Sunday, June 22, 2008

The History of the Siege of Lisbon

It is such a beautiful day, I am writing this at an outdoor patio. This is very unusual for me, to have my laptop open in the great outdoors.
There are so many birds flying about here in the courtyard of planet coffee [← all lower case, perhaps the place is owned by the descendents of e.e. cummings?]… that I am a bit concerned that one of them may decide to bomb my Mac, if you know what I mean.
At any rate, I am just thinking of the last book I read.
The History of the Siege of Lisbon, by Jose Saramago.
It is not exactly a fetching title for a work of fiction!
It sounds like… well, a history book, does it not?
And in a sense, it is a history book, but one that basically, from start to finish, speculates upon what exactly a book of “history” is! It questions the nature of history and the relationship of words to truth and reality.
Much like another favorite author of mine [Ian McEwan], Saramago’s fiction capitalizes on the effects of seemingly innocuous antecedent causes. He has the uncanny ability of constructing looming fictional mountains from the most shadowless of molehills.
In Siege of Lisbon, he is writing at the height of his powers.

Our protagonist is Raimundo Silva, a middle-aged, quiet, [somewhat] celibate bachelor, well-respected for his years of accuracy as proof-reader for a well-known publishing house.
One day, while proof-reading a standard text of the history of the siege of Lisbon, Raimundo inexplicably succumbs to an urge to insert one word in the concluding portions of the text.
This word “not” [the most shadowless of molehills] amounts to a sort of re-invention of the founding myth of Portugal. As amended by Silva, the text now reads that the crusaders did not come to the aid of the 12th-century Portuguese King who was laying siege to Lisbon, aiming to expel the Moors from the area.

Silva submits his bastardized work and then lives twelve full days of angst-riddled guilt, pending discovery and punishment, both of which duly arrive in the form of a pre-judged tribunal, with Raimundo in the dock!
He is acquitted of his offense, but put on probation. And to deal with any further lapses in proof-reading efficiency, the publisher has hired a new executive. The young, voluptuous, alluring and astute Maria Sara, to whom Raimundo will be obligated to report.
Rather than being reproachful, Maria is fascinated with Raimundo’s anarchic ways.
In a private meeting, she proposes that he write his own version of the siege of Lisbon… the version which would elaborate upon his insertion of the word “not.” Initially, he feels unequal to the task, but soon becomes equally obsessed with the idea, and sets out upon his assignment.

But this is not the only obsession now alive in Raimundo. Along with the project, he is also obsessed with Maria, and she, with him.
What follows in the book before us is an amazing intertwining of history with fiction.
As in, it happens not only in the book that is in our own hands, but also in the one that Raimundo is writing, for he creates a love story within his fictionalized “history” that mirrors his own burgeoning relationship with Maria.

What we hold in our hands is:
a) a contemporary love story, set in modern-day Lisbon.
b) an unorthodox “Raimundo-ized” retelling of events surrounding the actual siege of Lisbon in 1147, which itself resolves into a believable love affair between a common soldier and a knight's concubine.
c) a wonderfully rich and rewarding Saramagian discourse on the mutability of history, and the inadequacy of words to describe what is [too often] perceived as fact.

This being the eighth Saramago novel I have read, it saddens me to think there is only one left for me to read through for the first time. [The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis]. The thing about Jose Saramago is that each novel is so good, that while you are reading it, you feel a loyalty to claiming that it is his best work. I felt that way repeatedly during the reading of The History of the Siege of Lisbon.

Let me say for the hundredth time [on Bookpuddle] a word or two about the unconventional style of Jose Saramago.
Sentences and passages run off into the horizon like an endlessly rolling landscape. His use of punctuation is completely not normal. Some of his sentences go on for pages at a time, spliced together with a sand-on-the-seashore amount of commas. Within sentences, new speakers speak, with no use of quotation marks differentiating one from the other.
If Saramago submitted to any sort of standardized Grammar Test [something I cannot imagine him doing…] any teacher would have to fail him. Then, were that same teacher to read something by Saramago, she would find that the old man has much to teach her, about grammar.

