By Jose Saramago.
Translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero from the 1986 Historia do Cerco de Lisboa.
312 pages
London: The Harvill Press, 1996
ISBN: 1-86046-132-8

Comments of Bob Corbett
August 2001

Raimundo Silva is a long-time proof-reader for a local press in Lisbon. He is proofing a scholarly history of the siege of Lisbon in 1147 in which the Christians eventually won the town back from the Moors who had held it for three centuries. The story itself is classic Portuguese history, known by school children. Basically it is that the Portuguese were sieving the city and enlisted the aid of Crusaders who were on their way to the holy land. There was a famous speech given by the Portuguese king, Dom Afonso Henriques, in which he made his case for the Crusaders to join their efforts. Afterward comes the important and well-known line of the story in which the Crusaders said they would help the Portuguese. For reasons he simply cannot yet know, the proof-reader inserts a NOT. The Crusaders will not help the Portuguese.

This "not" is in some sense the driving word of the entire novel. But in other senses it is not. Certain parts of the causal train of the story follow the "not". Raimundo Silva turns in this amended version, it gets printed, but is discovered before general circulation. An erratum is inserted telling readers a mistake has been made; the author isn't much concerned with the small mistake (no doubt in part since most readers will already know THAT part of the story), and even the publishers are lenient in dealing with what they realize was conscious vandalism of the text. All would end at this point were that "not" the whole story.

What complicates things and provides us fans of Jose Saramago with a simply astonishing novel, are the complexities that flow around the edges of the "not," not directly from it. As he did in The Gospel According to Jesus Christ and in The Stone Raft, Saramago plays with counterfactual causalities, with worlds of what if and why not. Perhaps the central puzzle that gets raised in the novel is the question of how much historical truth can we have to begin with? How much is lost to us of the past simply because it was never recorded. How much was recorded, but then the records themselves later lost or ignored? How much gets selected out and not noticed or never even found by the historians bringing particular events and periods to our attention? These things worry Saramago, and he humbles us with his explorations into counterfactual history, especially since he makes the case that the so-called counterfactuals may well turn out to be the real history after all.

Even bigger fish are at stake. As in The Stone Raft, Saramago seems to argue here that we are locked into a certain notion of causality, certain rules of our limited science which simply may not get at reality at all. In the current story the publishers, only partially in reaction to Raimundo Silva's purposeful insertion of the "not," have hired a new administrator in charge of the proof-readers. She has come aboard just at the time of the discovery of Silva's "not" and is a bit amused by it, even intrigued. She challenges him to write the story of the siege from the point of view of this not, which Silva does, and in the process the two fall in love. At one point late in the novel Saramago, or at least the omniscient narrator, says that the real cause of the "not" was to create this love relationship between Maria Sara and Raimundo Silva, and even more complicated, it is a long affair that is closely modeled on the fictional one which Silva creates in his knowingly fictional recreation of the history of the siege. Things get complicated for the standard logics of writing history.

From the outset the novel operates on two main levels: a dialectic between the present time, centered around the life, work and love life of Raimundo Silva and the siege of Lisbon in 1147. The difficulty is that causal relationships work in both directions. The siege was what the siege was, but the siege we have at our disposal, our ONLY siege (or sieges) is that which the historians give us. Raimundo Silva participates in this "giving" by creating his alternative history of the siege, except that he knows his siege is purely fictional. This fact doesn't keep his siege, even the "other" siege from creating his own life in the present, especially his love relationship with Maria Sara, and, curiously, is itself the very cause of that relationship.

Another part of the brilliance of this novel is how it is that Silva creates his alternative history. He lets the logic of the "not" have its way and simply follows it. There are limits. The siege of Lisbon succeeded. That was not part of his "not." He merely rejected the fact that the Crusaders joined the Portuguese in the siege. This presents, then, the two key difficulties: why would the Crusaders have said no, and what is a plausible account of how the Portuguese could have won this battle without the Crusaders, who would not only have constituted 50% of their force, but would have been the 50% with the best fighting ability and experience. Raimundo Silva has certain historical facts he simply must accept and follow, he has not rejected everything, just this one particular famous historical "yes."

It is an historical change at a high level of the logic of the story, of course, but it still doesn't change everything. The narrator recognizes the high level of this "not," and points out why such liberties must never be taken by proof-readers:

For the proof-reader who knows his place, the author, as such, is infallible. It is well known, for example, that Nietzsche's proof-reader, although a fervent believer, resisted the same temptation to insert the word Not on a certain page, thus amending the philosopher's phrase, God is dead, God is not dead. pp. 40-41.

