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José Saramago: Memorial do convento (Baltasar and Blimunda)

Saramago’s first novel translated into English will use a theme that we will find in his later novels, namely that physical sight is a metaphor for spiritual insight. The eponymous Blimunda takes a piece of bread to bed with her and eats it before opening her eyes in the morning. If she fails to do so, she can see inside people. In particular, she can see their wills, as a dark cloud. Baltasar had been fighting in the War of Spanish Succession. He was unsure why he was fighting or whom exactly he was fighting for but fight he did, till he was injured in the hand, the hand was amputated, and he was unable to fight any more. He gradually made his way to Lisbon, with a hook where his hand used to be. There he met Blimunda. She was attending an auto-da-fé, where her mother was being flogged before being sent into exile to Angola, for having visions which the Inquisition definitely did not approve of. The two immediately fall in love and move in together. Baltasar gets a job carrying meat.

Meanwhile, King Joâo V is getting worried as his wife, the Austrian Maria Anna, is not getting his pregnant. He knows that it is not his fault, as he has fathered innumerable bastards by nuns and other women. When a Franciscan friar comes to him and tells him that she will get pregnant if he builds a Franciscan monastery at Mafra, he agrees. She gets pregnant with Barbara and work starts on the building of the convent. Much of the novel is the story of the construction of the convent. Mafra is not only the (future) home of the convent. It is also where Baltasar is from and, before Maria Anna gets pregnant, he decides to return home to see his parents and sister. Baltasar and his brother-in-law will go and work on the construction of the palace. Baltasar gets work as a porter and then working with a team of oxen while his brother-in-law is a skilled stonemason. While the construction provides work for many, not only in Mafra but throughout Portugal, it also has its cost, which Saramago recounts in full. Workers are injured and die. The environment is severely damaged. There is a lot of fighting. Men are taken from their families, often forcibly, who are abandoned to their fate. In short, Saramago does not wholly approve of the work, just as he (mildly) mocks the King and other Portuguese aristocrats for their disregard of the people.

In addition, to the story of the construction of the convent and the love of Baltasar and Blimunda, Saramago has one other major theme in the book, a theme in which he makes use of magic realism. While still in Lisbon, Baltasar meets Father Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmâo, who tries (unsuccessfully) to get Baltasar a war pension. The priest is building a flying machine on which he has started work. He enlists the help of Baltasar and Blimunda and the machine, resembling a giant bird, is gradually built. However, Father Bartolomeu has to leave the area for two reasons. Firstly, he needs to get his doctorate in canon law (which he does) and secondly he needs to go to Holland to get the ether needed to power the machine. While he is absent, Baltasar and Blimunda return to Mafra where Baltasar works on the convent. When Father Bartolomeu returns, the machine has deteriorated and the three work on rebuilding it. More importantly, he has the secret of the ether – it can be obtained by extracting the black cloud of people’s wills, for which Blimunda, with her powers of seeing the black cloud, is particularly useful. The couple spend a lot of time collecting these wills, particularly during a plague epidemic, which nearly kills Blimunda.

One other famous historical person appears in the novel – Domenico Scarlatti. He is invited by the King but befriends the trio and is the only outsider to learn about the flying machine. He even has a harpsichord wheeled to the shed where the flying machine is being built and he plays for hours on end, despite the noise. He will act as a liaison between Baltasar and Blimunda on the one hand and Father Bartolomeu on the other, particularly when the Inquisition are in pursuit of Father Bartolomeu for his unorthodox views on issues such as the nature of extreme unction, the Holy Trinity and whether God has a left hand (the father believes not).

Apart from the relationship of Baltasar and Blimunda, the novel jumps around a bit, with the flying machine temporarily taking the forefront and then fading into the background and the construction of the convent being more descriptive than narrative, with little stories being interjected. He does take time out to mock the high and mighty but this is not really a satire, more a love story with magic realism, a touch of satire and a good dose of history, all well told.

Publishing history

First published 1982 by Caminho, Lisbon
First English translation 1987 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
Translated by Giovanni Pontiero