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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
and equality of people and their labor is trumpeted,
“All men are kings, all women are queens, and
the labours of all are princes. “
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”.
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
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.
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
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.
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.