Jose Saramago
(Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa)

New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012 -- from the 1980 Portuguese
ISBN # 978-0-15-101325-8
363 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
May 2013

This early novel of Jose Saramago is the story of the Mao-Tempo (Bad Weather) family. It is set in rural Portugal mainly during the later period of the latifundio, the large land owner estates where the peasants worked as virtual slaves. It is taken to be Saramago’s most deeply personal novel.

We follow three generations of the Mao-Tempo family beginning with Domingo, a shoemaker and fairly irresponsible man who eventually drives his wife to take the children and leave. His oldest son is Joao Mau-Tempo, married to his loving wife Faustina. He was born about 1906. He worked the fields, and while he wasn’t particularly political, he did follow the plight of the workers, especially on the latifundio, and is arrested as a communist and held for six months. The third generation is mainly represented by Antonio, who was drafted into the army and served for some three years. Much of this novel reads more like a set of short stories, all set in the latifundio in the past 3-5 generations. Given that I’ve done a good deal of genealogical work on my own family, including collecting stories, I would imagine what I would be able to do with much of this sort of material were I to have the abilities of Saramago to take existing family stories I’ve heard and even recorded, and redevelop them within a sort of loose and specially Saramagoan form of magic realism. Many of the separate chapters are simply brilliant pieces of literature which would stand on their own needing virtually no relationship to the novel as a whole. Yet, when placed inside the larger frame of a loosely coherent story of the Mau-Tempo family, they glistened even brighter than as sparkling diamonds standing on their own.

For many years the peasants simply took their position to be the natural order:

“. . . the world cannot be changed, this is the only possible world, exactly as it is, that they will find paradise only after death, and that work alone brings dignity and money.”

There is a good deal of resignation that this indentured form of life is simply the peasants place in the universe:

“A man can get used to anything, and between one war and another, he has time to make a few children and hand them over to the latifundio.”
However, eventually the seeds of change begin to suggest that even peasants might be entitled to a somewhat better existence and difficulty with the landowners and their military aids dominates the novel.

After nearly 800 years of monarchy, the republic was established in 1910 and some changes begin to happen.

In the third generation Antonio is arrested during a strike of peasant workers. He doesn’t really know how to read more than a few words, but it singled out and charged with being a reader on account of his minor ability of reading and writing. He is ordered to write all he knows of the peasant movement and he tells the guards what is almost true – he can’t read or write. The guards respond:

“You know enough for our purposes . . . we chose you because you know how to read and write, if you don’t like it, tough, you shouldn’t have learned, now you’re going to regret not having stayed as stupid as you were born.”

Chapter by chapter these are marvelous tales. The story as a whole isn’t great or gripping, but the telling itself is exquisite. Saramago includes many short little conversations about the story with the reader. He is using the same tactic of chatting with the reader which he will do much more in later fiction.

Many of the chapters, most of about 10-20 pages long, are like separate simply brilliantly written chapters about everyday matters in the villages and on the latifundio. In this novel all are centered in the life of very poor hands on the farms.

Late in the novel when Jaoa is dying, his wife of so many years, Faustina, cares for him. Saramago’s description of this loving wife carrying for her husband to his death was, for me, deeply touching:

“Faustina sleeps on top of the chest, at her insistence, so that her husband can have the double bed to himself, and there is no danger that she will forget her duties, you can see her eyes shining in the night, catching either the gleam of the dying fire or the glow from the oil lamp, perhaps her eyes shining so brightly as a compensation for being deaf. But if she falls asleep and Joao Mau-Tempo’s pain becomes such that the cannot bear it alone, there is a piece of string linking his right wrist to his wife’s left wrist, having reached a certain age, they are not going to be separated now, he only has to give the string a tug and Faustina will wake from her lightest of sleeps, get up fully dressed, go over to the bed and in the great silence of her deafness take her husband’s hand in hers and, unable to do anything more, say a few comforting words to him, not everyone can boast of being able to do so much.”

I can’t pretend I got through that passage without a few tears running down my cheek as it does again now as I type the quote.

I only recently discovered this translation and publication of this early novel and it was a great joy for me. I wasn’t sure if any further Saramago novels would appear in English and ordered it the very day I discovered it existed in English. My copy is a pre-publication copy, but I would think it must be published for the public by this time. It is a gripping and sad but gripping reading, often very touching, often making one angry at a period of time when such a large portion of humanity was treated as nothing but sub-humans by a small class of property owners and their thugs.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu