A Shadow of His Spirit

January 19, 2015   •   By John Keeble

JOSÉ de SOUSA SARAMAGO, regarded as the finest Portuguese writer of his generation, received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998. Principally a novelist, his works include (in English translation) The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, The Stone Raft, Blindness, The Cave, The Elephant’s Journey, and now Skylight, to mention but a few. Yet the life of a prodigious writer was not inevitable for this grandson of peasants; because of his parents’ financial difficulty, he was removed from grammar school at age 12 and entered into technical school. He worked as an automobile mechanic, a metal worker, then as a translator (of Baudelaire, Hegel, and Tolstoy, among others!), and then as a journalist, poet, and playwright before turning seriously to the novel. He was at his most prolific as a novelist from the 1980s to the time of his death at age 87 in 2010. Politically radical, an unreconstructed communist, or anarcho-communist, he said famously, “I don’t make excuses for what communist regimes have done. But I have the right to keep my ideas.”

Saramago stood for election as a member of the Communist Party of Portugal, being voted alderman and presiding officer of the Municipal Assembly of Lisbon in 1989. He was a candidate of the Democratic Unity Coalition for the European Parliament every year from 1989 to 2009, but always with little chance of success. And although he said he did not begrudge anyone their beliefs, and certainly not those of his forebears, he was an atheist. His novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991) led the ostensibly progressive Portuguese prime minister of the time, Aníbal Cavaco Silva, to order it removed from the Aristeion Prize shortlist on the grounds that it was offensive to the Catholic community. There are shades of the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis here, who was another leftist, and like Saramago a writer with peasant roots. Kazantzakis’s novel The Last Temptation of Christ (1951) led to his excommunication from the Greek Orthodox Church, as it depicts Christ’s anguished existential preoccupations, and by the by (as with Saramago’s Christ), the sexual solace of Mary Magdalene. As a consequence of the attack on The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Saramago denounced the politics of Portugal and moved with his wife to Lanzarote, a dominion of Spain and the easternmost of the Canary Islands, located some 620 miles off the coast of the Iberian Peninsula.

Saramago’s posthumous novel Skylight was issued in Portuguese in 2011 and in English translation late in 2014. Following Land of Sin (1947), Skylight was in fact his second novel, first submitted to a publisher in 1953, only to be ignored, forgotten, passed off, or set aside until many years later. The precise reason for its being “lost” is not given to us. In 1989, while moving offices, the publisher rediscovered the manuscript, then contacted Saramago, enthusiastically offering to publish the novel. So begins a curious business. Once it was discovered and returned to the author, Saramago scarcely noted it. He declined to see to its publication during his lifetime. His wife, translator, and president of the Saramago Foundation, Pílar del Rio, writes in the introduction to Skylight that he believed “no one has an obligation to love anyone else, but we are all under an obligation to respect each other.” She says that he had spoken and written of this many times as his “main principle of life,” and had felt aggrieved by the publisher’s treatment of him. He was in 1953 a young, hopeful writer, just turned 30, who had put in many nighttime hours working on the novel, and for years following the episode he was absent from the Portuguese literary scene. He wrote that “it was becoming quite clear to me that I had nothing to say.”

I wonder why Saramago would allow, or even encourage, the book’s publication after his death, as Pílar del Rio asserts in the introduction. Perhaps he saw himself in death as immaterial to the fortunes of his work, or perhaps he took up what a Spanish compatriot a generation ahead of him, Miguel de Unamuno, had written in The Tragic Sense of Life (1913):

If the man who tells you that he writes, paints, sculptures, or sings for his own amusement, gives his work to the public, he lies; he lies if he puts his name to his writing, painting, statue, or song. He wishes, at the least, to leave behind a shadow of his spirit, something that may survive him.

The shadow of Saramago’s spirit is certainly in Skylight, and the book is full of resonances of what in 1953 was yet to come. It is true that in Skylight readers will not find the breakneck style of composition for which Saramago later came to be noted: long paragraphs made up of loosely constructed clauses, sparse punctuation consisting mainly of commas, and dialogue often written without quotation marks. Sometimes, in later works even point of view is “compromised,” if that’s the word for it, by the appearance of an “I” in what otherwise would seem to be a “third person” account. Contrary to what in much modern writing is an excessively mechanical and strict application of point of view, the question is raised in Saramago as to how the story is being rendered, by whom, or exactly what the nature of that story-teller is. The method in its totality gives the reader the feeling of being immersed in the prose, with few breaks to come out for air. There is the specialized literary vocabulary that we find in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, an erudite, fantastical, and heteronymous review of Portuguese- and Spanish-speaking writers; in The Stone Raft we are treated to geophysical terminology, appropriate to the Iberian Peninsula breaking off from Europe and floating to sea. The Stone Raft also provides long excursions of sophisticated philosophical and sometimes comic political discourse — the United States, true to form, is eager to render aid to the adrift peninsula, but not to admit its residents as immigrants. It’s as if Saramago is extemporizing on the spot, as if we are receiving a more concerted version of Jack Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose.”

Skylight is not like that. It has fairly short sentences, reasonably concise paragraphs, and characters who speak in punctuated dialogue. Besides being conservative in method, Skylight lacks the novelistic deftness of Saramago’s later works. It does not have the rise in action, or “arch,” the drive toward a resolution, however inexplicable that may be, which is the reason why most readers read and keep reading — to see how the writer manages to make it all come out in the end. This feeling may be traceable to what I see as the novel’s main fault, which is purely a matter of technique, or more precisely greater vigilance upon the placement of the novel’s introductory scenes. There are 18 characters at the outset, and they are introduced too precipitously. They come largely in clusters of three, six groups in all, and as such are presented in alternating chapters. Even an attentive reader might have difficulty keeping everyone straight through much of the novel.

