When the book under review is a 32-year-old novel that has only now been translated into English, and that work is by a recently deceased literary master, one might suspect that the novel isn’t any good and that the publishers exhumed a deservedly buried work in an attempt to cash in on the author’s legacy. That was what I expected when I received RAISED FROM THE GROUND, an early novel by Nobel laureate José Saramago, who died in 2010.
But hurrah for happy surprises: Although this is not Saramago’s best work --- that, in my opinion, would be THE YEAR OF THE DEATH OF RICARDO REIS --- this tale of agrarian life in 20th-century Portugal includes some of the most vivid set pieces Saramago ever wrote and contains all the hallmarks of his writing: communism, atheism, wry comedy, and, of course, dogs.
"[T]his brutal vaudeville is packed with Saramago’s dense and beautiful prose. Skeptics may wonder if the book is any good, but the more relevant question is why it took so long for an English version of this strange novel to finally appear."
That last statement will tell you whether or not you’d enjoy the story of the Mau-Tempo family. They are laborers who, ever since Domingos Mau-Tempo, his wife, and their baby son João travelled the vast reddish plain to the latifundio (large estate) in São Cristóvão, have cut cork and run threshing machines for a pittance under the hot Portuguese sun. Saramago’s politics, which leaned about as far to the left as one can go, is evident on every page, as is his skepticism of religion. Halfway through the novel, he writes of a chapel in a garden that employs underpaid workers. In this chapel is a statue of “Saint Sebastian generously sprinkled with arrows.” The narrator says, “[M]ay God forgive me, but the saint does seem to be enjoying it rather more than virtue should allow.” This is the tenor of the book throughout.
Domingos, a shoemaker, comes to São Cristóvão with a terrible reputation. His father-in-law, angry over his daughter’s marriage, considers Domingos a lazy drunkard who will never succeed. Not long after the move, Domingos concludes (wrongly) that the assistant he hired is having an affair with his wife. The family moves again and eventually settles in Landeira, where Domingos becomes sacristan to a Father Agamedes. Domingos promises the parishioners that the next mass will be special, the best they have ever attended. During the mass, he rings the bell, but no sound comes out of it. Agamedes checks the bell: it has no clapper. He slaps Domingos, an act that stops Domingos’s laughter over what he thought was a good-natured prank. Domingos slaps him back. “And it was not long,” Saramago writes, “before the priest’s vestments and the sacristan’s surplice were caught up in a furious maelstrom.”
Although the novel has its moments of slapstick, seriousness predominates and raises this book above the Borscht-belt narrative of later Saramago works such as CAIN. When workers on the latifundio agitate for better pay and better working conditions, the Republican National Guard, sabers at the ready, murder the peasants. Conditions never improve as the years pass. João marries, he and his wife have three children, and their son António, like his father, has to work in the fields to help with the family finances. The foreman who supervises António throws sticks at him if he falls asleep during his breaks, and the boy has only crusts of bread and the toasted kernels of pinecones for nourishment. We see workers forced onto trucks to attend anti-Communist rallies in support of Salazar and the Spanish nationalists. And in one of the book’s more harrowing scenes, guards torture a man thought to have precipitated a workers’ strike. Saramago renders this scene in unflinching detail --- the blood and teeth that the man spits from his mouth, the arcs of blood that stain a whitewashed wall when the guards slam his head against it.
In the novels that followed this one, Saramago figured out how to make political points by blending them into the narrative. The many members of the Mau-Tempo clan aren’t as well drawn as, say, the nameless characters in BLINDNESS or the typesetter who monkeys with history by adding “not” to a textbook in THE HISTORY OF THE SIEGE OF LISBON. RAISED FROM THE GROUND is too long by a third, and the frequent digressions and untraditional narrative structure may frustrate some readers. But this brutal vaudeville is packed with Saramago’s dense and beautiful prose. Skeptics may wonder if the book is any good, but the more relevant question is why it took so long for an English version of this strange novel to finally appear.
Reviewed by Michael Magras on December 14, 2012
Raised from the Ground