All struggles, to a certain extent, involve uncertainty. And while they may take a variety of forms—from political revolutions to the more delicate act of interpreting a text—each entails an element of hope: for a positive resolution, a better future, a clearer understanding.
While not “difficult” in the sense of, say, the intentionally challenging modernists, José Saramago inscribes a struggle into the very structure of his prose. Though conversational and often witty, his meandering phrases become increasingly unpredictable as they develop. Whether by fusing multiple speakers in the same sentence—with only capital letters signaling a change in voice—or allowing room for his narrators’ countless tangents, his rejection of traditional narrative form demands from readers a heightened degree of concentration. We never quite know where he will lead us, but we begin to have faith that what seems like a collection of disparate elements will eventually coalesce into a comprehensible, and often surprising, whole.
Case in point, this section from the 1997 novel All the Names concerned with the protagonist’s journey into the Central Registry, an archive of the city’s births, marriages, and deaths so cavernous that it must be traversed using Ariadne’s thread:
“One might ask why Senhor José needs a hundred-yard-long piece of string if the length of the Central Registry, despite successive extensions, is no more than eighty. That is the question of a person who imagines that one can do everything in life simply by following a straight line, that it is always possible to proceed from one place to another by the shortest route, perhaps some people in the outside world believe that they have done so, but here, where the living and the dead share the same space, sometimes, in order to find one of them, you have to make a lot of twists and turns, you have to skirt round mountains of bundles, columns of files, piles of cards, thickets of ancient remains, you have to walk down dark gulleys, between walls of grubby paper which, up above, actually touch, yards and yards of string will have to be unravelled, left behind, like a sinuous, subtle trail traced in the dust, there is no other way of knowing where you have to go next, there is no other way of finding your way back.”
Senhor José remains stationary, but this lengthy series of clauses propels the reader along an unmarked path. Saramago alone seems aware of its trajectory, and in this way, the passage itself, filled with its own “twists and turns,” serves as an apt description of his knotted style.
He was not originally so uninhibited, however, as can now be seen in his “lost” novel, Skylight. Completed in 1953 and composed with standard line breaks and punctuation, the book was completely ignored upon submission. But in 1989, the future Noble laureate received an unexpected phone call from the publishing house to which he had submitted the novel. No doubt the international acclaim for the then-recently translated Baltasar and Blimunda had caught their attention, and somewhat mysteriously, they had rediscovered the manuscript. While these editors were undoubtedly excited by the prospect of future sales, Saramago flatly refused their offer. According to Pilar del Río, president of the José Saramago Foundation, “[h]is sole explanation—his main principle of life, often spoken and often written—was this: no one has any obligation to love anyone else, but we are all under an obligation to respect each other.” Any writer who has pitched a story into the void will understand Saramago’s conviction, but few have the body of work (and some would say stubbornness) to rationalize rejecting any such positive response. What happened to the book after his death was of no concern to him though, and now English readers have access to this old, yet also strangely new, work.
The façade of a Lisbon housing complex peels away as we play voyeur to the working-class occupants of six apartments: tired Silvestre, the cobbler-philosopher whose home also serves as his workshop, remembers a time when his life was not as staid and devoid of risk; the sisters Isaura and Adriana grapple with sexual repression while living with their spinster mother and aunt; Justina remains in mourning dress, even though her daughter died two years ago; Emílio and Carmen have a joyless marriage, quarreling endlessly at the expense of their young son; and Lídia, at the mercy of her lover Paulino, feels her comfortable living situation is under threat after she asks him to employ her attractive young neighbor, Maria Cláudia.
“Everything had a kind of matte finish to it, as if a layer of dust, impossible to remove, were hiding any gloss or color,” Emílio observes about his home, seeing the “ugliness, monotony and banality” surrounding him. Rather than wallowing in such monotony, Saramago generally focuses on what results when we break away from the status-quo—be that through the cessation of death (Death With Interruptions) or a collective loss of vision (Blindness). Such a rupture demands a fresh engagement with the world, but those in Skylight, with rare exception, refuse any such change and instead remain frozen within the walls of their tomb-like apartments. When we meet them, their lives are unfulfilled, and at no point are we convinced their condition will change.
This paralysis is reflected in the silence that permeates the text as well as in the uninventive prose which bears little resemblance to the free-wheeling nature of Saramago’s mature writing. For example, when Amélia, the sisters’ aunt, wants to praise a piece of music on the radio, she hesitates because “[t]here are certain words that draw back, that refuse to be uttered, because they are too laden with significance for our word-weary ears”—but the thought stops there. I suspect that at a later point in his life, Saramago would have explored this notion further, opening up space to contemplate, question, and hypothesize just how and why certain words are so precious. But at this stage, he is either afraid or unable to get carried away by his thoughts.
In a word, the young Saramago was constrained. His anger and pessimism regarding the António de Salazar regime seem to have overwhelmed him and, as a result, he repetitively, and with no shade of nuance, makes evident in Skylight that the lives these characters lead are untenable. Perhaps the government needed dissolving before he could understand the paradox that distance and indirection, not bluntness, lead us to higher truths. “Metaphors have always been the best way of explaining things,” Senhor José says in All the Names. It just took the “other” Senhor José a few decades to realize that.