The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis – Jose Saramago

Finally Ricardo Reis released her arm and she gathered up the tray. The crockery shook as if the epicentre of an earthquake were located in room two hundred and one or, to be more precise, in the heart of this maid. Now she departs, she will not regain her composure in a hurry, she will go into the pantry and deposit the tray, her hand resting where that other had rested, a delicate gesture unlikely in someone of so lowly a profession.

My first ever Saramago, re-read due to a dearth of fresh books while I decide whether to turn to the dark side and get a kindle.

It was my introduction to the wise, thoughtful, opinionated, benevolent, fallible and erudite narrator that I would grow to love. It was also my introduction to Fernando Pessoa, and his autonymns, Alberto Caeiro, Alvaro de Campos and of course the protagonist Dr Ricardo Reis. I didn’t realise as much at the time, but what drew me to start with this was the idea of the creation of someone being their own separate entity, interacting with them and eventually outliving them, if only for a short time.

Dr Ricardo Reis returns from Brazil and takes up residence at the hotel Braganca near Cais do Sodre as he acclimatises himself to life back in his homeland and debates whether to take up his profession again, and occasionally writing poetry. While here he intimates a slight affair with the daughter of another guest as well as a more primal one with one of the hotel maids. He also starts receiving visits from his old friend Fernando Pessoa, who had died six months previously and was one of the reasons for Reis’s return. Meanwhile Spain is on the verge of civil war and those fearful flow over the border into Portugal, itself under the New State of Salazar, which he learns about, along with the reader as he sits in the hotel’s salon and reads the paper, or converses with it’s knowledgeable guests.

Once I got used to Saramago’s unique style I thoroughly enjoyed this. Knowing more about Pessoa, Reis and Saramago, and having visted Lisbon a few years ago (I admit to looking up the road names on Google maps to see if I too had frequented the same parts as the doctor, after it was this book that fed my interest with this old city) I perhaps took more from this second reading than the first, however it is Saramago’s storytelling, his narrator who frequently digresses or comments upon the characters or social norms of the time that make this an understated pleasure.
Reis’s snobbery is barely hidden, and I found less to like about him this time around, although underneath is a good heart, he is very much a product of his class and time, particularly when Lydia tells him she is pregnant with his child, he can barely hide his relief when she tells him he does not have to acknowledge it. Amongst the light social commentary and historic goings on in the back ground Saramago injects some good humour into the story, poking fun at Reis and the social norms with a keen and wry pen.

This is still one of my favourite Saramago books, I think, along with Baltasar and Blimunda and the history of the Siege of Lisbon, and I’m glad that even reading again after about a decade, it still conjures the same magic over me that it did before.

I was reading the papers, he replies, but hastens to add, I’ve just this minute finished. These are disastrous sentences, much too peremptory, if I’m reading the papers I’m not interested in conversation, and if I’ve just finished reading them then I’m on my way out. Feeling utterly ridiculous, he goes on to say, it’s quite warm in here. Apalled at the banality of this statement, he still cannot make up his mind, he cannot go back and sit down again, not just yet, if he does she will think he wishes to be alone, and if he waits until she goes up to her room she will think that he is going out. Any move on his part must be carefully timed so that she will think he has been waiting for her.


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