By Jose Saramago.
Translated by Giovanni Pontiero.
San Diego: Harcourt Brace Javonovich, Publishers, 1991.
358 pages.

Comments of Bob Corbett
August 1999

See comments at end from LJ Lindhurst for additional discussion.

The setting is Lisbon, 1936. Ricardo Reis has returned to Portugal after 16 years in Brazil. Why has he returned? He's not too sure. A medical doctor, an unpublished poet, he may do nothing (which is what happens in his last year of life), or may open a practice or even return to Brazil.

Little happens. The story line of Reis' life is that he lives for three months in an upscale hotel, beginning an affair with one of the maids. He is also attracted to a young woman with an impaired hand, but this remains at a rather platonic level. Reis eventually gets his own apartment, and even fills in for another physician for a month or so.

Along the way he is kept company by a dead poet, who, having just died, has 9 months to keep limited contact with life before passing totally away.

In addition to the meager story of Reis' life we do follow the year's success of Fascism in Italy and the Ethiopian War, the rise of Nazis in Germany and the coming of the Civil War to Spain. Reis, a devoted monarchist supports the revolution in the name of monarchism, not Fascism. He argues that this is really a war between two forms of Republicanism, Communism and Fascism, but that at least the Fascist have formed an alliance with the monarchy.

But mainly this book is a tour-de-force of Reis' mind and thoughts. It is a dismal world. He can't find meaning and he doesn't much care. His affair with Lydia, the chambermaid, and the rise of the Civil War in Spain do touch him in ways that nothing else seems to.

The story, even the philosophical reflections are not really what grabbed me in the book. Somehow, in ways that I don't seem to be able to explain, Saramago's prose, his telling of Reis' rather uninteresting story, simply grabbed me and riveted me.

Like THE STONE RAFT, one theme that does enter into Reis' world is an epistemological one. What is the source of meaning? It is not Reis himself who introduces this theme, it is his dead "visitor" Fernando Pessoa, who gets the incredible lines:

"…human unrest is futile, the gods are wise and indifferent, and above them is fate, the supreme order to which even gods are subject. And what of men, what is their function. To challenge order, to change fate. For the better. For better or for worse, it makes no difference, the point is to keep fate from being fate."

These lines are a bit difficult to read if one is not used to Saramago's style. This is actually a conversation between Pessoa and Reis, and one has to get used to separating out the characters as to who is speaking when. Also, he intends several questions marks, but uses periods instead.

Nonetheless, this passage really grabbed me. As I see it on this view the central thing that makes a human a human is to take control of one's life, to not allow fate, habit, tradition, even history, to determine one's life, but to take control of it and make of it what one will. Universal concepts like "improving" the world or oneself mean nothing and are rather useless notions for Pessoa. It is simply in the taking control and making one's life one's own life.

I am deeply drawn to this view of human existence.

Some follow-up discussion of the novel with LJ Lindhurst

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett