Like a mischievous kid who rattles a jar full of bees just to see what happens, José Saramago threw his characters into extraordinary situations to see how they’d react. The Portuguese Nobel laureate was a chronicler of the unknowable, an architect of the implausible, a student of human psychology where ethical codes or the pesky laws of nature would normally intervene. He sought first to confound, second to clarify.
Circumstance — be it impossible, hypothetical, or allegorical — functions as both the stage and the story in his novels. In The Stone Raft, the Iberian peninsula breaks off from Europe and begins drifting into the Atlantic Ocean. In Blindness, an unnamed city loses its ability to see — literally and, at times too obviously, figuratively. In The History of the Siege of Lisbon, the addition of a single word to a textbook alters the course of history. In Death with Interruptions, death itself appears to have died.
His characters, by contrast, tend to be shadowy at best, symbolic figures more akin to those of Plato’s cave (which Saramago wryly fleshed out in his own The Cave) than the bone and marrow protagonists, fictional though they may be, who usually lead a narrative. But it’s within these spotlight-stealing circumstances that Saramago’s true protagonist — oh-so-humbly, the whole of humanity — emerges.
In his widely regarded masterpiece, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, Saramago funnels this existential panorama through the prism of the title character. On its surface, the novel chronicles a Portuguese physician/poet’s struggle to re-adapt to fascist Portugal after 16 years of exile in Brazil. The events of the plot are specific but simple, and, at times, even boring: Reis reads about the civil war in neighboring Spain but never consciously reacts to it; he has an affair with a chambermaid but never surrenders to emotions or sensuality; he wanders the streets of his native Lisbon but remains aimless and isolated from it.
Reis’s return, we learn, was prompted by the real life death of Portugal’s most glorified poet, Fernando Pessoa. Reis, like Pessoa, was a real literary figure. But, unlike Pessoa, Reis was never actually alive. Rather, he was one of Pessoa’s numerous “heteronyms” (elaborately constructed pseudonyms with autonomous biographies, writing styles, politics, and philosophical outlooks), a fact that Saramago never contextualizes as the novel’s literary inside joke — it’s instead up to the reader to find out.
Ricardo Reis features the spectrum of Saramago’s themes: the construction and manipulation of identity, the fragility of language, the survival of a creation after the death of its creator, the necessity of audience skepticism toward an artist (and, by proxy, the necessity of mankind’s skepticism toward God). As with all of his works, Saramago is a puppet master of creative circumstance — he shakes the jar, then forces both his characters and his readers to orient themselves in the skewed aftermath.
Saramago’s death last week marked the loss of one of contemporary literature’s most creative and provocative minds, but, like Pessoa, he will continue to linger on after his passing. He will continue to haunt readers with unanswerable questions, stirring the irrepressible curiosity for what if, challenging the periphery of possibilities. We read Saramago because, even in his most absurd arrangements, his stories explore things that seem psychologically plausible, distantly relatable, or that we secretly want to know about ourselves. He guides the way down the rabbit hole, but leaves us to find a way back on our own.