martes, 1 de abril de 2014

The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis

The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis [O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis] (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1991)
by José Saramago [translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero]
Portugal, 1984

"Wise is the man who contents himself with the spectacle of the world" is one of three epigraphs appended to this phenomenal novel--part "political fiction" in the manner of Antonio Tabucchi's Pereira Declares, part star-crossed love story, part literary travelogue set in an increasingly ominous 1935-1936 Lisbon just as the storm clouds of fascism were beginning to blanket all of Europe--a tremendous irony since much of what passes for plot in Saramago's soulful metaphysical character study has to do with what happens when a man of culture seeks to live apart from the world for and through his art but finds that a far more difficult task than he'd anticipated.  Far, far more difficult.  That man of culture is of course none other than the 48-year old bachelor Ricardo Reis, a doctor by trade but a poet by calling, who has returned to his native Portugal from Brazil after learning that his good friend Fernando Pessoa has just died--a curious friendship, is it not, given that the history books all tell us that Reis himself was only a product of Pessoa's imagination?  (The imagination: "that mistress of great power and generosity"! [3089/5585])  Although it's a measure of Saramago's storytelling brio that his title character seems to spend an awful lot of time not examining Herbert Quain's work The God of the Labyrinth, the parts of the novel that really got to me had less to do with the Borgesian (meta)ficciones and more to do with the Dante/Virgil-like conversations that Reis carries on with the shade of Pessoa, who has been allowed approximately nine months after his death to spend time with the living.  Does the novel at all propose that being a man of action is more important than being a man of words at a time when scores are being settled by the thousands inside the Plaza de Toros following the Battle of Badajoz?  In a manner of speaking.  But beyond that, it's also an affecting memento mori in which the fragility of life, words, remembrance, everything suggests that the love of a chambermaid maybe ought not be taken for granted in the book of disquiet of one's inner life.  Time, as opposed to loneliness or solitude, is the sleepwalking dreamer's real enemy:

Ricardo Reis crossed the Bairro Alto, descending by the Rua do Norte, and when he reached the Rua de Camoes he felt as if he were trapped in a labyrinth that always led him back to the same spot, to this bronze statue ennobled and armed with a sword, another D'Artagnan.  Decorated with a crown of laurels for having rescued the queen's diamonds at the eleventh hour from the machinations of the cardinal, whom, however, with a change of times and politics he will end up serving, this musketeer standing here, who is dead and cannot reenlist, ought to be told that he is used, in turn or or at random, by heads of state and even by cardinals, when it serves their interests.  The hours have passed quickly during these explorations on foot, and it is time for lunch. This man appears to have nothing else to do, he sleeps, eats, strolls, and composes poetry line by line with much effort, agonizing over rhyme and meter.  It is nothing compared to the endless dueling of the musketeer D'Artagnan, and the Lusiads run to more than eight thousand lines, and yet Ricardo Reis too is a poet, not that he boasts of that on the hotel register, but one day people will remember him not as a doctor, just as they do not think of Alvaro de Campos as a naval engineer, or of Fernando Pessoa as a foreign correspondent.  Our profession may earn us our living but not fame, which is more likely to come from having once written Nel mezzo del cammin de nostra vita or Menina e moga me levaram da casa de metis pais or En un lugar de la Mancha, of which I do not wish to remember the name, so as not to fall once again into the temptation of saying, however appropriately, As armas e os barões assinalados, may we be forgiven those borrowings, Arma virumque cano.  Man must always make an effort, so that he may deserve to be called man, but he is much less master of his own person and destiny than he imagines.  Time, not his time, will make him prosper or decline, sometimes for different merits, or because they are judged differently.  What will you be when you discover it is night and you find yourself at the end of the road (865/5585).

José Saramago (1922-2010)

Other The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis Readers (Past and Present)
Miguel, St. Orberose

Richard, Shea's Zibaldone

Tom, Wuthering Expectations
History is indifferent to the fine points of literary composition - Saramago's The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis

Note: I read this wonderful novel, my first by Saramago, in a poorly-formatted and typo-ridden Kindle version that will likely keep me from buying other such works from the publisher (I prefer real books anyway).

17 comentarios:

  1. I'm very glad you enjoyed the novel, Richard. Now you must read The Book of Disquiet.

    Apropos of Tabucchi, did you know there was a bit of a feud between the two men? Saramago thinks Tabucchi begrudged him this novel, because he wanted to be the novelist of Fernando Pessoa. He mentions this in one of his diaries.

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    1. I forgot to mention it in my post, Miguel, but I owe you and Tom a huge thanks for having inspired me to read this novel in the first place; I used to suspect that Saramago's popularity, like Murakami's, was probably mostly undeserved, but I officially stand corrected now! On that note, I already took The Book of Disquiet with me to work today and am hoping to get reacquainted with it after stalling out midway through a couple of years ago. Interesting (but kind of sad) to hear about the Saramago/Tabucchi "feud": both The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis and Pereira Declares are such fine tributes to Pessoa that it's too bad the novelists couldn't just share Pessoa in peace and brotherhood!

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    2. Ha ha, don't worry, it wasn't a serious feud, Saramago was just upset with some remarks Tabucchi said in an interview; in the same diary they later meet at a writer's conference, hug and everything's alright.

      Regarding The Book, I hope you fare better this time, it is a long, intimidating book, but so funny!

      I think your opinion of Saramago was probably the opinion I had of Bolaño before 2666, so I guess we're even. If you like his novel, I recommend you All The Names and The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, he had a great run in the 1990s.

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    3. I'm glad to hear we're finally even on that score, and I appreciate the additional Saramago recommendations (the Jesus book sounds particularly interesting now that I know what Saramago is like as a creative writer). Also appreciate the extra info on "the feud" and its happy ending. Will try to dip into and out of the Pessoa throughout the next month, but I'm still wrestling with how many long books I can take on in earnest at any one time. Cheers!

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    4. The Book is the shortest long book I've ever read, it's so readable it ends in an instant.

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    5. I'll try to make some more time for it soon--switched up my plans and am going off the deep end with Spanish & Catalan poetry and prose this month.

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  2. I really like the Saramago works that I have read and the description of this one sounds appealing.


    With that said I think I would want to read Pessoa before I tackled this one. Thus I need to get to Pessoa soon!

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    1. Brian, this novel was incredibly appealing--and this is coming from a guy who's only read about half of The Book of Disquiet so far! That being said, I can only imagine that any Pessoa background you bring to a reading of this novel would only enrich the reading of The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis and probably vice versa. P.S. If you have the time, please don't be shy about recommending your favorite Saramago to me and the other readers out there. I have a partially read copy of The History of the Siege at Lisbon at home, but all his other works beside that one and Ricardo Reis are only titles to me at this point.

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  3. It is no knock on Saramago - it is perhaps a compliment - to find his popularity a bit baffling.

    But I have not read his more popular books.

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    1. Tom, I'm glad to hear you say that--an interesting opinion as usual. Thanks, too, as I mentioned above, to both you and Miguel for having inspired me to want to read this particular Saramago so badly. It was well worth the wait.

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    2. Tom, you've read Baltasar and Blimunda, by far his most popular book, the one that brought him international recognition.

      But I'd say that as far as the English-speaking world is concerned, there's no such thing as a more popular Saramago novel, they're all still too unknown.

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    3. In English, or let's say in the US, Blindness was Saramago's breakthrough and is by far his most popular book. I just checked the Amazon rankings to see if I was blowing smoke, but no. The difference is extreme. Blindness has found something like a mass audience. B&B is closer to unread than to popular.

      Now I can't stop checking. German Amazon is pretty much in line with the U.S., with Die Stadt der Blinden the winner. But the customers of French Amazon seem to buy lots of Saramago's novels pretty much equally. Good for the French.

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    4. That's a fun toy, those rankings. You're right, the Spanish also favour Ensayo sobre la ceguera. After that, nobody agrees: some prefer his book on Jesus, others the one on Death...

      I've always considered his most popular because it was his first book to be translated into English, by Giovanni Pontiero, and the start of his slow rise as an international figure. Still I'm happy it was dethroned by Blindness, a novel I much prefer.

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  4. Wish I'd found a copy in time to read along. Sounds great.

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    1. Séamus, you must read it at some point--don't see how you couldn't like it given how great it is, in fact! Also, hope we're still on for Roa Bastos' I, the Supreme next month as that looks like another treat.

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  5. Richard, I've arrived here via your best-of-the-year list. Sounds fascinating, an intriguing blend. I have two unread Saramago novels on my shelves (Blindness and All the Names) so I ought to tick those off the list before buying another. I've made a note of this one though.

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    1. I couldn't have wished for a better introduction to Saramago, Jacqui, but I have both his The History of the Siege of Lisbon to finish and his Jesus novel to get to so maybe we can compare notes on entirely different Saramago titles before the end of the year. Until then, your comment gives me a perfect excuse to rave about how soulful and imaginative The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis was one more time. Thanks for the prompt!

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