The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis


Book by Jose Saramago

Annotation by Mary Kay Wulf

When I read my first novel by Jose Saramago, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, I was intimidated by his block style, his sentence structure, and his original, spare use of punctuation. In an interview he recommends reading his work aloud to catch his rhythm and understand his meaning. It works for me, especially in the speeches. The lack of stops and white space on the page eliminates the dead air and elevates the language. It also increases dramatic tension and forces the reader to pay closer attention to what is being said by whom. Once I’m well into the novel and know the characters, I don’t have to reread the passages of dialogue as often to determine who is saying what to whom.

In this novel, I admired the author’s use of unlimited omniscience. It is ironic, reliable, fluid in time and space, and extremely complex. First, there is the author who makes himself known particularly through his religious and political views, then there is the narrator who, I assumed was also Saramago, who has, for this story, resurrected the famous Portuguese writer, Fernando Pessoa, who, upon his death in 1936, lures to Portugal, one of his heteronyms, the poet and doctor, Ricardo Reis. Pessoa appears to Reis much like Hamlet’s father’s ghost, “doomed for a certain time to walk the night,” and mostly dispenses advice on life before it is Reis’s turn to die. When the reader is presented with Reis’s sexual and physical humiliations, the POV is extremely and effectively intimate.

In regards to the roles of the two women in the novel, I thought in a large sense they represented the mystery of their sex in the eyes of the two poets. Both Reis and Pessoa claim to be frightened of women. Reis, the more experienced of the two, describes women as “an enigma, a labyrinth, a charade.” Throughout, Reis is inept in the role of seducer and refuses to claim paternity when he impregnates his hotel’s maid, Lydia. Undaunted, she appears to be the wisest and most genuinely alive character in the novel especially in light of her hard, impeccable work, the Lydia poems which Reis/Pessoa have devoted to her, and her refusal to accept Portugal’s hideous political alignment with Hitler in the days before the outbreak of WWII. Reis travels to the circus of Fatima to search of Marcenda, a much younger, wealthy, aristocrat. He fails to find her and departs before the closing ceremony in honor of the other virgin, the Virgin Mary. His humiliation is painful and yet the reader detests his and the Church’s class-consciousness. Marcenda’s infirmity seems to mirror her sterility as a member of the Catholic upper class, those who support Germany and the regime of Franco in Spain. Reis imagines Marcenda lifting her right arm in the “Roman salute.” Her paralyzed arm may represent Portugal.

This novel is so beautifully crafted. The author employs as his protagonist, Reis, the frail creation of a dead, revered poet (Passoa) and then gives him a brief life after Passoa’s death in order that he may fall in love and discuss with both the living and the dead, the state of this world and the next. It’s crazy original. Now I feel I must read the work of Pessoa. I also enjoyed the wealth of cultural and literary references, although it was Richard, not Henry, who offered to trade his kingdom for a horse. Or was it Reis beginning to lose his memory?

I want to address the statement made by the narrator in reference to the struggle between the classes. There are many of these but the one in reference to the wealthy eating figs is particularly memorable because it follows the scene in which Lydia serves coffee to Reis and Marcenda and points up Lydia’s position as only a chambermaid. The narrator states that, “The rule is that some eat figs while others watch.” It reminded me of a line delivered by Addie in the play, The Little Foxes, by Lillian Hellman. It reads, “Well, there are people in the world who eat the earth and eat all the people on it…. Then there are people who stand around and watch them eat it.” As writers, we must observe in order to write, but the act of writing is participatory. I believe Saramago’s novel is certainly an act of protest. Against what? That, I think, would require a volume in itself. Political issues are pervasive throughout the novel: imperialism, socialism, nationalism, and communism to name a few. Throughout the novel, whenever Reis attaches himself to a mob, whether it has gathered for religious, political, or celebratory reasons, he is hurt physically and psychically.

Regret, too, is a prominent theme throughout. Pessoa laments the “tug of war between memory that pulls and oblivion that pushes…” And in the end, “the world forgets everything.” “In every age we find reasons to go to war.”

