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José Saramago’s ‘The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis’

By Sourav Chatterjee

Some people call it a disease. But this is a constant drive, an inexorable magnetism that pulls me toward a heap of battered out old copies of damp and dusty novels on some random pavements with their ever enthusiast sellers. Book shopping ain’t a disease, even if it’s done regularly, and even after trying very hard not to.  It is more of a lifestyle identity. Some people drink like fish, some people smoke their lungs out, some buy dresses, snickers, gadgets, cell phones and accessories, while only a few invest in books. This is fetishism, nonetheless, like any other. But book shopping is way different from any other kinds of consumption. They both are addictions at the end of the day, but the only singular aspect in the case of books is the longevity of the addiction.  Book shopping is similar to  an Indian hookah, which you can smoke for your entire life, and if nature and fate permit then who knows, even your next to next generation can smoke from the same pot.

What is more enticing is that we do no longer solely ‘buy’ books, we collect them, we read them on the bath-tub, we read them on the bus, we display them, we even go to sleep with them like Alexander the Great, who went to sleep with a copy of The Iliad at his bedside. We live with the books, we dream of them; we love them, preserve and protect them like a child. And as one of my professors once claimed that we should not only possess them but read them unashamedly and “promiscuously”.

Endowed with a protean nature by default, the book like a chameleon changes its colour at different times and places. The book as an object obviously doesn’t change. What I mean, or what literary theorists mean is that since a text is a linguistic act in and of language, it develops a polysemous nature of its own. It is similar to what folks in the great city of Braavos, in HBO’s Game of Thrones call – The Many-Faced God! But strangely the first part of the motto ‘ValarMorghulis: ValarDohaeris’ (All men must die: All men must serve) doesn’t apply to the idea of the book. The book rather serves without dying. It does kill and massacre, but most importantly, it affects our heart and intellect. It gives us immortal wounds and causes a sea-change. And once again the idea of change is inevitably associated with the idea of death.

Now, to speak of death we must remember that death will find us all except the written word. The book as a portable carrier of the written word will never perish until and unless we witness an apocalypse or another bibliocaust.

As for me, I am a bibliophile. I buy books at an enormous rate; the rate of which has long exceeded the rate of their perusal. But there is no remorse in the fact, as I know that someday I “will” read all the books. This is particularly alarming because when I buy books I always imagine myself reading it. First I imagine the joy of reading it and then I buy the book, as Joyce would say “thought is the thought of thought”. For a bibliophile like me there is no alternative for a book. I mean the book as a medium. And in the age of digital archiving and e-books, it is rather my conviction that there will always be groups of students and enthusiasts who will pick up and prefer the physical copy over any other medium. Television didn’t kill theatre; photography didn’t kill painting, at least in Kolkata. Neither I nor the futurologists see any reason why the book will perish.

In This is Not the End of the Book, Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carriere talk at length on this topic. E-books have necessarily reduced the pain and cost of accessing and obtaining a book to almost nil. On the contrary, just think of the condition of our eyes if we read Tolstoy’s War and Peace or the entire Bible on Kindle. We cannot read forever our edition of a text, since my grandmother’s Tudor Edition of Complete Works of William Shakespeare has already started to decompose. Therefore I must possess a new one. For a researcher a digital file is way more lucrative than a book, combined with the magical facility of ‘Ctrl+F’. E-books require very little storage space, unlike the ever increasing columns of unread books in our library. Rare manuscripts and incunabula are available as a digital file, which would otherwise cost a fortune for a connoisseur to possess. Think about the e-copy of Codex Gigas or the Devil’s Bible, supposed to be written in 12th century in the Benedictine monastery of Podlacize (Modern Czech Republic) and preserved in the National Library of Sweden, Stockholm; or the twenty two pages from Inquisition and Galileo Affair of 24th February, 1616 made available online. This is strange, but I am writing this article on 24th February, 2016, exactly on the night of the fourth centenary of the trial – “Ah Pythagoras’ metempsychosis, were that true” – yes it is!

Digital texts are a great support for people who hate to get their hands dirty while rummaging through the Classics on the pavement stalls. It is unhygienic; the copies are no doubt dirty since they are exposed to the constant pollution of the traffic. Moreover, it is because they are always kept outdoors, covered up with tarpaulin at the end of the day and abandoned each night to be seasoned throughout the year. On a book hunting day, my partner suddenly spotted the broken and tattered spine of Simone de Beauvoir’s 1956 edition of The Mandarins amid Clive Cusslers, Stephen Kings and Lee Childs arranged horizontally. The copy looked almost filthy as its pages turned green overall and were foxed with red spots. After much disgust, discussion and aversion I bought it for Rs. 60. I no longer buy new books from Oxford, Starmark, Crossword or Rupa, because my regular book shopping endeavours have transgressed the border of aesthetics, ethics and economics and have made me a pinchpenny, a  miser. I only delight in the joy of using “used” texts. If a text is a palimpsest, as Hardy claims, then I claim that possession is, too.

