Jose Saramago
(Translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero}
New York: Harcourt Inc., A Harvest Book, 1987 (from the original Portuguese of 1982)
New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1986
ISBN # 0-15-60050-4
343 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
June 2008

I am quite late in getting to this, the first of Saramago’s most famous works. Already in these pages of book reviews I have offered comments on EIGHT other Saramago novels.

It seems to just have been chance as to when I came across copies of the novels which determined the order in which I read them and next will be THE DOUBLE which I hope to begin later today.

After finishing this novel I sort of just sat back in my chair, relishing the incredible experience of once again reading a Saramago novel. Like all the others it is magnificently written, stylistically original, even daring, witty, historically rich in detail and creative beyond measure or comparison.

Yet I was unhappy with the title, and how it seemed to contribute to some critics’ misunderstanding the book, or at least the book as I see it. For the NY Times reviewer quoted on the back cover of my copy, the novel is billed as “…an enchanting novel [with a] love story which soars over the rest of the action like a flute above a heavy orchestra.” I love the image itself, but for me it isn’t accurate of the novel. I don’t see it as centrally a love story, as beautiful and touching as that story is. Rather the historical story of 19 years of the rule of King João V and his building of a Franciscan monastery, the historical fantasy of an early flying machine and its creator and Saramago’s commentary on universal human foibles constitute the long passages of the heavy orchestra of history while Baltasar and Blimunda’s touching love story is more like a decorous frame surrounding a magnificent painting, setting it off, even protecting it, yet it the canvas of history and universality which constitutes the center of the story.

Thus, when I began to detail the bibliographical data AFTER I finished reading the novel, I was simply delighted to discover that the original Portuguese title is: Memorial do Convento. This title, literally Memorial of the Convent, seems a richer title emphasizing the central organizational event of the story.

The action itself takes place in Portugal between 1711 – 1730. Two historical events are central to the action, the building of the Franciscan friary in Mafra and the aeronautical explorations of Padre Bartolomue Lourenco de Gusmão (1685-1724), both of which take place during the reign of King João V.

While Saramago is accurate in reporting the history he uses, this is not really an historical novel. Rather, the author, by conversing with us readers, and by inventing the feelings and mind sets of the main characters, creates for us a much greater “sense” of the history of the time than any historical account could ever provide. This is part of the great genius of Saramago’s writing.

Certainly Baltasar and Blimunda are the central characters. He a humble former soldier who has lost a hand in war and has just a stump on his left hand, and she a visionary with occult abilities to see “inside” people, form an unlikely pair of central stars of the novel. Two other central characters are themselves historical, the king and the priest, Bartolomue Lourenco, though they are treated more as figures to give us the sense of the history of the period, that to explain the facts of their history.

The “stance” of the narrator is fascinating. Saramago tells the tale as though an oral tale around a fire of an evening. He frequently breaks into the narrative to speak about the very story he is telling or to comment, from the contemporary period, on the period of the tale. For example when commenting on the place of women in the novel’s period of time he says: “…for when Adam and Eve were created…and when they were expelled from paradise, there is no evidence that the Archangel gave them separate lists of jobs suitable for men and women, Eve was simply told, you will suffer pain when giving birth, but even that will no longer be necessary one day.”

Another tactic of narration he uses is to enrich our understanding of the period by simply listing with little comment numerous details of everyday life, and the stark contrast between everyday life in the early 18th century and today, is powerfully FELT by the attentive reader.

Dom João, the king, has security and pays attention to

“… to the accountant who is drawing up an inventory of the realm’s possessions and riches, silks, gold from Macao, unpolished diamonds, rubies, pearls, cinnamon, bales of cotton, and saltpeter from Goa, rugs, furniture upholstered in damask, and embroidered bedspreads from Diu, ivory from Melinde, slaves and gold from Mozambique, from Angola more blacks slaves but not so sturdy as those from Mozambique, and the best ivory to be found in Western Africa, timber…..”

and on and on goes the list. The details, the comparison/contrast to what makes wealth in our society today, is powerful and brings home the uniqueness of the Portuguese court in a way that a similar list of imports found in a scholarly journal wouldn’t give the same feeling tone to the information.

Another useful list was citing the first names of Portuguese men by giving one for each letter of the alphabet, causing my eye to go back more carefully to note that the Portuguese language has no K, W or Y.

Another witty and informative list is the list of handicaps. As I mentioned above, Baltasar himself has no left hand. Then in describing another character, Bras, Saramago launches into a list of handicaps that despite the gruesome topic left me laughing out loud.

