstructing commonplace expressions coming through here, although the two examples I've noted in the opening pages -- "pay the fare" and another that I'm not finding now -- are not arresting in the way that I've found his later work. This book is set explicitly in Portugal, in Lisbon, unlike the anonymous countries and cities of his later books. I find that I have no preconceived image of Portugal! So I guess I will acquire one here.

Oh! I see now that Blindness was also translated by Pontiero; I had forgotten.

posted evening of August second, 2008: Respond
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Sunday, August third, 2008

Pacing

How little they must have known him, to address him and speak of him in this way. They take advantage of his death, his feet and hands are bound. They call him a despoiled lily, a lily like a girl stricken by typhoid fever, and use the adjective gentle. Such banality, dear God. Since gentle means noble, chivalrous, gallant, elegant, pleasing, and ubane, which of these would the poet have chosen as he lay in his Christian bed in the Hospital of São Luís. May the gods grant that it be pleasing, for with death one should lose only life.

Starting The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis so soon after I finished The Cave I am really noticing something about Saramago's pacing; the last half of the book really pulls you along in a rush, where the first half is much slower and more open to stopping, starting, jumping back to a few pages previous. I think I have had similar experiences with Blindness and Seeing, as well.

posted evening of August third, 2008: Respond
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Monday, August 4th, 2008

Fictions

He thought that good literature is common enough, that there is scarce a dialogue on the street that does not achieve it. He also thought that the æsthetic act cannot be carried out without some element of astonishment, and that to be astonished by rote is difficult.
In the interests of understanding The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, I pulled down Borges' Ficciones this evening to reread "An Examination of the Works of Herbert Quain" -- one of Quain's works is the misleading detective story The God of the Labyrinth, which Reis is reading early in the novel.

I'm finding this, well, a lot of fun -- the degree of layering of fiction on fiction is really astonishing. (Particularly when Borges admits to having adapted one of his own stories, "The Circular Ruins," from a manuscript by Quain.) I'm waiting for personalities to emerge, but am confident they will; for the time being I'm just enjoying the technical beauty of the composition.

It has been several years since I read any of Borges' stories; his mastery of language is washing over me again. I'm reacting to his voice in a way I never did before, which is to feel like Borges is a control freak who wants me to react to every word of his in a particular way, and is leaving no room for my own reading; not sure how valid this is, it's just a spur-of-the-moment thought.

(According to The Modern Word, Saramago is not the only author to make use of The God of the Labyrinth. In Philip K. Dick's notes for a sequel to The Man in the High Castle, there is mention of Joseph Goebbels reading Quain's book.)

posted evening of August 4th, 2008: 2 responses
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Sunday, August 10th, 2008

A time when words were pristine

Midway through The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis I find Saramago stating his manifesto:

...Marcenda simply said, I am going up to put these things in my room and will come right down for a little chat, if you have the patience to bear with me and don't have more important things to do. We should not be surprised that Salvador is smiling, he likes to see his clients strike up friendships... Ricardo Reis also smiled, and speaking slowly, assured her, I would be delighted, or words to that effect, for there are many other expressions equally commonplace, although to our shame we never stop to analyze them. We should remember them, empty and colorless as they are, as they were spoken and heard for the first time, It will be a pleasure, I am entirely at your service, little declarations of such daring that they cause the person making them to hesitate, and cause the person to whom they are addressed to tremble, because that was a time when words were pristine and feelings came to life. [emphasis added]

This is, well, just delightful. This is written approximately 15 years before the comment in The Cave about stock phrases which I referenced last month, and it does not have the same tone of anger, but it's direction is most similar. The thought just crossed my mind, I wonder if the anger in the second passage is frustration at writing the same prescription for 15 years and fearing that it will never be followed... But I think probably not. Mainly this is giving me context for Saramago's habit of deconstructing cliché, which I had been thinking of as a fun and interesting verbal tic, that besides just having fun he is maybe practicing a sort of linguistic evangelism, trying to persuade people to listen to language as a quasi-religious experience. (That last sentence is pretty poorly formed, I'm not totally clear on what I'm trying to say. Look for me to try and clarify this a bit in the coming weeks.)

posted evening of August 10th, 2008: Respond

Monday, August 11th, 2008

Resolution

I'm seeing a lot of tropes in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis that will be repeated and magnified in Saramago's later work. For instance about halfway through the book Reis and Lydia (who are having an affair) have been talking for a little while, and Reis says,

...All I know about you is that you live here in the hotel, that you go out on your days off, that you are single and unattached as far as one can see, What could be better, Lydia retorted, and with these four words she wrung the heart of Ricardo Reis. It is banal to say so, but that is precisely how they affected him... We could go on in this manner multiplying words, adding them to the four already spoken, What could be better.... Lydia is about to leave, a clear indication of not having spoken at random. Certain phrases may seem spontaneous, a thing of the moment, but God alone knows what millstone ground them, what invisible sieve filtered them, so that when pronounced they ring like judgements of Solomon. The best one could hope for now is silence, or that one of the two interlocutors should depart, but people usually go on talking and talking, until what was for a moment definitive and irrefutable is completely lost.

-- And from here the conversation goes on, until what was definitive is lost. This seems to me to speak to Randolph's observations about the dialog in The Cave, that its realism stems from its fallibility and lack of direction. Saramago is laying out his thoughts about how conversation works, which will support his constructions of conversations in his later work.

I am curious about where Saramago is going with the developing conflict within Reis, opposing Lydia and his earthy affection for her to Marcenda and his more cerebral attraction to her. The archetypal nature of this conflict is pretty superficially clear -- the narrator even mentions at one point, Marcenda is understood to be a virgin, and has Reis wondering whether he should pay Lydia -- but it's hard for me to see how it will add to the story and to the characters Saramago is describing.

(As I write "more cerebral" I think Hm, that's not quite what I mean -- the distinction is not really between "earthy" and "cerebral" but rather class-based. Reis is socially above Lydia but in the same class as Marcenda. Lydia is attainable but not an appropriate match. I was trying to think of Reis' attraction to Marcenda as similar to Dante's attraction to Beatrice, but that is probably not going to be a productive line of thought.)

posted morning of August 11th, 2008: Respond

Thursday, August 14th, 2008

Ricardo Reis smiled as he thought these sad irreverencies

For several minutes he watched his courage desert him, it was like watching sand run through an hourglass, an overworked metaphor which nevertheless keeps recurring. One day, when we live two hundred years and ourselves become the hourglass observing the sand inside it, we will not need the metaphor, but life is too short to indulge in such thoughts...
This chapter, in which Ricardo's relationship with Marcenda moves a little closer to passion and Ricardo's relationship with Lydia moves a little closer to being taken for granted, has me wondering, why are all of the characters' actions so clearly marked as male or as female. Ricardo walking around Lisbon and around his room is identified as male -- "It is indeed true that a man on his own is useless" -- Lydia is identified as having a woman's eye (more specifically a female domestic servant's eye) for what needs to be cleaned up in Ricardo's room -- the nameless people in the rooms and buildings around them are doing things as husbands, wives, fathers, mothers.

I've been noticing all along that gender plays a very important role in this narrative; fortuitously I read a post today at Is there no sin in it? which touched on the subject of "gender performance," how characters on TV shows act out their genders. I'd heard the term before but this was a very useful reminder -- it gives me a name for the way the characters in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis are being depicted. I believe tentatively that gender performance, possibly interlocking with performance of Portuguese identity and of social class, is a major part of the meaning of this novel.

There are things we do automatically, our body, acting on its own, avoids inconvenience whenever possible, that is why we sleep on the eve of battle or execution, and why ultimately we die when we can no longer bear the harsh light of existence.

(Well, and to be sure there is a lot more going on than just gender or just gender and class and ethnicity.)

posted evening of August 14th, 2008: Respond

Friday, August 15th, 2008

August doldrums

Sorry about the lack of updates recently... someday soon I will start thinking about posting blog entries! I am loving Ricardo Reis, I think I will finish it this weekend, not sure what I will read next.

I am nearly done fixing READIN to be compatible with HostMonster, still just a couple of things to do -- like I can't post "What's of Interest" items on the sidebar, or update the blogroll, at least not consistently.* Timeline for finishing this is Tuesday, when I will have some free time and Internet access.

We are going away for a long weekend, to a place without Internet or even much of a cellular network -- and yet it is nearby! in northern Bucks County, PA -- and spend a few days relaxing. See you Tuesday!

posted morning of August 15th, 2008: Respond
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Tuesday, August 19th, 2008

Disjointed genius

Counter to prediction, I did not finish The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis this weekend. I am however moving a bit closer to writing a summing-up post. My thoughts are moving in this kind of a direction: the book is beautiful and full of powerful original thought; but I have two complaints. First is a complaint with myself; I am not equipt to understand this book. Specifically I don't know Pessoa's poetry more than a little bit; I know hardly anything about Portuguese history, classical nor modern (I didn't know until I started reading this book, that "Lusitanian" means "Portuguese", nor until I looked it up just now that that is because Lusitania was the province of the Roman empire which included modern Portugal -- this just by way of example); and I don't know enough about the history of Europe in the years leading up to the second World War. A full understanding of this book seems like it would require pretty close acquaintance with these three fields.

But insofar as I do understand the book: it seems to lack the focus and intensity of Saramago's later fiction. He spends a lot of time on Reis' character but it is still cryptic to me; Reis' self-absorption seems pretty reprehensible but I don't have any window on how he justifies it to himself. And his relationships with Lydia and with Marcenda are not touching me.

So but anyway: Still reading it, still loving it, with caveats. Later on this evening I will post some of the meaningful bits I've been reading and thinking about this weekend.

posted afternoon of August 19th, 2008: Respond
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Disjointed Genius II

Here are a few of the things that moved me while I was reading The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis this weekend:

My dear Fernando, choose your words carefully, you put yourself at great risk of being absurd. If we do not say all words, however absurd, we will never say the essential words.

This is really striking -- I can imagine it outside any novel, in big letters on the wall. Certainly a thought to revisit from time to time. (A nice justification for blogging!)

posted evening of August 19th, 2008: Respond

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

Picture (from Wikipædia) is the statue of Adamastor in Lisbon -- it is on the bench across from here that our hero Ricardo Reis spends much of his time sitting. How lovely! Man, I could look at that for a long time.

Adamastor is a god from the poem Os Lusíades by Camões, which is Portugal's national epic .

Adamastor also appears in Pessoa's poem "O Mostrengo" ("The Monster"), which is online here with a translation I can't vouch for*, and which inspired an animation you can watch on MeFeedia. "O Mostrengo" was the inspiration for D.S. Maguni's "O Gigante Adamastor", written for the Mozambiquan rebel cause in the 1970's.

Another view of the statue is at Flickr. (Or possibly the Wiki pic is a cropped detail of that graphic -- they certainly look very similar layouts.)

* The translator says, "This page is solely intended to entice the students of Portuguese who may, through it, be tempted to have a go at Mensagem." The page has links to the full text of Mensagem and notes.

posted evening of August 20th, 2008: Respond

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