Thursday, November 21, 2019

José Saramago - The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis

The world's threats are universal like the sun but Ricardo Reis takes shelter under his own shadow.
Back in Lisbon after sixteen years practicing medicine in Brazil, Ricardo Reis wanders the rain-sodden streets. He longs for the unattainably aristocratic Marcenda, but it is Lydia, the hotel chamber maid who makes and shares his bed. His old friend, the poet Fernando Pessoa, returns to see him, still wearing the suit he was buried in six weeks earlier. It is 1936, the clouds of Fascism are gathering ominously above them, so they talk; a wonderful, rambling discourse on art, truth, poetry, philosophy, destiny and love.

Comment: Back in 2007 I went to the traditional annual book fair in Lisbon with my best friend and that specific day José Saramago was there, giving autographs. I had already read a book by him I enjoyed, his most recent release felt too expensive (student's budget...) so I got a recommendation by another friend, which was this title.
Three years later the author died but his autograph is still there in my book and how special it is for me.

In this book, Saramago created a fictional life and personality to another fictional character invented by another Portuguese author, Fernando Pessoa.
Fernando Pessoa is mostly known by his poetry (mandatory read in school!) and his heteronyms, meaning characters he created out of his own, with lives and details that separate different writing styles in his poetry/writing. Ricardo Reis is one of those personalities and in this book Saramago has picked what we know about him from Pessoa's work and gave him a new life, where he reflects on what was to come in Portugal in the late 30s, of what is the meaning of so many things...

This is a good book to read if one wants to have an idea of the author's style of prose, especially his lack of punctuation, but as a whole I think it was a very clever book, with many pertaining elements about Portuguese literature and historical facts. A common question among foreign readers is if one needs to have an idea of those things before reading this, since it has so many specific elements and I'd say no. It helps to put some names/facts in context but anyone can read it. 
For me, in particular, the biggest setback and why this failed to impress me as others by him I've read did, was how I didn't connect with what was happening.

The author has basically picked an imaginary character (Ricardo Reis) and has put him in a weird relationship with his maker (Pessoa) while his daily life goes on and he interacts with other characters while the most mundane things happen, like his doubt about which woman he likes but shouldn't be with and vice versa and other more reflective questions about the country, its path, its future, etc.
The plot is this but like I said, the story failed to impress me and apart from some passages where the brilliance of the author's thoughts and ideas are quite clear and enjoyable, the story felt repetitive and uninteresting.

I finished the book with the sense that with so many different themes to exploit, the author lost himself a little among all the things he wanted to say. It's a bit like The Gospel According to Jesus Christ but in that book the religion theme over imposed everything and I like that theme, which doesn't easily happen here.
At the same tie, this is what makes the author's trademark style his style, how he mixes so many things but his thoughts on them make all sense at some point. I just didn't feel as absorbed by the Ricardo Reis he imagined would have existed.

It's funny, though, he chose this heteronym. Usually people have a much easier idea about the others' personalities (Alvaro de Campos is more reactionary and Alberto Caeiro is quiet and one of his poems is the most amazing one but I digress) while Ricardo Reis seems the middle man, like not too much of one thing, not too much of another.
It was, in fact, the interesting part about this novel, how Ricardo Reis is portrayed because he wouldn't have much time to live after Pessoa's death, but it's really a pity for me that these things and the potentially amazing poetry are lost among the character's steps in his routines, which I don't think were as meshed with the literary part as I'd hoped for.

I'd say that if anyone wants to have an idea of Saramago's style Blindness is a good book to start with. This one would probably be one of the books one would read after being confident one could have the patient and the taste to keep up with the author. 
I liked it but of all the books by him I read already besides this one (Blindness, Cain, Skylight, Gospel According to Jesus Christ and Raised from the Ground), I'd have to say this was the one I liked the least.
Nevertheless, his words remain and the fun part about books is that they can be re-read and their meaning and appeal changing too.
Grade: 5/10

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