Reviews of Nobel Prize winner | Comments on all Shakespeare's plays | Poetry reviews | Multiple reviews of same author | Haiti books |


By Jose Saramago
Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014
ISBN: 978—0-544-09002 (hardbound) 298 pages

Bob Corbett
May 2016

Set in the late 1940s in Lisbon, this was Jose Saramago’s first novel. He took it to a publisher in 1953 and never heard back and never inquired, believing it must have been rejected. Many years later the text was discovered. It has somehow been lost at the publishers and they sent it back to him with an apology and asked if they might now publish it. He refused to have it published in his lifetime.

This “non-hearing” had been a very sensitive event for him, having his first novel seemingly rejected without even a word from the publisher. It had caused him a great deal of insecurity. Thus the re-discovery of the novel was a tramatic event.

After his death his family decided to have the work published and it came out in 2014.

The novel is a wonderful read, however and is quite different from his later works. There are none of the sorts of science-fictional aspects of most of his novels, nor much of the later sophistication of themes and ideas. Nonetheless, I was gripped by this tale of life in a single small apartment building in Lisbon in 1952.

The cast of characters is simply huge and very difficult to keep in mind. There are six groups or families who which live in six different apartments on three floors. The narration moves from apartment to apartment, and at times even relations between members in one apartment or another.

After the first 15 or 20 pages I realized that I was just getting very confused as to who was whom and which apartment he was talking about, so I began to keep a “cast of characters” cheat-sheet in my book so that I could more easily follow who was who. I include that “cast of characters” with these comments in case any who read this are planning to read the novel. I think it would be useful to have a small one page note to yourself to keep in the novel as you read it.

However, I will give a short and hopefully not too revealing a description of each of the apartments.

Silvestre the cobbler lives in one with his wife of 30 years, Mariana. They are very short of money and take in a very young and fascinating lodger Abel Norueira. Abel is quite a strange fellow and just wants to “feel” life. He goes from job to job, has little ambition and doesn’t really understand people, like Silvestre and Mariana who do. Silvestre and Abel have several fascinating discussions and disagreements on the nature of human existence and the meaning of life.

In a second apartment Isura is a young seamstress who lives with her Aunt Amelia, her Mother Candida and her Sister Adriana. They all love classical music and often listen to it on the radio. Insura is reading Denis Diderot’s MEMOIRS OF A NUN which leads to a catastrophic clash between the sisters and deeply involves Aunt Amelia who is trying to discover what is so disrupting the once beautiful relationship between the two sisters.

In a third apartment is the beautiful Justina who is home alone. She had one pregnancy and lost the child two years earlier. Her husband is a noisy and heavy-set linotype operator. He works nights and sleep in the days. Their lives are rather sad and they are fairly distant from one another

The seeming grand dam Dona Lidia is a prostitute who lives on the second floor. She’s not a particularly beautiful, but wealthy and in control. She is 32 and has the only phone in the building and allows others to use it. Her mother, with whom she is not on very friendly terms, comes to get money from her on a regular basis. Senor Morais is either her sole, but paying, lover or at least the dominant “customer.”

Dona Carmen and her husband Emilo Fonseca have a son Henriquinho, a young boy. He runs errands for others, but this family doesn’t live in the same building. Emilo is a small man about 30, a salesman. The marriage between Dona Carmen and Emilo is not a happy one for either of them.

Anselmo and Rosalie live upstairs on the 3rd floor. Their daughter Claudinha, who is 19, lives with them, they have money problems. Claudinha is glamourous and there is a boy who often walks her home. Anselmo is a (small time) capitalist and soccer statistics genius, a “hobby” which he hides from his wife. He’s bald, distinguished and has a mustache. His wife suggests that Lidia might get the daughter “some work.” She had been visiting Lidia and ends of both working for and being desired by, Lidia’s lover, Senor Morais.

Jose Saramago interweaves the various stories of the numerous folks in the apartment building and creates a mini-world that seems mainly outside the outer world. Each story is fascinating in its own right, and the small overlaps among them adds some interest to the story as well.

The novel is a good read. However, I have read all the novels which Saramago himself had published, and this work seems not quite up to the standards of the rest of his work. He, as I noted earlier, would not allow this work to be published in his life time. Perhaps he himself saw this as a “lesser” work, or perhaps he didn’t want to acknowledge that the fact that he never heard back from the publisher which had meant to him that his writing was not an uninteresting path and that might have lead him to shift his mode of writing to what we find in all his later, and much more powerful and masterful writings.

Bob Corbett


Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett