Jose Saramago
Translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero
San Diego: Harcourt Brace Javonovich, Publishers, 1991
ISBN # 0-15-199735-7
358 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
July 2011

I read and commented on this book in August 1999. However, there were essential things in the novel that I didn’t understand. After I posted my comments a friend and former student wrote a kind note gently suggesting that I didn’t quite understand the book because I didn’t know about the life, or should I say lives, of the poet Fernando Pessoa. Later on a Portuguese scholar also wrote, but a much less kind note taking me to task for my review and denouncing me for missing the essential point.

Thus when I recently decided to start going back and at least now and again, re-read some of my favorite authors, I knew that I would simply have to start with The Year Of The Death Of Ricardo Reis – but only after I did some reading about Fernando Pessoa. Alas, I did my homework, was fascinated, even stunned by what I read, and then went back to the novel. It was definitely a much richer read than the first time, and I was able to much better understand the relationship between Ricardo Reis and Fernando Pessoa. But in the end, I’m not sure if the second read hasn’t raised more questions for me than it has solved. I found it to be a gripping novel which I loved reading, but I’m still not sure I understand it very well.

Let me begin with the relationship of Pessoa and Reis, at least in the way it effects Saramago’s novel. Fernando Pessoa was a Portuguese poet who lived from 1888 to 1935. In the novel Ricardo Reis is returning to Portugal from Brazil just a few months after Pessoa’s death.

Pessoa created other writers, and one of them was Ricardo Reis. If one is speaking of Pessoa and wishes to be honest to his view, then one must clarify that it was not that he created pseudonyms, rather he created what he called heteronyms. This notion seems to have been the creation of Pessoa. He created a huge number of writers to whom he gave not only a voice, but a style different from his own, with a personality different from himself and all the writing of that heteronym was fully within the “person” of the heteronym. Most were quite different from Pessoa himself and his style and themes of writing.

There were three primary heteronyms who Pessoa created: Ricardo Reis, Alberto Caeiro and Alvaro de Campos. Of course Reis is the main character of Saramago’s novel, but Caeiro and Campos are very often mentioned as well.

The novel is told by an unnamed narrator, but presumably it is Saramago himself since he talks with us the readers and tells us what he going to do in his writing of this novel as he goes along.

One of the things he tells us is quite startling: In talking of Fernando Pessoa and his death he says:

. . . he was not only Fernando Pessoa but also Alvero de Campos, Alberto Campos, Alberto Caeiro, and Ricardo Reis.

But we are told that Ricardo Reis has spent some 16 years in Brazil and now returned to Lisbon. He’s not sure what he will do, perhaps open a practice as a physician. In any case he first spends a good deal of time living at a small hotel.

About a fifth way through the novel Ricardo Reis returns to his room and the dead Fernando Pessoa is there. Reis doesn’t even seem terribly astonished but does ask him how it is that he is here. Pessoa explains that after one dies there is a 9 month period where one can roam around as a dead person to sort of put all things in order. Saramago’s great humor comes through when Reis asks, why 9 months?

The usual period is nine months, the same length of time we spend in our mother’s womb. I believe it’s a question of symmetry, before we are born no one can see us yet they think about us every day, after we are dead they cannot see us any longer and every day they go on forgetting us a little more, and apart from exceptional cases it takes nine months to achieve total oblivion . . .”

Another bit of Saramago’s marvelous wit comes when Reis is about to come down a street and sees Pessoa standing on the corner:

. . . Fernando Pessoa is without his spectacles. Ricardo Reis thinks he knows why, it would be absurd and in thoroughly bad taste to bury a man in his spectacles, but that is not the reason, they had simply failed to hand them to him in time as he was dying. Give me my spectacles, he had asked, and was left lying there unable to see, for we are not always in time to satisfy the last wishes of the dying.

In the discussion between Reis and Pessoa we get a clearer view of why it was that Pessoa created so many heteronyms. It was because each of us is actually many different people at different times.

. . . I wrote an ode in which I say that innumerable people exist within us.

I find this to be a very real experience for me. I was raised in a working class neighborhood in a time when we of my generation were among the first children to receive high school educations. Very few of my 47 elementary school classmates did college. As best I can tell no more than 5 or 6 of us. I did.

