Reading Saramago, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis

Marcenda leaned back on the sofa, slowly stroking her left hand, her back to the window, her face scarcely visible. Normally Salvador would appear now to turn on the chandelier, the pride and joy of Hotel Baraganca, but on this occasion he does not, as if to show his displeasure at being excluded from a conversation which he, after all, made possible. This is how they repay him, sitting there rapt in conversation, whispering almost in darkness. No sooner did he think this than the chandelier went on, Ricardo Reis had taken the initiative, because anyone walking into the lounge would have been suspicious to find a man and a woman together in the shadows, even if the man was the doctor and the woman a cripple.

Emerging from the page, he says to himself: yes, that’s it, I will devote myself to the pursuit of pure beauty, beauty in its pure form, no, that’s not the right word, beauty doesn’t do justice to what Saramago achieves, for one thing there is a simplicity, an ordinariness to his language, what elevation it has come from something other than the urge to write beautiful prose...

...maybe that’s the problem, a definition of beauty derived from poetry, for there is certainly an imaginative intoxication in Saramago’s description of the conversation between Ricardo Reis and the girl with the paralyzed hand at dusk in parlor of the hotel, but the beauty that Saramago achieves is an inherently fictional beauty, an inherently narrative beauty, an inherently dramatic beauty...

...three overlapping concepts to be sure, but each with a different emphasis, by fictional I emphasize that this is a made-up world, a world that makes a claim to imaginative truth rather than factual truth no matter how many “real” characters and verifiable events populate its pages, by narrative I emphasize the act of storytelling, the storyteller’s pact with the audience that this story is going somewhere, that these events will achieve some resolution, and by dramatic I emphasize a structure based on conflict, on opposition of one person to another, on human interaction, on the hugely important fact that each of us must confront daily, that other people are different from me and want different thing...

...three aspects that a novel must have, but that a prose poem need not. For that is the point I am trying to make, arguing against my own implicit assumption, as I began writing this, that “beauty” was a property of “poetic prose” and that I needed to find some other words to describe the appearance, almost in mid-sentence, certainly in mid-conversation, of Salvador, the hotel manager, a terrible gossip but an essential character, whose need to know the intimate details of his guests' lives has been, up to this point, a happy extra service that the hotel provides...

...but this is not the place for a close reading of the passage. What I am trying to say is that the beauty of the scene cannot be measured by the standards of poetic prose, by things like the clarity of images or freshness of figurative language or the musicality of a phrase, though occasionally Saramago's writing does achieve such beauty...

...but rather that the beauty of the scene lies in Saramago’s handling of his novelistic elements (for novels, though delivered in words, are constructed out of something deeper, let us say, as a first approximation, from fully imagined characters, and their colliding worlds). And so the beauty, this inherently novelistic beauty, lies in the subtle sliding from one point of view to another, in the tension between the need to get on with the story and the pleasures of digression, in the very premise of the book, that of a fictional poet returning to Lisbon after the death of the poet who invented him, and, in this scene, in the way that Saramago manages to make the concerns of the gossipy hotel manager, concerns that most would regard as petty, seem, for a moment, as heartbreaking as those of a charming girl whose arm became paralyzed after the death of her mother, or those of the poet who has been utterly seduced by the way she carries her lifeless hand.

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