The History of the Siege of Lisbon, by José Saramago
English translation, 1989, 317pp.
The History of the Siege of Lisbon is a triumph of how utterly irrelevant plot is to a great novelist. Martin Amis wrote somewhere that mainstream fiction only has about a half-dozen plots to work with, all of which have been used for millennia. This book could be crudely and violently reduced to a rendition of “boy meets girl,” which is true, and would be as accurate to describing José Saramago’s art as pointing out, accurately, that the ocean is jolly wet.
The story: Raimundo Silva is a lonely, quiet, mild-mannered proofreader in Lisbon. One day he is struck by a random assertion of humanity and inserts one word into a manuscript he is correcting about the siege of Lisbon in 1147. In the center of a crucial sentence he adds the word not.
This of course sets of a sequence of events. He is promptly found out and brought to the attention of Dr. Maria Sara, a supervisor at the publishing house. They are instantly taken with each other, and she suggests that he write his own History, preserving the alteration and following it to its logical conclusion. He does so: about half the book is his narrative of the history, as a parallel historical romance. The other half is about him and Maria Sara falling in love, although since characters in the History mirror Silva and Maria Sara, to a certain extent the entire book, even the most extraneous and mundane detail, is about falling in love, especially when you are lonely and have been that way a long time and cannot believe that anyone would really want to love you.
José Saramago might have the most distinctive prose style in the world. He writes in long, lyrical sentences which sometimes run for paragraphs or pages with minimal punctuation. Starting a new paragraph for a new piece of dialogue seems to be beneath him. He is disinterested even in the period, so dialogue takes place in areas marked off only by feeble commas and the hopelessly bewildered capital letter. Since a speaker may give out several sentences at once, which are likewise punctuated, the reader must constantly reevaluate the subordinance or dominance of clauses. A sentence originally read in one character’s voice may be revealed later through some capricious contextual clue to have been spoken by another, causing a reexamination of all that came after. At the same time, the absence of periods or indents deprives the reader of any convenient stopping point. Once the reader’s attention is seized, there is no escape from Saramago’s narrator until the narrator is ready to be finished. The reader is compelled to enter into a tug-of-war between the impetus to read quickly forced by the absence of structural pauses and the need to be slow, careful, and methodical to properly understand what is happening and who is saying it. I will admit that there were times when I would sit back, sip my port, contemplate the vast landscape of unrelieved words, and be glad that I am a scarred veteran of Thomas Bernhard’s hundred-page monologues.
Saramago’s prose is a character unto itself, in the way that Dublin is a character for Joyce and the cold is a character for Jack London and the sea is a character for Monsarrat. His narrator is a chatty, witty, playful sort with a peculiarly limited knowledge about the characters. He has a fierce attention for quotidian details and is full of little homilies and proverbs, so if any general sense of character emerges, it is one of a wizened, wise, old Portuguese peasant, perhaps gleeful at the knowledge of a young wife at home, sitting around a campfire, telling the reader a long and riveting story.
Yet there is another layer of cleverness behind this provincial fellow. Saramago is a highly educated postmodernist, a hardline Communist in a formerly fascist country, a journalist, and a Nobel Laureate. He is not a parochial bumpkin, but his hands are never visible pulling the strings of his narrator-surrogate, who apparently is a fixture of all of Saramago’s work. Amid the well-thumbed peasant phrases are glistening little pieces of absolute brilliance, which he seems to scatter negligently through his prose as though fully confident that he will never face a shortage, like someone who is amused that their pocket full of diamonds has sprung a leak. Consider:
“only the proofreader has learnt that the task of amending is the only one that will never end in this world”
“let us suppose that a man has asked a woman, Do you love me, and she remains silent, simply looking at him, sphinx-line and distant, refusing to utter that No that will destroy him, or that Yes which will destroy both of them”
“it is easier to love than to be loved”
“anyone who thinks it is easy to pronounce a name for the first time when you’re in love, is much mistaken”
There are ruminations on the phenomena of error (complete with allusions to Aristotle and Bacon) which would not be out of place in a book by Umberto Eco. There are digressions on history and art, beauty, language, thought, death, and the passage of time. The narrator suggests that since all things have a cause, our thoughts are caused by the thoughts we had before them, and those by the ones before them, and so on back to our very first thought on the moment of being born, which is unfortunately one we will never know. Somewhere Kant must be wishing he had Saramago’s gift.
This striking simplicity of life’s everyday routines, the half-platitudes and half-aphorisms, and the sweeping universal observation are the three notes with which Saramago builds his narrative chord. He opens in a distinctly minor key, and when Raimundo Silva writes his life-altering not, the italics stand out so nakedly against the otherwise implacable blocks of unpunctuated text that it’s as though someone brought a timpani to a slow performance by a string quartet. The passages narrating Silva’s new History are full of rococo flourishes and recondite digressions; the everyday life of the proofreader is stripped down and observed with touching precision. Here the limitations of that irascible narrator serve Saramago brilliantly: several times we are surprised that this is not the usual utterly omniscient magical-realism narrator (consider how Salman Rushdie’s narrator knows everything everyone is thinking all the time) and the narrator informs us that, due to a well-reasoned argument, he will limit himself only to Silva, the subject for whom he has endless fascination and affection.
The long dialogues between Silva and Maria Sara never, ever strike a false note. Saramago’s habit of punctuating only with a comma and then a capital letter makes the voices of the two lovers run together, in the perfect prose equivalent of the delirious rush of falling rapidly and irrevocably for someone else. They are witty and skilled at verbal fencing and from their very first exchange, the pages are almost dripping with longing and sexual tension. The eventual scene of their cautious, careful, half-terrified and half-euphoric admittance of their feelings is almost heartbreaking, and in their later dialogues Saramago’s prose is so lyrical, so suffused with romantic feeling that at times it feels like drinking honey out of Helen of Troy.
Little wonder then that Harold Bloom considers Saramago "most gifted novelist alive in the world today" and James Wood, who I consider the most gifted literary critic alive in the world today, heartily agrees. The History of the Siege of Lisbon is not even considered one of Saramago’s masterpieces, and although the theme of historical knowledge is in keeping with his preoccupations, it is not the allegory or assault on poor reasoning which seems to characterize his later work. Now 87 years old, he published another book this year, and hopefully will not deprive us of his gift any time soon. I intend to begin The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis immediately.