That created two very different worlds I lived in: the working class neighborhood, where I have returned in my retirement, and the university world where I spent my working life.

Next, I was raised a Roman Catholic in a very Catholic neighborhood. After four years of seminary study I not only left the seminary, but religion all together. For most of my adult life I’ve been an atheist who happens to live in a very Catholic area.

The neighborhood of my youth and now my retirement is an Irish-American neighborhood with an emphasis on the Irish. Yet, many of my friends and acquaintances are not Irish at all.

And it goes on and on. I have learned to behave quite differently in the different worlds, use different vocabularies, talk about different sorts of things, act in different ways. I always see that it is me, but when any of the people in one of my worlds meets me in one of those other worlds they are often quite astonished that I don’t seem to be me.

Pessoa didn’t create his heteronyms for such reasons. His were literary. He wanted to deal with various topics, use different styles, hold even different views. As a writer the easiest way for him was to create the huge set (but a main three) of heteronyms. Thus while my path is different, I think I live in a very similar world as Fernando Pessoa.

Saramago credits Pessoa of just having these many “beings” inside himself

It is not Ricardo Reis who thinks these thoughts – nor one of those [other] innumerable beings who exist within him [Pessoa] . . .

Having finally come to at least some understanding of the “who” of Fernando Pessoa and Ricardo Reis, the novel was much more understandable. However, what never really became clear is why does Saramago use this device? What is he telling us when he resurrects the life of the historical person, Fernando Pessoa? I still don’t think I understand that. However, it is a most common thing for Jose Saramago to create a impossible factual situation in which to situate his tales. The entire blind population of one novel (save a single woman), the Iberian peninsula “breaking off” from Europe and floating off into the sea, two people being the same person in yet another. He does love to choose the situations that couldn’t happen and play with them to see where it leads us.

In this case it does allow Saramago to do a good deal of speculation and investigation of the meaning of life and death and how they interact.

However, the interaction of Fernando Pessoa with Ricardo Reis is only a relatively small part of the novel. By far and away the greater part of the novel is about Reis’ return to Portugal and his attempts to figure out what he will do with the rest of his life (albeit, he should have some idea of the length of that life).

There isn’t much reflection of Reis’ part about these things directly. He thinks about opening a medical practice, does eventually leave the hotel where he originally took residence, gets an apartment and lives a rather lonely and dreary life, slightly enriched by a fairly non-loving sexual relationship with a hotel maid, and a rather non realistic flirtation with a woman with whom he is most unlikely to have a love affair with.

Mainly Reis thinks and talks, and Saramago talks to us about Reis. This is a period of great turmoil in Europe. Italy is at war with Ethiopia, the Nazis are rising to power not only in Germany, but spreading their tentacles widely, there is unrest and instability in Portugal itself and Reis is trying to figure it all out, yet he does it from the distance of more an observer than a participant.

The Saramago/Reis views on the larger events of the day are fascinating and more gripping for me than the strange story of Reis and Pessoa.

However, in the end, my favorite part of this novel, and generally my favorite parts of most Saramago novels, are the little bits and pieces of observation on life that Saramago shares with the reader. They don’t advance the plot, yet often bring smiles of recognition or head nodding, and makes me feel I am in the presence of a wise and insightful man with a marvelous ability to describe tiny everyday events.

I've picked just a few to share at the end of these notes, perhaps to lure the reader into a resolve to read this delightful and challenging novel.

It is 1936 and street lamps are still gas lamps:

A good thing the street lamps were lit, casting pearls on the windowpanes. It must be said that these street lamps are nothing like those of the future, when the fairy Electricity with her magic wand will reach the Alto de Santa Catarina and environs and all the lamps will light up in glory at the same time. Today we have to wait until someone comes to light them, one by one. With the tip of his spill the lamplighter opens the door of the lantern, with the hook he turns the gas valve, then this son of Saint Elmo moves on, leaving signs of his passing throughout the city streets. A man bearing light, he is Halley's comet with a star-spangled trail, this is how the gods must have seen Prometheus when they looked down from on high. This particular firefly, however, is named Antonio

On loneliness: Pessoa has come to visit Reis for the first time in her new apartment.

