Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis

The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, by José Saramago
1986, 358 pp.

The trouble with reading several books by José Saramago in a row is that after prolonged exposure to his prose, every other author seems to be using training wheels. The previously sturdy hands of Amis or Rushdie now appear to be feebly gripping, white-knuckled on rubber handles which are perhaps adorned with little pink tassels, as they struggle, wobbling, to stay upright in the wild and frightening world of literature, while ahead of them, Saramago is breezing past, perhaps on a sort of prose motorcycle, the wind rippling his hair, his robust commas bearing him along at several hundred horsepower, almost certainly with a svelte, languid woman draped over his shoulders. After reading a lot of Saramago in one go, you find you cannot go home again to your previously favorite authors: like your childhood bedroom and your elementary school, they are much smaller, dingier, and more dilapidated than you remember. It is quite erroneous to speak in frantic tones about "the death of the novel," but there is some justification for despairing literary suicide. Saramago is better at what he does than the rest of us will ever be at anything.

The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is even more spare and stripped-down than The History of the Siege of Lisbon. It has almost no plot to speak of: Ricardo Reis returns to Lisbon after sixteen years in Brazil. He stays at a hotel, has an affair with a maid, takes lots of walks, reads lots of newspapers, rents an apartment. The point of the novel is not in what Ricardo Reis does, but what and who he is. Ricardo Reis was one of several pseudonyms (or, to be perfectly accurate, heteronyms) invented by the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. Pessoa wrote some brilliant poems and The Book of Disquiet under his closest persona; he created some 70-odd heteronyms to explore different kinds of poetry. His three most prolific were Alberto Caeiro, Alvaro de Campos, and Ricardo Reis, though he seems to have been an entire poetic community in and of himself: some of his heteronyms would review each other's works, translate or criticize each other's poems, even write jealous letters to each other's girlfriends. Caeiro was considered the master, to whom all the others (including Fernando Pessoa) looked up, wrote sensual poems stripped of metaphysics, while Reis was "the sad Epicurean" who wrote stark, reserved odes, and Alvaro de Campos was called "the jaded sensationist," with his hyperbolic, Whitman-esque fever and fixation on problems of identity.

So here the heteronym returns to Lisbon, drawn there by the real-life death of Fernando Pessoa, who soon appears as something between a ghost and a hallucination. He and Reis conduct the sort of meandering philosophical conversations which seem to be the hallmark of Saramago's thinking, and Pessoa explains that he has nine months in which he can visit the world until he forgets it entirely and disappears.

Yet the intertexuality goes deeper. Reis continually starts and fails to read a book called "The God of the Labyrinth," which is a fictional novel from Jorge Luis Borges' mock-catalogue of the works of a fictitious author called "Herbert Quain."

A few motifs run throughout. Reis continues to write his odes, and their first lines stand out in sharp, naked italics in the midst of Saramago's flow of words. They are often simple, declarative, and beautiful. He spends a lot of time reading newspapers, and since Fernando Pessoa died in December of 1936, Ricardo Reis reads about the world tearing itself apart. This theme starts with small, slightly comical lists of news items (Hitler's frequent declarations of his peace-loving intentions, for instance) and escalates as refugees pour over the border from disintegrating Spain, and as the fascist Salazar consolidates his control over every aspect of Portuguese life. As the order of the world dissolves, so too does the fabric of Ricardo Reis' life, and the astute reader, aware of Reis' identity, realizes that the heteronym cannot long outlive his creator.

Again the strongest passages concern Reis' relationships with women. He has a long-running affair with a wise, loyal, and empathetic chambermaid, and also falls for an austere, distant girl with a paralyzed left arm. The sharp gradations of his feelings for the two, and the way in which Saramago communicates the difference between affection for a real, specific woman and longing for a distant ideal is nothing short of brilliant. There is a passage between Reis and Lydia, the maid, on pages 305-307 which is literary perfection.

Saramago's irascible narrative voice is on full display in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, but with an interesting addition. The narrative voice occasionally refers to itself in the first-person plural, which suggests rather than one wise old storyteller by a fire, perhaps several. These narrators seem to take turns, and in the transitions they slip subtly between present and past tense narration. At first I thought this was a mistake, until I noticed the tense change is consistent within a scene, and increases as the book goes on, so it gives an impression of a general linear story full of digressions. It would be particularly interesting to learn if in the original Portuguese the narrators conjugate in male, female, singular, or plural tenses and which words they use in place of our maddening "we." I was reminded of Annie Hall, which begins around the beginning and ends at the end, but is by no means linear in between; so too are scenes a bit jumbled here, particularly as Ricardo Reis begins to unravel. This form innovation throws light on the content: this is a book about decay. The world around Reis is decaying, just as he is decaying from within. Fernando Pessoa the real poet is forgetting the actual external world, while Ricardo Reis the invention is forgetting the constructed world within himself.

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