The two-page preface to The History of the Siege of Lisbon (1989) outlines José Saramago’s contention that “history and fiction are constantly overlapping” – something that is quite topical with novels such as Wolf Hall spurring a recent swathe of historical fiction. But this is not a historical novel like Mantel’s Booker Prize winner, but rather a story ‘inserted into history.’ Its fictional siblings therefore include speculative ‘alternate histories’, such as Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004). However, Roth takes a point in US history, (where he has FDR defeated by Charles Lindbergh in the 1940 Presidential election), and goes off on a tangent, writing a totally new history, whereas Saramago alters how a particular historical event occurs and who is involved, but there is no splintering off into some altered path of history which leads to an altered present.
The novel is constructed with two story arcs, one of which is historical, and the other in the present. There are the events set in the twelfth century including our protagonist Raimundo Silva’s alternate history of the siege of Lisbon, and there is the life of Raimundo in the twentieth century. It raises questions over how accurate the historical record can be and whether we can ever truly know the emotions or thoughts of characters whose history we interpret many years later. How accurate can we be about History?
Saramago won the Nobel Prize in 1998. This is the third book of his I’ve read. The Stone Raft, in which the Iberian peninsula breaks off from Europe and floats around the Atlantic(!), and The Gospel According to Jesus Christ are the other two I’ve read. The later is also an alternative history in the same vein as the Siege of Lisbon. Both are excellent reads and are highly recommended.
In much of Saramago’s work, characters regularly have trouble connecting with others, and his novels regularly feature the theme of urban dislocation. They also regularly feature magic realist elements. The theme of historical accuracy and the framework of magic realism – right up my street! – so I was looking forward to another fine read from the Nobel Prize winning author.
Reading Saramago has its challenges. He only uses commas and periods. There is no other punctuation. So, no question marks, exclamation marks, or dialogue quotation marks. Dialogue is subsumed within the prose, marked only by a commencing capital letter and conversations are strung along with commas being the only separator between characters’ words. His view is that the prose itself should make it clear as to who is speaking and also whether there is a question or exclamation involved. One thus has to concentrate to keep up with things. Close reading is a must.
This means that we get great slabs of prose, made only larger by his penchant for interminably long sentences and paragraphs, full of what I would call ‘narrative deviations’ in which the narrator goes off on some tangent to explore an idea or make a witty aside. For example: (p63):
… a traditional Portuguese meal of fried fish and rice with tomato sauce and salad, and with any luck, the tender leaves of a lettuce heart, where, something not many people know, nestles the incomparable freshness of the morning, the dew and mist, which are one and the same, but warrant repetition for the simple pleasure of writing both words and savouring the sound.
… It’s lovely writing, with lovely images, but there’s just too much meandering. It is in some way reminiscent of Garcia Marquez’s excellent (and challenging) The Autumn of the Patriarch, (see my review), and provides a stark contrast to the pyrotechnics of a Dave Eggers or Jonathan Safran Foer for example.
Yet for all the promise of the story’s idea and the sometimes beautiful writing, for some reason only the modern arc of Raimundo’s life worked well for me. Raimundo is a proof-reader and one day we see him insert a ‘not’ into a historical text entitled The History of the Siege of Lisbon – on purpose! The deliberate mistake is only noticed after the book has been printed, but not before it is distributed. The publisher’s decide to insert an errata notice rather than republish. They also bring in a new woman, Maria Sara, to oversee all of the firm’s proof-readers’ work. Needless to say, the meeting between Raimundo and his new boss is a tense affair!
After the meeting, Raimundo’s mind is filled with questions over the brusque nature of the woman. Sometime later, he realises he has feelings for her. Maria tells him that he should write the fictional history of the siege of Lisbon, one in which the crusaders decline to help the Portuguese evict the Moors from the fortified city. After some silent rubbishing of this task, Raimundo finds himself drawn further and further into the lives of both Moor and Christian. The fact that he himself lives in the fortified section of the city’s walls adds further intrigue – he can see battles and events from the distant past as if they are happening. These historical scenes didn’t really capture my imagination. Sometimes Saramago’s interminably long sentences with all their ‘nods’ and ‘winks’ and witty asides bored me. It was all too ponderous. So we have a wonderful premise for a story, but a structural problem with the dual arcs, one of which lacks bight.
It is only when the relationship between Raimundo and Maria Sara takes off that things move along nicely. Here there are some wonderful moments, where an older single man falls in love with a woman fifteen-odd years his junior, who, we learn, liked him from their first meeting.
This is one of Saramago’s books that is one the 1,001, Must Read list. I will certainly read other books by him, but just felt part of this novel didn’t work as well as it might have, which is a shame because the theme of the intersection between history and fiction is wonderful, one that is always worth exploring.
The History of the Siege of Lisbon by José Saramago
The Harvill Press, London
Source: Personal Bookshelf Rainbow