Monday, July 6, 2009

Baltasar and Blimunda

Baltasar and Blimunda, by José Saramago
English translation, 1987, 343 pp.

Certainly by now even the most casual reader of this platform is thoroughly acquainted with my delirious affinity for the works of José Saramago, so consequently I shall attempt to keep the fawning praise to a minimum in this review. Baltasar and Blimunda was Saramago's first novel, written four years before The Stone Raft and The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. It is surprisingly mature, showing no sign of literary apprenticeship or inexperience, no faltering of an unsure authorial hand, and can stand comfortably in the pantheon of his other great novels, though for all of its excellence I must admit it is my least favorite of the five of his books I've read. It is a less focused novel, less intimate, and hobbled by an arbitrarily cruel ending which left me distinctly unsatisfied.

The book is set in early eighteenth-century Portugal and follows three strands, setting them up against one another to illuminate a series of contrasts. One story concerns the construction of a giant convent in Mafra, which the enormously stupid and ineffectual King João V promises to build for the Franciscans if the queen bears him a child. She does, he lives up to his promise, and fifty thousand Portuguese peasants are conscripted into hard labor for decades. The second story is the construction of a slightly magical flying machine by Padre Bartolomeu Lourenço, a heretical priest and real-life aviation pioneer. Helping him in his efforts are Baltasar and Blimunda, whose quiet, loving dedication makes up the third strand. Baltasar is a former soldier who lost his left hand in battle, and Blimunda is gifted with a magical ability to see inside of people when she fasts. The great Domenico Scarlatti makes a few sensitive and erudite appearances as their friend and collaborator:

"Domenico Scarlatti called at the estate just in time to see the machine rising into the sky with a great shuddering of wings, and just think what would happen if those wings could flap, and once inside the coach-house, the musician found the debris of their departure, broken tiles scattered all over the floor, battens and joists sawn off or broken away, there is nothing sadder than an empty space, the machine is already on its way and gaining altitude, only to leave behind the most acute melancholy, and this sends Domenico Scarlatti to the harpsichord where he starts to play a bagatelle, barely skimming his fingers over the keys, as if stroking someone on the face when all words have been spoken or when words fail..."

These plot strands allow Saramago to set up a series of contradictory scenes, contrasting the rulers and the ruled, the haves and have-nots, those who relax and those who work, all the better to express his vast contempt for the powerful. He takes a number of barbed shots at God in general and organized religion in particular, several of them quite amusing. At one point, the latest in a line of sequences in which he shows an innocent being harmed and wonders where God is, he asks if perhaps God was busy attempting to master his multiplication tables. In particular there is a tour-de-force sequence two-thirds of the way through in which Saramago first describes the agony and brutal hardship experienced by a team of laborers trying to move a gigantic block of marble down a winding road to the convent. It is excruciating, back-breaking work, and several people die. This is followed by an extended sequence describing the regal comfort and enormous indifference of the king's traveling procession making it slow way to that same convent. The point is delivered with Saramago's characteristic panache: whether laboring under an unfeeling, uncaring piece of rock or under the royal person, the suffering of the common people is identical.

Saramago's prose is as full-bodied and robust as ever, with his characteristic authorial presence and folksy asides. He delves suddenly into first-person to give the perspective of someone he is describing, which can be jarring (at first I took it for one of his authorial intrusions before I realized it was a different voice, meant to emanate from the character he was just mentioning) and which he drops in his later novels. He is also more earthy here, more descriptive of sex and dirt and violence than in many of his later novels, probably due mostly to the subject matter and the time period. The book is brilliantly written and well-crafted, of course, and his characters are as keenly sculpted as ever. He presents Baltasar and Blimunda's devotion to one another without cheap sentimentality or manipulative pathos, and the exhilaration of their work on the flying machine, the details of their lives as powerless plebeians is perfectly played. The book is not without flaws, though. Most of Saramago's later books would restrict themselves to only one of the three stories, delving deeper but into less subject matter. Here he sometimes almost seems to be losing track of his point, reserving little interest for Baltasar and Blimunda, who he made me care so much about, and the book is pieced together more by the set-piece scenes than the emotional trajectory of the characters. Despite being the organizing thread, the story of Baltasar and Blimunda too often takes a back seat. Sometimes they disappear for entire chapters, and we miss years of their lives.

The ending, as I have already mentioned, seems unfair, startling, unnecessary, and unkind both to the reader and to the characters. It does slightly make sense given a careful reading of the book's symbolic content: if you view the flying machine as a realization of freedom before its time, which must necessarily be destroyed in a world still dominated by the tyranny of absolute monarchy and organized religion, and if you are willing to accept that one of the novel's central themes is the powerlessness of regular people in the face of that tyranny, then I suppose the cruelty of the ending makes sense. It is still conducted with the sort of brevity and tacked-on vindictiveness and lack of closure which reminded me of the closing pages of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. It seems unfair, and ends the book on an entirely different note from the preceding pages. Saramago is always worth reading, and always a delight to spend time with, but Baltasar and Blimunda (and Baltasar and Blimunda) deserved a different ending.

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