I will provide an annotated excerpt from Siege of Lisbon HERE, if you would like to see an example of his nefarious ways!
Such unconventionality extends even to the narration. In Saramago, the narrator must be listed as a principle character so absorbingly digressive and ubiquitously intercalary that he is nowhere non-evident, often stumbling forward to inform the reader that there are certain things that even he cannot possibly know, and hence, in humble non-omniscience, he must remain silent upon these issues!
In a word, if you have not experienced the work of Jose Saramago, I greatly encourage you to dive in. And The History of the Siege of Lisbon seems to me as good a place as any, to begin.

In closing [the lid of my laptop] let me conclude by saying that I managed to write all of the above without any birds laying siege to the Mac.
Yet.

*********

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is a fabulous post.
I encourage all readers who have not tried Saramago to go for it. Hit the ground running for your local bookstore.
Read him and rejoice.

Cip, I loved the annotated version of the passage. What is intriguing about Saramago is how you really do catch onto him very fast, no matter how used to conventional English you may be.

I would compare it to going to hear a skilled troupe perform Shakespeare. During the first few minutes you may have to listen a little carefully, devote rapt attention. But very soon, realizing you are in the hands of a master, you are into the language, the syntax, the whole schmeer.

That is Saramago. My favorite author.
I wish he had written fifty more books. Every single one I have read has been my absolute favorite while I was reading them.

Thanks for spreading the word, Cipriano.

cipriano said...

And thank you for your wonderful comment, anonymous.
Truly, the Flag of My Entire Literary Life© will be at half-mast when Mr. Saramago quits tormenting us with novels. His works of art.
And when he [I shall not say it]... when he leaves this earthly orb [the man is 86 years old...] something very significant in me, will expire.
I would prefer to leave first.

So nice to hear from another devotee.
He is magnificent.
Jose Saramago [I am going to declare it] is the one author for whom I reserve the word MAGNIFICENT.
Vive le Jose the Magnificent.

Isabella said...

This is the first Saramago I ever read, and it hooked me. Truly magnificent!

Potentially good news for you, Cip: I think you've miscounted.

Anonymous said...

I just finished my very first Saramago, "Seeing" only to realise that I should have first read "Blindness". I can't imagine it took anything away from my enjoyment since I enjoyed it so very much. Granted it took a few pages to get used to his style but I'm hooked now.
C.

Matt said...

Cip, I have read all but this one and Seeing. The title has deterred me from picking it up because I'm not really a history buff, let alone a Portugal history buff. But Saramago always delights in surprising his reader, in both the unconventional story and unconventional grammar. He breathes life and refreshing ideas into a character that is holding the most mundane and ordinary jobs. Remember the clerk of the death registry in All The Names? I'll pick this one up and plunge into the world of this great writer. :)

cipriano said...

Isabella!
Are you implying that there is MORE Saramago for me, out there?
Do tell!

And oh oh oh, dear dear "C"..... yes, yes, by all means, read BLINDNESS.... what an amazing book.

Matt, this is the very thing I was referring to when I said that [in my opinion] this particular book has an unfortunate TITLE.... I am surprised that his editors [or whoever] let it pass! Like, because one thinks it is a HISTORY BOOK... and in a way it is, but really it is a fiction.
In my opinion.... if I had written this book, I would have entitled it.... [art thou ready for this? Drum roll.......]
NOT.
I would have called it "NOT".
Because the whole novel really hinges on one wrod.... that being, the word, "NOT".
To me, that would have been more catchy.

cipriano said...

Whoopsie Daisy.
The whole novel hinges on one WORD..... not one WROD!
[.... Damn, this beer really kicks in fast, here...]

Merisi said...

Lucky you, with 'The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis' still ahead of you! (Cip, didn't we "meet" over "All the Names"?)

António Lobo Antunes, once you are through with Saramago, may be of some consolation. I have read his "Inquisitors' Manual" five times, worth every minute I spent on it.