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The History of the Siege of Lisbon (1989)
by José Saramago
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An exploration of the editing which happens to make history of events and to make stories of life and life of stories. Distanced and intimate the prose requires the reader to actively spool the sentences from the page rather than being pulled along by them and to keep track of the shifting foci to observe what it being said. Also a somewhat corny imbalanced love story.
Published in 1989. Read for Reading 1001 BOTM in January 2022. This is a story of a proofreader charged with correcting. This is a book in which the author challenges the one dimensional view of history. The proofreader alters the story by adding one word "not" to his correction. It is a story of how Lisbon came to be from fighting between Moors and Christians. The author recounts the siege as a historical romance while also the proofreader is in his own romance with his supervisor. It can also be described as a novel about writing. While Kirkus felt this was the author's best work. I enjoyed The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis more than this one. Multilayered. Metafiction.
The power of a simple negation! One of my favorite books of all time, and the one that put Saramago on my favorite authors list.
I'd previously read his excellent novel Blindness, but this was even better, both more human and more high-concept. It's a deceptively simple novel, centering around Raimundo Silva, a middle-aged proofreader in modern-day Lisbon who, when given a book called The History of the Siege of Lisbon to proof, impulsively inserts the single word "not" into a crucial sentence about the decision of a Crusader army to come to the aid of an army of Galicians besieging the city of Lisbon during the Reconquista. When his crime is discovered, he's called into his head office and chastised, but allowed to keep his job. His new supervisor is an attractive older woman named Maria Sara who takes a liking to him and suggests that he write an alternate history exploring how the Galicians, who were the founders on the Portuguese nation, managed to get themselves into Lisbon without the help of the Crusaders. The rest of the book concentrates on the proofreader's tale, and their ensuing romance.
Silva is kind of a funny character, a shy nerd who also seems to reflect a bit of Saramago himself. His extreme nervousness around Maria never gets tedious, and you end up rooting for him to pick up the phone and call her. Her role as his muse feels right, and she reminds me of Hector Berlioz's ladyfriend, who demanded he write his grand opera The Trojans in spite of all his self-doubts. The other layer of the story, Saramago's meditations on the nature of history and the veracity of various "true" historical events, is very well-done and concise, too. When posterity records Dom Alfonso Henriques as uttering implausibly eloquent St. Crispin's Day-esque royal speeches, what are we being encouraged to think? How should we regard the completely ridiculous miracles of the saints, like the story of St. Anthony and the donkey, that come straight out of Borges' "The Theologian"? This theme is enhanced by Saramago's trademark no quotes/long paragraphs/interweaving narrative style, with a wry authorial voice possessed of a dislike of war, a fondness for human irrationalities, and indulgent of digressions. It's a similar theme as Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon, but though the book is shorter than that masterpiece, "Like any story, it can be told in ten words, or a hundred, or a thousand, or never end."
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What happens when the facts of history are replaced by the mysteries of love?When Raimundo Silva, a lowly proofreader for a Lisbon publishing house, inserts a negative into a sentence of a historical text, he alters the whole course of the 1147 Siege of Lisbon. Fearing censure he is met instead with admiration- Dr Maria Sara, his voluptuous new editor, encourages him to pen his own alternative history. As his retelling draws on all his imaginative powers, Silva finds - to his nervous delight - that if the facts of the past can be rewritten as a romance then so can the details of his own dusty bachelor present.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)869.342 — Literature Spanish and Portuguese Portuguese Portuguese fiction 20th Century 1945-1999
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Saramago’s writing is lovely, but the meandering can be distracting. I often had to re-read sections to figure out where the initial thought started and how I ended up so far afield from that thought. He employs long sentences using only commas and periods. Dialogue is embedded in the prose, and there is no indication which character is speaking, so the reader will have to keep track mentally. The author does not differentiate between two story arcs, often moving between them within the same paragraph. There are long paragraphs describing a character’s internal dialogue (for example, of whether or not to make a phone call) that span several pages. The narrator goes off on many tangents, some of which are head-scratchers. In short, this book requires a great deal of patience and concentration.
I found I needed to understand more about Portuguese history to fully appreciate the storyline, so it took me a while to finish this book, since I was constantly looking up events and people that played a role in the actual Siege of Lisbon. Thus, I recommend getting an overview of the historical Siege, as well as the key players involved, before embarking on this novel.
I believe the point of this book is to show how fiction can impact the historical record. Participants often leave no written record of their thoughts and emotions, and Saramago explores whether we can truly understand the reasons behind why people acted the way they did after many years have passed.
I have read two other books by Saramago, Blindness and The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, and enjoyed both. As clever as it is, this one just didn’t work as well for me, primarily due to its structure. I found the present-day story more engaging than the alternate history. It isn’t necessarily fun to read this book, but it certainly engages the brain.