However, there are also similarities between this work and his later ones, such as the trope of setting off a group of characters and keeping them in close association with one another right to the end of the tale. In Skylight, this trope is a function of architecture, namely a building lit by a large opening that illuminates the various dwelling spaces in what must be a kind of tenement. This is the skylight, casting luminous sunlight into each dwelling. Sometimes the dwellers see one another. Sometimes a shade is drawn. Sometimes their footsteps are heard, like Paulino Morais, the businessman who leaves late at night for town, following his trysts with Lídia, who possesses both “the miraculous skills of the dressmaker and the instincts of a woman who earns her living with her body.”

Saramago has been called a surrealist. I suppose that’s correct. His act of setting the world off-kilter is usually accomplished by a grand stroke, for example the Iberian Peninsula breaking off from Europe and floating away. And in Blindness the notion of everyone in a city but one woman (the witness to it all) falling victim to a white sightlessness. The concomitant chaos and ultimately hapless efforts to control that chaos is carried out by the state. In Skylight, Saramago effects a similar gesture, which might more aptly be described as symbolic, just as the whole of the novel might be regarded as a parable — para-bolo, something thrown beside — rather than as a full-blown allegory. He names one of his characters Abel, the second of Adam’s sons, and turns on its head our expectations of the plight of the man who was murdered by his older brother, Cain. Without saying so, Saramago seems to have fixed on that period in the biblical Abel’s life when Abel is searching, just before or just after he sacrificed to God his lambs, the firstlings of his flock, and which Cain feared God perceived as more acceptable than his own “fruit of the ground.” It is blood, the essence of life, instead of grain. Abel awaits Cain, who, driven by jealousy, will kill him.

In his Nobel Prize lecture, Saramago acknowledged his peasant heritage. He spoke at length about his grandparents, two of whom painstakingly cared for swine, even in cold weather bringing them into the house. His grandfather told him of “legends, apparitions, terrors, unique episodes, old deaths, scuffles with sticks and stones, the words of our forefathers, an untiring rumour of memories that would keep me awake while at the same time gently lulling me.” Saramago said, “I could never know if he was silent when he realized that I had fallen asleep or if he kept talking so as not to leave half-unanswered the question I invariably asked into the most delayed pauses he placed on purpose with the account: ‘And what happened next?’”

The grandfather who told the stories and the grandmother who was beautiful were the sort of ordinary people becoming in Saramago’s imagination literary characters. This was his way not to forget them. When death was coming, the grandfather

went into the yard of his house, where there were a few trees, fig trees, olive trees. And he went one by one, embracing the trees and crying, saying good-bye to them because he knew he would not return. To see this, to live this, if that doesn’t mark you for the rest of your life, you have no feeling.

In Skylight, we have the, I suppose by then … in the mid-century as opposed to the early century … largely petite bourgeoisie characters, whom Saramago treats nevertheless with love. There is the kept woman, a drab office employee driven to distraction by his failure to get a raise, and who, galled by his insufficiency and after visiting a prostitute in town, makes enraged love to his wife. In another apartment are seamstresses sewing buttons, one of whom shocks another by seeking her caress at night, while the other dreams of possessing a bust of Beethoven. A sales representative hawks tawdry wares, and a young girl is about to be swept off by the aforementioned businessman. But the principal character is Silvestre, a cobbler, a man who is satisfied to work with his hands, and hearkens back to the memories of Saramago’s grandparents. Silvestre and his plump wife, Mariana, have determined they need to bring in a lodger to their apartment to make ends meet. It’s money again, poverty and the infernal pursuit of money. A young man named Abel appears. Silvestre and Abel become friends, play checkers, share cigarettes, and engage in long conversations. In an attempt to combat Abel’s pessimism in this abiding period prior to his likely murder by an unnamed character who makes no appearance in the novel, the cobbler gives a disquisition on love: “It’s the only thing we haven’t tried so far.” Trembling, he goes on to add: “But don’t forget, Abel, you must love with a love that is lucid and active! And make sure that the active side never forgets about the lucid side, and that the active side never commits the same kinds of villainous deeds as those who want men to hate each other.”

What is presaged here is the narrow hope, the glimmering in Saramago’s deep fatalism that comes to reside in his later novels. In that projective and luminous moment when Abel must know his death is imminent, Silvestre exhorts him to remain “lucid,” to cling to the essence, and to not subject his “active side” to cruelty. Silvestre possesses great intelligence, the grim dignity that brooks no illusions, yet he still finds it in his nature to love.

The question remains whether or not this book should have been released to the general public, as opposed to scholarly readers, since Saramago eschewed its publication during his lifetime, and we don’t know what, if any, changes Pílar del Rio allowed to be made to the manuscript prior to its publication. I think it should have been, certainly for Saramago enthusiasts, but those with only the beginnings of interest in his work would be advised to read elsewhere first — The Stone Raft, say, The Elephant’s Journey, or The Cave — and then to take on the more rudimentary Skylight for the insight it provides into a lifetime’s work by a great writer, and the disappointment he had to suffer.


John Keeble’s most recent novel is The Shadows of Owls.