Baltasar and Blimunda by Jose Saramago is a wondrous but challenging read. The book was originally written in Portuguese. Giovanni Pontiero translated it into English. Saramago was a highly esteemed Portuguese novelist, poet, playwright and journalist. This is the first work of his that I have tried. Saramago died in 2010.
Though my knowledge of literary theory is limited, I would define this novel as written in a modernist style. Saramago uses few traditional sentences. Most of the narrative consists of strings of thoughts, separated by commas. There are no apostrophes indicating dialogue. Though topics are connected, the subject at hand often shifts quickly and, at times, randomly. I would not exactly call the style a stream of conciseness; rather, I would call it a stream of life. The point of view is generally third person but at times this shifts suddenly and unexpectedly. Sometimes the narrator seems to be neutral and without character; at other times he seems to be an observer from the far future, at a few points he even seems to be God. This unconventional form seems to be an attempt to portray the world as it happens, without the artificial rules of grammar and traditional writing. I enjoyed this unusual writing style. Certainly I would not want everything that I read to reflect this approach, but I appreciate the creativity involved and it is nice to try something different for a change.
The setting of the book is early eighteenth century Portugal. The plot is very unusual but very imaginative in construction as well as presentation. Oddly enough, this book can be considered an historical novel as many of the characters and events portrayed are real and fact based.
Baltasar is a former soldier who has lost his left hand in battle. Early in the novel he meets Blimunda, a woman with mystical powers. Blimunda has a host of magical and psychic abilities. She possesses X - ray vision and has some talent for precognition, along with other magical skills. The pair quickly falls in love. The protagonists then become involved with Pardere Bartolemeu Lourenco, a priest who is attempting to develop a flying machine. They participate in the construction and development of the airship, which Bartolemeu Lourenco calls the Passarola. The ship is a mix of engineering innovations and magical attributes. It is levitated with the help of globes, which are filled with human “Wills”. It turns out that Blimunda is able to capture the wills of people at the moment of their deaths. An interesting note, it turns out, is that Bartolemeu Lourenco was a real person who lived during the period and really attempted to construct an airship. Our main characters also meet and interact with the real life eighteenth century composer Domenico Scarlatti.
The tale of Baltasar and Blimunda is interspersed with the story of the king of Portugal, Dom João V, and his family. Tricked by his queen and the religious powers of the kingdom to fulfill a holy pledge, Dom João has ordered that an enormous convent be constructed in Mafra, which is Baltasar’s hometown.
The Passarola is eventually completed and, fleeing from the inquisition, Baltasar, Blimunda and Bartolemeu Lourenco take flight. After a journey across Portugal, the trio crash-lands in a remote and mountainous area. Bartolemeu Lourenco, who has become irrational, flees into the wilderness and drops out of the narrative. After hiding the Passarola amidst brush and scrub, Baltasar and Blimunda are able to walk to Mafra. There they settle down with Baltasar’s family. Baltasar finds work among the thousands of laborers employed in constructing the convent. From time to time the couple returns to the Passarola in order to keep it maintained. Much of the remainder of the story involves the construction of the massive convent, an extremely arduous and dangerous task for the laborers. I will not give away the novel’s conclusion, but the ending seems to come somewhat abruptly. I believe that in writing the conclusion as such, that Saramago is, as he does with his style of prose, attempting to reflect the way that life often goes. Sometimes reality throws us the unexpected and traumatic with little warning.
As I pointed out in earlier commentary here, Saramago was an adherent of Anarchist communism. This ideology permeates this work. While the prose strongly advocates the author’s philosophy, it is never preachy. Instead Saramago seems to prefer to instruct through storytelling. The belief system rejects government and other sources of authority. It advocates that society is best served when groups of people voluntarily band together into communes and cooperate for the common good. Saramago was also critical of religion and a proponent of atheism.
Again and again, government, hierarchical systems and religion are portrayed as malicious and destructive. One of many examples of this point occurs when King Dom João arbitrarily decides during the middle of construction that the Convent at Mafra is to be much larger than planned. As a result, more of the surrounding area needs to be destroyed in order to make room,
“On a small plot of land situated behind the convent walls lying to the east, the friar in charge of the kitchen-garden attached to the hospice had planted fruit trees and laid out beds with a variety of produce and borders of flowers, the mere beginnings of a fully established orchard and kitchen-garden. All of this would be destroyed.”
Egalitarianism and equality of people and their labor is trumpeted,
“All men are kings, all women are queens, and the labours of all are princes. “
Natural human relations and actions, unregulated and uncontrolled by government and religious institutions, are shown to be virtuous, harmonious and morally just. An example is Baltasar and Blimunda’s relationship, which is never formalized with a religious or legal marriage arrangement.
“Their union is illicit out of choice, and their marriage is unsanctified by Holy Mother Church, for they disregard the social conventions and proprieties, and if he feels like having sex, she will oblige, and if she craves it, he will gratify her. Perhaps some deeper and more mysterious sacrament sustains this union”.
The above are just a few examples. Repeatedly, formal authority systems are shown to be oppressive, brutal and cruel. All religious acts are perpetuated for selfish ulterior motives. Royal authority is constantly committing horrendous acts but perpetuating propaganda that justifies such actions as virtuous and selfless. Likewise, the horrors and deprivations experienced by the poor and downtrodden are ironically “explained” by Saramago as being part of God’s benevolence. Religion is again and again shown to be nasty, hypocritical and not based upon rational thinking. Often, the acts of common people are shown to be altruistic and positive.
Nowhere does Saramago suggest a practical way as to how society can get to a place unencumbered by authority and religion. The solution presented is mostly symbolic. Flight of birds as well as Lourenco’s machine seem to represent hope and escape from the oppressive forces besetting humanity. Perhaps the fact that the Passarola is levitated by globes filled with human wills is emblematic of communal cooperation as the alternative to hierarchal injustice.
In terms of theme and philosophy, Saramago presents a lot more than his political and social ponderings. This book is very densely filled with ideas. There are meditations on what makes people human, what gives them identity, and the role of art in elevating the human condition, to name just a few of the points that Saramago explores.
I certainly do not agree with the lion share of Saramago’s philosophies. His beliefs, however, are presented in a reasoned and non- strident way. In addition, there are many observations presented that I find to be true or that I can at least say that I lean towards. I agree with some, but not all, of what he has to say about religion. Of course, government and other centers of power are often malevolent and destructive. The powerful often explain away malicious actions and intent as justified activities. However, it seems to me that Saramago mistakes what often is, but not always so, a world of universal and absolute rules. I detect very little balance in the way that the author portrays the universe. These flaws lead me to conclude that his ideology is ultimately too simplistic and is without nuance.
Regardless of its flaws this work offers much to recommend. However, this is a book that should be attempted only by the adventurous reader. As I noted above, Saramago’s prose is extremely unconventional and thus can be difficult to get used to. In addition, the plot and storyline vary between harsh realism and whimsical mysticism. I found this to be an odd mix. However, this same unconventional style is innovative and keeps things interesting. In addition, the book contains much aesthetic beauty that is manifested in many ways. Particularly, the way that Baltasar and Blimunda’s love and relationship is portrayed is poignant and meaningful. If one is prepared for something very different, Baltasar and Blimunda can be an entertaining, surprising and thought provoking read.