“…Bras, who is red-haired and has no sight in his right eye, it will not be long before people start getting the impression that this is a land of disabled men, some with a hump, some with only one hand or one eye, and to accuse us of exaggerating, when all believe that heroes should be handsome and dashing, lithe and sound of limb, that is certainly how we should have preferred them, but there is no avoiding the truth, and the reader should be grateful that we have not wasted any time counting up all those who are blubber-lipped stutterers, lame, heavy-jowled, bow-legged, epileptic, big-eared, half-witted, albinos, and dolts, or suffering from scabies, sores, ring-worm, and scurvy, then you would certainly see a long procession of hunchbacks and lepers wending its way out of Mafra…”

Then, too, is Saramago’s marvelous irreverent wit. He places into the mouth of the priest Bartolomue Lourenco the view that God has no left hand. The argument is that one never hears of anyone sitting at the left hand of God and thus he must only have had a right hand. Then Saramago himself attacks the priest’s argument later on by citing the scriptural verse that speaks Jesus’ claim that he commits his spirit into the “hands” of God, thus proving the existence of two hands. The book abounds with marvelous bits of such wit.

The novel reveals a brilliance of composition unmatched by any other author I’ve ever read – the ability to create a world with a confidence that seems to say: “Here is a world I’m giving you. It is what it is, and real. Whether it matches the so-called external world, or even the historical world, is of little interest to me.”

Perhaps why he is my favorite author is that I so love the worlds he creates. They are original, always contain a certain level of the fantastic, often contain strong elements of the occult, are worlds about which he, as author, keeps a running dialogue of wit, analysis and commentary with the reader.

When I survey other Saramago novels regarding these created realities, they differ in various ways, never quite the same world. In THE STONE RAFT, THE CAVE, and BLINDNESS, for example, the created world according to Saramago has little contact with the external world we live in and that most of us know. Here in BALTASAR AND BLIMUNDA the fantasy world is more mixed with the more traditional history of early 18th century Portugal. In ALL THE NAMES and again in BLINDNESS the created world is dark and ominous. In THE STONE RAFT it is bright, even cheery, yet the existence of two continents is at stake. In THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS CHRIST he creates a brilliant and radical alternative and philosophical as well as historical account of the life of Jesus.

In all cases Saramago has been able to sweep me into the world according to Saramago, and when the novel ends I invariably sit and meditate, satisfied, challenged, delighted and hungry for a “next” Saramago novel.

Happily I have THE DOUBLE sitting on the table awaiting me.

Some follow-up discussion of the novel with LJ Lindhurst

OK, I just read your review. I couldn't possibly agree with you more. I love your reviews!

In 2005 I went to Portugal to see some of these places he talks about in his books, but particularly this one. I went to Mafra and saw the convent. I even took a tour of it (the building itself is pretty unremarkable, after all is said and done--and the tour was completely in Portuguese with no English translation! It mostly resembles a fancy mansion, the kind you might see in England). I also drove the length of the winding route that they moved the stones along--it is a beautiful road, and just as windy and hilly as Saramago describes. I was so THRILLED to be traveling the same path! (and how breath-taking is that whole section of the book?)

I walked around the town of Mafra--which is very small and quite off-the-beaten-path for tourists--and spoke to a few of the locals. I actually met a woman who sold Saramago and his wife their table linens and kitchen towels! According to her, Saramago really put that town on the map, so to speak -- and despite his unpopular hard-line old school Communist stance, she said that he is so beloved in that town that they named the local school after him.

I drove over and had my picture taken outside of the Saramago Secondary School (Saramago Secundaro, I believe it was called)! It was pretty funny.

Another one of the things I love about this book – and Saramago in general -- is how he so easily puts you in the historical sense of the world at this time, yet also keeps you grounded with his novels' very intimate core relationships. He gives the reader so much with so little; small gestures, seemingly insignificant conversations, looks, etc, all convey deep complexities in the relationships between the characters. I think this is especially true with The Cave; the relationship between the father and the daughter just breaks my heart. And there's nothing that complicated or dramatic going on--Saramago is so good at just breaking your heart with the utter simplicity of human interaction.

Balthasar and Blimunda IS a wonderful love story for this very reason -- they see deep into each other, both literally and figuratively. They interact with such ease, almost like animals, driven only by instinct and nature; he never has to bang us over the head with overwrought romanticism--he shows us this so easily through the most simple details.

Yet another thing I loved about this book was the procession when the king comes to town (I think that's it-?). Saramago literally writes a one-sentence description that stretches on for 3 full pages. It's great -- it's not only hilarious, but it WORKS. You get the full picture of just how elaborate and pompous this procession is, and you also get a sharp sense of the gap between the rich and the poor in this country. (again, there's that Socialist bent creeping in...)

I feel like there's the Big Picture (society/politics), and the Little Picture (his characters), and they move together in such harmony.

Even without all the flying and mystical counterparts, this would be an amazing novel -- however, I just LOVE the parts where they are flying around! It's fascinating. No one delivers the fantastical like Saramago.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett