Look, I like fiction that teaches me about history and deals with social issues, and I don’t mind a bit of stylistic experimentation. But I have my limits. This so-called novel is about 30% story, 10% flights of fancy and 60% unsourced treatise on labor relations in 20th century Portugal. Several generations of a peasant family are dirt-poor, doing backbreaking labor from sunrise to sunset for rich landowners who may or may not pay enough to keep their families from starvation. As the decades go on the workers become increasingly engaged in a struggle for better wages and hours. The landowners, government and Catholic Church unite to keep the workers down, the landowners refusing to raise wages and calling in the police at any sign of labor unrest; the government (particularly under the Salazar dictatorship) responding violently to strikes and arresting and torturing suspected organizers; and the local priests preaching acceptance of their lot to the peasants and getting cozy with the landowners.
Which is a fine backdrop for a story, but here the history is at the forefront; the book isn't about its characters but rather the overall state of workers’ rights and oppression at the time. Whole chapters don’t include anyone we’ve even met, but describe the torture and death of an unknown laborer (much of it from the anthropomorphized perspective of the ants in the room), or elaborate on an extended metaphor comparing the latifundio to an ocean. Meanwhile the appearances of the "protagonists" from the Mau-Tempo family are about putting a face on the workers’ poverty, subjugation and slow empowerment, rather than any excitement in their personal lives. The plot of the book is the story of the rural Portuguese peasantry in general and not anything going on with these individuals. I couldn't help wondering, since Saramago was clearly much more interested in the history than the fiction, if he chose to write an impressionistic "fictional" story rather than the seemingly more natural nonfiction account in part because it allowed him to avoid the work of marshaling all the required facts and figures. Or maybe I'm being unfair and he was simply using his soapbox as a famous author to hold forth on the issues that mattered to him, and fictional conventions be damned.
Meanwhile, the writing style is experimental, full of run-on sentences and paragraphs that incorporate dialogue without quotation marks. Here are samples so you can see for yourself:
“Long live the republic. So how much is the new daily rate, boss, Let’s see, I pay whatever the others pay, talk to the overseer, So, overseer, how much is the daily rate, You’ll earn an extra vintém, That’s not enough to live on, Well, if you don’t want the job, there are plenty more who do, Dear God, a man could die of hunger along with his children, what can I give my children to eat, Put them to work, And if there is no work, Then don’t have so many children, Wife, send the boys off to collect firewood and the girls for straw, and come to bed, Do with me as you wish, I am my master’s slave, and there, it’s done, I’m pregnant, with child, in the family way, I’m going to have a baby, you’re going to be a father, I’ve missed a period, That’s all right, eight can starve as easily as seven.”
“Tomorrow, said Dona Clemência to her children, and her nieces and nephews, is New Year’s Day, or so she had gleaned from the calendar, placing her hopes in the brand-new year and sending her best wishes to all the Portuguese people, well, that isn’t quite what she said, Dona Clemência has always spoken rather differently, but she’s learning, we all choose our own teachers, and while these words are still hanging in the air, news comes that there has been an attack on the barracks of the third infantry regiment in Beja, now Beja is not in India or Angola or Guinea-Bissau, it’s right next door, it’s on the latifundio, and the dogs are outside barking, though the coup was put down, they will speak of little else over the next weeks and months, so how was it possible for a barracks to be attacked, all it took was a little luck, that’s all it ever takes, perhaps that’s what was lacking the first time around, and no one noticed, that’s our fate, if the horse carrying the messenger bearing orders to commence battle loses a shoe, the whole course of history is turned upside down in favor of our enemies, who will triumph, what bad luck. And in saying this we are not being disrespectful to those who left the peace and safety of their homes and set off to try and pull down the pillars of the latifundio, though Samson and everyone else might die in the attempt, and when the dust had settled and we went and looked, we found that it was Samson who had died and not the pillars, perhaps we should have sat down under this holm oak and taken turns telling each other the thoughts we had in our head and heart, because there is nothing worse than distrust, it was good that they hijacked the Santa Maria, and the attack in Beja was good too, but no one came to ask us latifundio dogs and ants if either the ship or the attack had anything to do with us, We really value what you’re doing, though we don’t know who you are, but since we are just dogs and ants, what will we say tomorrow when we all bark together and you pay as little heed to us as did the owners of this latifundio you want to surround, sink and destroy. It’s time we all barked together and bit deep, captain general, and meanwhile check to see that your horse doesn’t have a shoe missing or that you only have three bullets when you should have four.”
Certainly Saramago is a talented writer with a strong voice, and for all the unusual choices here he brings the setting vividly to life. The translation is very good, and the publishers deserve credit for a professional job, including a few brief footnotes explaining historical and cultural references that may not be self-evident to a non-Portuguese reader. This book is not without merit, and had I come into it looking for a history of labor relations rather than a novel, perhaps I wouldn’t have been so disappointed. But for all Saramago’s talent, for me it was a drag to read.