Article published on August 8, 2017.
Dating to the twelfth century, Portugal is one of the oldest nations in Europe, and its capital Lisbon one of the oldest cities in the world. But more importantly for booklovers, Portugal is home to the oldest bookshop in the world, the Betrand bookstore in Lisbon. Recognised by the Guinness World Records, the shop opened in 1732 and is still going strong now, some 284 years later, nearly three centuries of bookselling! The original bookshop moved location after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 – one of the most powerful earthquakes in European history with a magnitude of 9.0 – and now Bertrand’s is a multi-branch chain with over 50 outlets across Portugal. Rua Garrett is home to the original Bertrand’s and is surely a must-visit for any booklovers heading to the Portuguese capital. But that’s not the only world record Portugal boasts, having both the world record for the largest omelette (weighing over 6 tonnes) and for the largest Santa parade (with nearly 15000 attendees). There are perhaps more significant claims to fame as well, including the fact that, at over 10 miles, Portugal’s Vasco da Gama bridge, opened in 1998, is the longest bridge in Europe, and that the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance signed in 1373 and still operational today is the oldest diplomatic alliance in the world. On top of that Lisbon has one of the oldest universities in continuous operation in the world – the University of Coimbra was established in 1290 and is one of 15 UNESCO world heritage sites in Portugal, ranking the country 8th in Europe in terms of the number of UNESCO sites and 17th in the world.
Portugal’s history is perhaps best affiliated with exploration, as the first global maritime power, thanks to the likes of Ferdinand Magellan and Alvares Cabral. But in the same period in which Portugal was beginning to establish its economic and colonial power, its literary history started to emerge. Indeed, Luis de Camoes’ Lusiads, which is the national epic of Portugal, first published in 1572, is an epic poem about explorer Vasco da Gama. Other major literary figures to emerge from Portugal include Fernando Pessoa, José Maria de Eca de Queiros and Antonio Lobo Antunes. And whilst there have been four Nobel Prize winners from the country, Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo (Peace), José Ramos-Horta (Peace) and António Caetano de Abreu Freire Egas Moniz (Physiology or Medicine), Portugal received its only Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, awarded to José Saramago.
At this point in proceedings, I usually go on to give a rundown of the latest fiction emerging from the allotted country, but I must admit I’ve struggled to track down very much in the way of contemporary releases. I try to do a fairly comprehensive search for emerging fiction and generally it’s not too hard to come across a wealth of authors, but not such the case with Portugal, which begs the question of whether it’s slipped under my radar or perhaps if Portuguese fiction, for whatever reason, isn’t being translated in the same number as other countries. Of those books recently published, reprints of the likes of Antonio Lobo Antules and Eca de Queiroz continue to be popular. Though one of the more prolific contemporary authors I did come across is Luis Miguel Rocha, whose novels have been likened to those of Dan Brown, and include most recently The Last Pope and The Pope’s Assassin. Goncalo Tavares also has a number of books translated into English, but beyond those names my search came up relatively sparse. For me, however, it was the very first name I came across that attracted my attention – José Saramago.
Saramago, who passed away in 2010 at the age of 87, had his first work published in 1947 and had some thirty publications to his name. The majority of these have been translated into English, including his last novel, Cain, written in 2009. And in 2014, his posthumous novel, Skylight, was published with something of an interesting back story. Known as ‘the book lost and found in time’, Saramago originally wrote Skylight during the 1940-50s, and submitted it in 1953, at which point the manuscript was lost in the publisher’s offices for some four decades until they moved site in 1989. It was then that the publishers approached Saramago wishing to publish the novel, but Saramago refused on the principle that ‘while a publishing house is clearly under no obligation to publish every manuscript it receives, it does have a duty to respond to the person waiting impatiently and even anxiously day after day, month after month.’ (Or in Saramago’s case year after year, decade after decade!) Saramago thus stuck to his prerogative that the novel would not be published in his lifetime. It was after his death in 2010, nearly sixty years since Saramago’s submission, that Skylight finally got its publication. This fascinating history drew me to this novel.
Set in an apartment block in Lisbon in the late 1940s, the novel focuses on the inhabitants of six flats. A cobbler and his wife, who take in a young lodger; a family of four women, including a mother, her two daughters and her sister; a kept woman who relies financially on the visits of her lover; a disgruntled husband and his wife who have lost their young daughter; a shrewish wife and her weak-willed husband and their young son; and a couple whose ambitious daughter is making her way in the world. It is a lovely conceit – looking at the lives of individuals who share the same residence – and one that continues to be used effectively today, in the likes of Bradley Somer’s Fishbowl. The first chapter of Saramago’s novel in particular really captures the brilliance of the idea, as he moves freely and fluidly between each apartment and set of inhabitants. After that, however, subsequent chapters focus on the residents of a specific apartment, which felt a bit of a shame after such an impressively mellifluous opening that really showcased Saramago’s authorial talent and set out a captivating style. As it is, the chapters alternate between the stories of the various characters and their individual arcs emerge across the novel. However, given that the novel focuses on six separate apartments, constituting some sixteen characters, and is average size in length, we only get to share a small portion of their stories. Similarly, we enter randomly each of the character’s lives; it is not as if we are at the start of each character’s story and follow it through to the end, but rather are thrust into the midst of their lives. The events and actions each face therefore are not necessarily the most compelling or significant. It would indeed be a bit unrealistic were we to glimpse into six given flats at any one time and to be faced with the full range of births, deaths and marriages. So instead we have smaller, but not unimportant events in the lives of these characters, and we see only a limited sense of how these unfold before once again the curtain falls. It is a really interesting concept, and is perhaps one of the more intriguing, but arguably also frustrating, of approaches to storytelling, leaving the reader with much to ponder about the lives of these characters outside the confines of the novel. For me, although there’s obviously some realism to the way Saramago handles his plotlines, focusing on the lesser issues of the characters’ lives, this did mean a certain lack of excitement and tension, and I would have forgiven Saramago for taking some liberties with realism in the name of drama.
Despite a cast of sixteen, comprising different ages and household set-ups, I did not find the characters to be a very eclectic bunch. Naturally, the fact they share the same residence implies some form of socioeconomic or demographic similarity, but the characters felt neither distinctive nor developed enough. Indeed, I struggled in particular to separate the two warring couples in the novel, and were it not for the one having a son, the two would have been largely interchangeable. Even those characters whose stories are distinguishing themselves felt fairly non-descript and I struggled to really care about any of them or engage with their stories. Again, I don’t think this was helped by the fact that we only get to stay with the characters for a short while and at marked intervals.
I really wanted to love this novel, and had it continued in the vein of the first chapter, my verdict may have been different. But unfortunately this was a case in which the end result didn’t live up to the potential of the idea and lacked the necessary drama or characterization to pull it through regardless. Having said that, Saramago’s talent and storytelling is evident enough and his is ironically one of the books that I am more likely to remember at the end of this journey. It may just be as this was one of Saramago’s earliest literary endeavours – the majority of his writing spanning the 1970s to 2000s – it was a stepping stone to his later work and as such it would be interesting to pick up some of his other books to see how his style and talent developed, and there’s plenty to choose from.
Personal read 3
Group read 4
Skylight by José Saramago, published on 2 July, 2015 by Vintage
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