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The History of the Siege of Lisbon by José Saramago

This is a difficult book, at least it was for me. I was about to give it up 4-5 times before I got my act together. The last time was on my way to Lisbon, just before Christmas. I thought it would be easier to read while I was there, but decided to give up already on the flight there. Probably because I was so tired, having been up very early.

If you have read my newsletter you know that already on the first day I had an encounter with Saramago, and Pessoa (link to newsletter) since we ended up at the restaurant that both authors frequently visited. It turned out we had chosen the same table as Saramago used to sit at, and behind me on the wall was a picture of him. 'Noblesse oblige' as they say and I realised, there and then, I had to finish his book.

“If proofreaders were given their freedom and did not have their hands and feet tied by a mass of prohibitions more binding than the penal code, they would soon transform the face of the world, establish the kingdom of universal happiness, giving drink to the thirsty, food to the famished, peace to those who live in turmoil, joy to the sorrowful ... for they would be able to do all these things simply by changing the words ..." The power of the word is evident in Portuguese author José Saramago's novel, The History of the Siege of Lisbon. His protagonist, a proofreader named Raimundo Silva, adds a key word to a history of Portugal and thus rewrites not only the past, but also his own life."

The story sounded intriguing, and is, but I found the way in which it was written difficult. There is only text, no air on the page; hardly any full stops, the sentences just linger over page after page; the dialogue is included in the text, without citation marks or any other hint; a comma here and there (not visible in the text below).

“Every novel is like this, desperation, a frustrated attempt to save something of the past. Except that it still has not been established whether it is the novel that prevents man from forgetting himself or the impossibility of forgetfulness that makes him write novels.

I persisted, and I am happy about that. I did find the beginning mystifying, but then there was only long discussions, or monologues, leading nowhere. After half the book the story picked up and I found myself enjoying this part. Maybe because I was walking the same streets as Saramago’s protagonists, could see where they were heading, where Silva was living and understand the hilly nature of any walk in Lisbon.

The prose and descriptions of the surroundings, the people, the houses, life and love is beautiful. There are so much wisdom hidden in the lines of this book. When I really took the time to immerse myself into it, I saw it with different eyes. Just look at this extract from the novel. So much information hidden in a description of Silva having his morning coffee.

“Raimundo Silva entered, said good morning to no one in particular, and sat at a table behind the showcase where the usual tempting delicacies were on display, sponges, mille feuilles, cream cornets, tartlets, rice cakes, mokatines and, those inevitable croissants, in the shape dictated by the French word, a pastry that has risen only to collapse at the first bite and disintegrate until there are nothing but crumbs left on the plate, tiny celestial bodies which the huge wet finger of Allah is lifting to his mouth, then all that remains will be a terrible cosmic void, if being and nothingness are compatible.”

José de Sousa Saramago (1922-2010) received the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature for his "parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony [with which he] continually enables us once again to apprehend an elusory reality.” I am eager to read something else by him, just to compare this novel to others he wrote. Have you read anything by him? What can you recommend?

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