I was struck by the title and its significance. Halfway through the book, I turned it over to read the cover again, hoping the word “Death” wasn’t there. As maddening as Reis is, his frailty and foolishness are universal. I felt only pathos. Passoa, Lydia, and the reader love him in spite of his faults, in spite of the fact that he doesn’t exist. As childish as it seems, I thought if anyone could rescue a doomed man, it was Lydia. Silly, I know. But that was what kept me reading. Hope.

Death with Interruptions

Death with Interruptionsbook by José Saramago

Annotation by Kate Maruyama

At first, I thought it was the lack of punctuation. I had read Saramago before, I’m not sure what the book was, I know I found it difficult to get through and it didn’t stick with me later. But reading page after page with no paragraph breaks and no dialogue punctuation is wearing. About three chapters in I realized that was not the exhausting part, the exhausting part was the novel’s complete lack of characters. I had nothing to latch onto, nowhere to grab hold. An interesting premise opened our story: people suddenly stop dying. First there is joy, then problems arrive. Those due to die just…stay.

Saramago takes a wide sweeping view of things, talking about an entire nation dealing with the crisis, we take peeks into the suspended life of people and into various cabinet meetings on the subject, but we seldom get closer. He teases us with the hope of characters when we look at the first family to transport their dying over the border of the country where they may die (and more than a few echoes of AS I LAY DYING as they complete the task), but pulls out again for that maddening wide-angle view. I had a glimmer of hope on page forty when the chapter opened, “The protagonists of these dramatic events, described in unusually detailed fashion in a story which has, so far, preferred to offer the curious reader, if we may put it, a panoramic view of the facts, were, when they unexpectedly entered the scene, given the social classification of poor country folk.” AAAARGH! Hope with the word “protagonist” at the front of the sentence, despair as the sentence proceeded.

For 149 pages, reading was drudgery, and more frustrating because the idea for the book was so great and the author was giving me no satisfaction whatever. I’d space out and have to reread (no easy task finding my lost spot when the paragraphs run on for two or three pages at a time). Skimming was impossible, because important (and sparse) dialogue would be buried deep in the middle of So. Many. Words.

FINALLY on page 149, we are properly introduced to a character who has a name, death (lower case, the author warns us). And, as we get to know her character in more detail, the lack of paragraph separation or punctuation marks, the dearth of periods, all of that no longer mattered because a beautiful and engaging story was being told. Sadly, the book is only 238 pages long.

The resulting story of death’s having a death-warning letter returned, her investigation and following love affair with a poor cellist, this could have been pulled out and kept as a perfect short story, or opened up a little into a beautiful novella.

Saramago’s descriptions are concrete and yet vague enough to keep death a mystery, “…If it’s true that she doesn’t smile, this is only because she has no lips, and this anatomical lesson tells us that, contrary to what the living may believe, a smile is not a matter of teeth.” We get to know death, the little room she dwells in, her vague hold on life, her unspoken relationship with her scythe (this I will hold onto to steal some day I am certain). We also get to know the cellist as she observes him…this is the only death-letter marked “return to sender” and frustration over this leads her to consider the interloper.

Here, death, in a time honored fashion, feels human, “death fell to her knees, for she had a body now, which is why she had legs and feet and arms and hands, and a face which she covered with her hands and shoulders, which, for some reason, were shaking, she can’t be crying…” After observing the cellist, she goes home, puts the scythe in charge for a week, takes on the form of a beautiful woman and goes back to meet the cellist in person. Of course they fall in love, and Saramego captures all of the awkwardness of a non-human who knows she has a terrible assignment–to make sure the cellist gets his letter—falling in love with her victim. And here is a perfect story.

There were no new ideas to take away (although death’s relationship with the scythe and the cellist’s with his dog will stay with me until I can steal them). But I can see how the awful first TWO THIRDS of this book were overlooked when Saramago came to his point at the end. Perhaps he is too honored or too old for his editor to have said, “Uh, José? This part at the beginning? I’m not feeling it.” So I’ll join the masses and overlook it and keep the story of death and the cellist with me. But I will stick with my belief that a story needs characters to hold onto, otherwise it ends up being just a lot of words.