Is the past an objective reality that always stays the same? Is it a subjective and momentary, yet commonly accepted view of what once was? What if we did the unthinkable and changed the course of history with one simple stroke of the pen? Inserting one word into the proofs of a book, the protagonist of The History of the Siege of Lisbon by José Saramago does just that. He changes events that took place eight centuries earlier. And the arbitrary act of a proofreader serves the laureate of the Nobel Prize 1998 to combine a love story with metafiction about writing alternative history.
José Saramago, in full José de Sousa Saramago, was born in Santarém, Portugal, in November 1922. At first he worked as a car mechanic, but soon turned to translating and journalism which earned him a living until he lost his job as assistant editor of a newspaper in the mid-1970s. Only then José Saramago’s career as a full-time writer began. His first novel, Manual of Painting and Calligraphy (Manual de Pintura e Caligrafia), was published in 1977. General acclaim came with Baltasar and Blimunda (Memorial do Convento: 1982) and increased with novels like The Stone Raft (A Jangada de Pedra: 1986), The History of the Siege of Lisbon (História do Cerco de Lisboa: 1989), The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo: 1991), and Blindness (Ensaio sobre a Cegueira: 1995). In 1998 the Swedish Academy awarded the writer the Nobel Prize in Literature. Among his notable later works are The Double (O Homem Duplicado: 2002), Seeing (Ensaio sobre a Lucidez: 2004), Death at Intervals (As Intermitências da Morte: 2005), and his final novel Cain (Caim: 2009). José Saramago died on Lanzarote, Canary Islands, Spain, in June 2010.
Despite its title The History of the Siege of Lisbon doesn’t revolve around proven historical facts of the defeat of the Moors camping in front of the gates of Lisbon in 1147. Those important events of the Portuguese past serve José Saramago only as background for a story within the main plot taking place eight centuries later. Correcting the proofs of a history of the siege of Lisbon written by a renowned scholar, a poor proofreader in his early fifties called Raimundo Benvindo Silva feels the sudden and irresistible urge to insert a NOT where it doesn’t belong, a NOT that might have changed the course of Christian-European history, had the Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land really refused to help the defenders of the besieged city. When the mistake is discovered a few days later, an erratum sheet is added to the already printed copies and the publishing house engages Senhora Dona Maria Sara to supervise all proofreaders in order to avoid similar problems in future. The encounter of the bachelor Raimundo Silva and the divorcee Maria Sara is the beginning of their hesitant love story. Encouraged by Maria Sara the proofreader sets out to write his own, alternative history of the siege of Lisbon and is ever more drawn into his imaginative world crowded with twelfth-century Moors and Crusaders. At the same time he courts Maria Sara, at first with much restraint because he can’t imagine the younger woman to be interested in him, but like Morgueime and Ouroana in his historical novel they get closer day by day.
The History of the Siege of Lisbon is a partly metafictional novel told from the point of view of an omniscient narrator. The two plot lines, the historical novel that Raimundo Silva writes and the love story between Raimundo Silva and Maria Sara, are interlaced and often interdependent. In the story within the story the author plays with possibilities and probabilities that even most accurate historical research must leave open because it relies on usually very limited sources. In other words the message is that our picture of history can be no more than a collage of a smaller or greater number of snapshots of the past, moreover an arrangement of individual pieces showing the subjective touch of the person, people or society that put them together. And as uses to be the case with pictures, we can only guess what people thought – the perfect starting point for a novel! In fact, The History of the Siege of Lisbon gives an interesting insight into the creation of a historical novel set in an alternative past. The contemporary love story, on the other hand, shows the hopes and fears, the doubts and convictions of a man and a woman who are attracted to each other and yet afraid of being hurt (again) and how they take cautious steps towards each other. The novel is written in the typical style of José Saramago which can be quite a challenge at first because he refrains from using punctuation except many commas and scarce periods. Paragraphs are long and often incorporate complex dialogues which are made visible only by capital letters within the sentences. Despite all I had no problem at all following the plot.
For me The History of the Siege of Lisbon by José Saramago has been a very delightful and absorbing read, one of my best ever and one which made me long for more by this justly famous Portuguese author. Blindness confirmed my first impression and others of his novels made it on my list of books to read. In a nutshell, I enjoyed The History of the Siege of Lisbon immensely and am more than pleased to finally recommend this writer, particularly this book of his for reading.
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This review is a contribution to the perpetual Read the Nobels challenge.
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