I have long abandoned that dilettantish act of sniffing the perfume of new books and claiming it to be intoxicating. I say behold the Library of Babel, books need not exude perfume any longer, because all that it can exude at the end is its own history, the story of its creator – not its author but other books and so on ad infinitum.

Last year out of the many texts as a part of my curriculum, I had to read José Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. Few lines or sentences from every chapter are quotable, and I am not exaggerating as I say this because he IS Saramago, a Nobel Laureate. The fact is that I do not even know whether Saramago is a great writer or not because I haven’t read him in Portuguese. I have read Giovanni Pontiero’s translation, which I cannot vouch whether it is or isn’t faithful to the original, because I have not read the original! This predicament only leaves me to talk about Saramago’s philosophy which I hope has been preserved in the translation. Symmetry is the content and the structure of the novel. The first and the last lines of the novel are similar and is Saramago’s tribute to the Portuguese epic poet – LuísVaz de Camões, here quoted from Canto III, verse 20 of The Lusiads: “Here where the sea ends and the earth begins” and “Here, where the sea ends and the earth awaits”.

Saramago creates the fictional Ricardo Reis who was one of the four heteronyms (or alter egos) of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. Pessoa’s ghost is also present in the novel as a character. Reis is a doctor who returns to Lisbon from Brazil after sixteen years, and as the novel proceeds there begins a wonderful confluence of discourse on art, reading, love, poetry, and philosophy. Pessoa’s ghost believes in symmetry, the theme of which runs throughout the novel. Pessoa’s ghost claims that he can meet Reis only for nine months, because while we are in the womb for nine months people can’t see us yet they think of us. And when we die people can’t see us yet they think of us. Therefore, according to Pessoa, it takes nine months to achieve total oblivion.The style is extremely convoluted and labyrinthine, as the theme of labyrinth and meta-fiction almost dominate the text apart from symmetry. The novel is about artists, their creations and the constant conversation between the two realms. It is a herculean task to fathom Saramago’s novel unless one is thoroughly acquainted with the politics and culture of Portugal, and most importantly with the literary output of Camoes, Fernando Pessoa and Ricardo Reis. The plot also includes the character of Lydia, a hotel maid. This Lydia is further a literary creation and muse of Reis (the poet) like Beatrice, who has manifested in the human form from the realm of purely imaginary.

Therefore this is the pattern we get: Fernando Pessoa (created) – Ricardo Reis (created) – Lydia.

The overlapping of the two realms of real and imaginary in fiction is too disturbing to handle. Imagine that I create a fictional character X, and X manifests tomorrow in flesh and blood and wants to bear me children, and eventually we do. Is this comic, is this plausible? Reis would think it is horrendous!

These complex structures can be explained through the works of postmodernist philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, whose third type of simulacrum would project such a structure, of a creation within a creation, or a reflection within a reflection.

This is Saramago’s masterpiece as it delineates his sheer understanding and humility in the field of phenomenology, hermeneutics and the act of reading. Saramago writes in the novel that keeping the verbosity of the world in mind and the shortness of life, it is impossible for us to read everything, but we should at least read little bit of everything. He is striking a remarkable balance here and, unlike Mallarme, he is not a charlatan who would cry out – “the flesh is sad, alas, and I have read all the books”.

The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is a tour de force of this man.  One of my very favourite pieces from the novel, which I do often excitingly paraphrase to my friends who travel in trams, goes like this:

“The pavement was wet, slippery, the tram lines gleamed all the way up the Rua do Alecrim to the right. Who knows what star or kite holds them at that point, where, as the textbook informs us, parallel lines meet at infinity, an infinity that must be truly vast to accommodate so many things, dimensions, lines straight and curved and intersecting, the trams that go up these tracks and the passengers inside the trams, the light in the eyes of every passenger, the echo of words, the inaudible friction of thoughts. A whistling up at a window as if giving a signal, Well then, are you coming down or not. It’s still early, a voice replies, whether of a man or a woman it does not matter, we shall encounter it again at infinity.”

Sourav Chatterjee is a research scholar in the Department of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University. He completed B.A. (English Hons.) from St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata, and M.A. in English at the Department of English, Jadavpur University. His research interests for the time being are mid-20th Bengali Comics and socio-cultural history of Calcutta.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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