This example suggests the level at which Silva's "not" exists in the logic of the story. The first problematic which Silva must deal with is: "Why did the Crusaders say no?" From there on, the story unfolds in a fascinating fashion.

Another part of the novel which not only fascinates and delights but teaches is the focus on the difference between history as our academic notions conceive it and the notion of historical fiction. Standard history cannot really delve into the internal lives of historical persons unless there is supportive data, and often, even usually there isn't, particularly for the history of the twelfth century. Further, the historian cannot jump from general knowledge of human ways and even the ways of a particular period to insert persons or behaviors into the historical narrative. But the novelist can. Raimundo Silva, not yet a novelist, but on his way to being one, does this. His most wonderful story is the love affair between the simple soldier, Morgueime, who actually rose to become famous in Portuguese history, and Ouroana, the abducted concubine of a German Crusaders (not ALL the Crusaders left!). This love affair is created from the pure logic of the situation and is even given causal power for the love affair between Raimundo and Maria Sara in the present time.

Jose Saramago challenges our sense of reality. He challenges the power we give to reason and science. At one point Raimundo relates the story of some Medieval miracles to Maria Sara. She suggests it must have been a strange time when people believed such tales. Raimundo claims people still do, they just don't admit it any longer.

What a strange world it must have been, that such things should have been believed and written, I'd prefer to say in which such things are not written, but believed even today. We're positively mad. Do you mean us, No, I was referring to people in general, I'm one of those people who thinks that human beings have always been mentally deranged, As platitudes go, that isn't bad, Perhaps it will sound less like a platitude if I tell you that in my opinion, madness is the result of the shock produced in man by his own intelligence and we still haven't recovered from the trauma three million years later, So, according to this hypothesis of yours, we're going from bad to worse, I'm no fortune-teller but I fear so. p. 245.

Saramago simply loves to twist things around. Being and existence are much more complicated that simple linear reason can deal with. On most accounts of this novel, one would, as I have above, begun with the insertion of the "not," and tried to show how the story then flows from all the implications of that not. It does. There is nothing wrong with such account except that it is not the ONLY story and not the ONLY way things happen and can be understood. At the very end of the novel Raimundo has actually lost interest in his alternative history of the siege itself, the story is reduced to the history of the purely fictional love relationship between Morgueime and Ouroana, which, itself, is merely the model of the relationship between Raimundo and Maria Sara. In a weird twist, when Raimundo asks Maria Sara to forgive him for his hope their live will last forever. She begins the reply:

Don't keep asking to be forgiven, you men are to blame, all you machos, when it isn't a question of your profession, it's your age, when it's not your age it's your social class, when it's not social class it's money, when will you learn to be your natural selves. No human being is natural, You don't have to be a proof-reader to know that, anyone with a grain of intelligence is aware of the fact, We seem to be at war, Of course we're at war, and it's a war of siege, each of us besieges the other and is besieged in turn, we want to break down the other's walls while defending our own, love means getting rid of all barriers, love is the end of all sieges. Raimundo Silva smiled, You're the one who should be writing this history, Your idea would never have occurred to me, to negate an incontrovertible historical fact, I myself no longer know what made me do it, Frankly, I'm convinced that the great divide between people is between those who say yes and those who say no, I'm well aware before you remind me that there are rich and poor, weak and strong, but that isn't the point, blessed are those who say no, for theirs should be the kingdom of the earth, Why did you say should be, The conditional was intentional, the kingdom of the earth belongs to those who have the wit to put a no at the service of a yes, having been the perpetrators of a no, they rapidly erase it to restore a yes. Pp. 296-297.

This is a very revealing passage. This is no skeptic speaking. This is a Nietzchean overman, recognizing the non-existence of any objective values (the first yes) and having the courage to say no to that world and then substitute a new yes, the second yes, rooted in the self and the world, not in the objective and other world. What is rejected in Saramago's skepticism is not knowledge itself, but our concept of objective knowledge.

Once again, I come reeling away from a novel of Jose Saramago knowing I've been in the hands of a prose master, an intellectual giant and someone very close to my own heart and mind. I find The History of the Siege of Lisbon to form a sort of trilogy of skepticism along with The Gospel According to Jesus Christ and The Stone Raft, enriched by the somewhat lesser footnote of The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. I can't wait until my next foray into the wonderful magical world of Jose Saramago.

Bob Corbett

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