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José Saramago: História do cerco de Lisboa (The History of the Siege of Lisbon)

Unless you are a devotee of the minutiae of Portuguese history you might find this novel less interesting than his others. Of course, it is not just about the Siege of Lisbon, which took place in the summer of 1147, but that event and various aspects of it are key to the book. The novel tells the story of Raimundo Silva, a fifty year old unmarried proofreader. He works primarily for a small publisher and is very meticulous in his work. Indeed, Saramago gives us copious detail of his work, which is not really very exciting. At the start of the book, he is proofreading a book called The History of the Siege of Lisbon. He is something of an expert on the topic and finds the book not very interesting and very predictable, using standard sources and sticking to orthodox interpretations. One of the key (and undisputed) events concerning the siege is that a group of crusaders had been driven by bad weather to the Northern coast of Portugal. They met King Afonso of Portugal, leader of the besieging Portuguese and he persuaded them to join the siege, in return for loot and ransom money. With the aid of the Crusaders, the Portuguese did capture Lisbon. Contrary to his professional ethics and for no reason which he can explain, Silva wilfully changes the text to read that the Crusaders did not help the Portuguese and then hands the proofs in.

Silva agonises over his act as he knows it will be discovered and that the consequences for him will be dire, as the publisher is his sole source of income. And, indeed, they do discover the change. He is summoned to the publisher’s office, berated and confesses. Fortunately for him, because of his good work over the past, he is forgiven but given a new supervisor. Instead of Costa, the production manager, a new person has been appointed to supervise all the proofreaders. She is called Dr Maria Sara. Much of the rest of the novel is taken up with Silva’s relationship with her. Apart from her role as his supervisor, Dr Maria Sara (we never know her surname) has two major influences on Silva. Firstly, there seems to be a flirtation between the two (only later do we learn that she is divorced) which develops into something more romantic. Secondly, while mocking Silva for his error, the issue gets discussed in some detail and she proposes that he writes the history of the Siege as though, as he said, the Crusaders did not help the Portuguese.

Silva sets out to write this story, not so much in the form of an alternative history (US: alternate history), but as a straightforward history, except for speculating on what might have happened had the Crusaders just carried on. The way Saramago tells it, however, it is though this history had happened and Silva is merely recording events that have happened rather than imaginatively reconstructing them. It is not that he does not struggle with the book – he does – but certain events described in his book seem to almost take him by surprise when they happen, such as the construction of siege towers that fall. Of course, we are following this story with interest to see whether the Portuguese can manage without the Crusaders or whether they will fail, thereby changing the entire history of the Iberian peninsula and, presumably, of Europe.

As I said, it is not his greatest work. The Siege story is somewhat fascinating but, I would imagine, far more fascinating if you are Portuguese. Similarly the burgeoning affair between Silva and Dr Maria Sara is interesting but not particularly exciting or original. Indeed, what could be more ordinary than a relationship between two work colleagues, even if one is the supervisor of the other? Saramago, as always, writes well but if you have not read his other works you will enjoy them more.

Publishing history

First published 1989 by Caminho, Lisbon
First English translation 1996 by Harvill
Translated by Giovanni Pontiero