I'm delighted to see you, this first night is not easy. Are you frightened. I felt a little nervous when I heard knocking, I forgot that it might be you, but it wasn't fear, only loneliness. Come now, you have a long way to go before you know what loneliness is. I've always lived alone. I too, but loneliness is not living alone, loneliness is the inability to keep someone or something within us company, it is not a tree that stands alone in the middle of a plain but the distance between the deep sap and the bark, between the leaves and the roots. You're talking nonsense, the things you mention are connected, there is no loneliness there. Let us forget the tree, look inside yourself. As that other poet said, To walk alone among men. It is even worse to be alone where we ourselves are not. You are in low spirits today. I have my days, but I was speaking not of this loneliness but of another, the one that travels with us, a bearable loneliness that keeps us company, Even that loneliness, you must agree, is sometimes unbearable, we long for a presence, a voice. Sometimes that presence and that voice only serve to render it intolerable.

Reis is shockingly unemotional. Lydia tells him she is pregnant. His response:

. . . Ricardo Reis searches for the right words but all he finds within himself is indifference, as if, though aware that he is obliged to help solve the problem, he does not feel implicated in its cause. Rather, he sees himself in the role of the doctor to whom a patient has blurted out her guilty secret, Ah, Doctor, what is to become of me, I am pregnant and this could not have happened at a worse moment. The doctor does not tell her, Have an abortion, don't be a fool. On the contrary, he puts on a grave air, If you and your husband have taken no precautions, in all probability you are pregnant, but let's wait a few more days, you could simply be late, sometimes that happens. But Ricardo Reis cannot speak with such neutrality, he is the father, for there is no evidence that in the last few months Lydia has slept with any man but him, still the father is at a loss for words.

Saramago is constantly interrupting the flow of the story of Ricardo Reis to talk to the reader about what has been said or done. He does this in most of his novels and it is often very funny and enlightening. He makes or assesses his original choices not only of words, but events he chooses to create.

Seven months have passed already, enough time to engender a life, but you know more about that than I do, you are a doctor. Is there some veiled hint in that last remark. What veiled hint should I make. I'm not sure. You are touchy today. Perhaps it's this business of removing statues, this proof of how fickle human loyalties can be, the Discus Thrower is another example. What discus thrower, The one on the Avenida, Now I remember, that naked youth pretending to be Greek, well, he too has been removed. But why. They said he looked effeminate, they spoke of moral health and protecting the eyes of the city's inhabitants from shameful displays of nudity. If the youth was not exaggerated in any of his physical proportions, what harm was he doing. Those so-called proportions, although neither exaggerated nor excessive, were more than sufficient to illustrate certain details of the male anatomy. But I thought they said the youth looked effeminate, is that not what they said. Yes. Then surely he offended because he was found wanting, not because there was too much of him. I am only repeating as best I can the rumors circulating in the city.

I’ll end with Ricardo Reis’ discussion of his new radio:

Ricardo Reis now has another voice in his apartment. He owns a small radio, the cheapest on the market, the popular Pilot model with an ivory-colored Bakelite case, chosen because it occupies little space and can easily be transported from the bedroom to the study, the two rooms where the somnambulist who lives here spends most of his time. Had he decided to buy one before the pleasure of living in new quarters wore off, he would now possess a superheterodyne receiver with twelve vacuum tubes and enough power to rouse the neighborhood and draw a crowd beneath his window. Eager to enjoy the music and listen to the broadcasts, all the housewives in the district would be there, including the two old men, friendly and polite once more because of this latest novelty. But Ricardo Reis only wants to keep up with the news, discreetly, in privacy, the radio lowered to an intimate whisper. He does not explain to himself or try to analyze the restless feeling that brings him to the set, he does not wonder about the hidden message in that dim eye, the dying Cyclops that is the light of the minuscule dial, its expression showing neither joy nor fear nor pity. And he cannot say whether it is the victories of the revolutionary army in Spain that delight him or the resounding defeats of the forces that support the government. Some will argue that the two are the same, but they aren't, no sir, the human soul is more complicated than that. To be pleased that my enemy is beset doesn't mean that I applaud the besetter. Ricardo Reis does not investigate his inner conflict, he leaves his uneasiness alone, like one who, lacking the courage to skin a rabbit, asks another to do the job for him while he stands watching, annoyed at his own squeamishness.
Bob Corbett


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