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José Saramago: O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis (The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis)

It is the end of 1935. A doctor called Ricardo Reis has just arrived back in Lisbon on a British steamship, after spending sixteen years in exile in Brazil. It is not entirely clear why he has decided to return at this time. He takes a room in the hotel Bragança, where he does little. He takes his meals and strolls through the streets of Lisbon. He has an affair with Lydia, a chambermaid. He is fascinated by a young woman, Marcenda, who stays frequently for a few days at the hotel with her father, a widower. She has a paralysed arm and he learns that father and daughter come frequently to Lisbon, from Coimbra, in order that Marcenda can have treatment with specialist doctors, though he will later learn that there is another motive for their regular visits.

However, any educated Portuguese reader, though probably few readers from elsewhere, will have recognised the name Ricardo Reis. It was one of the pseudonyms used by the great Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa. If we do not make the connection, Saramago soon makes it for us. Pessoa has died just a couple of days before Reis arrives in Lisbon and Reis attends the funeral. Is Reis merely the alter ego of Pessoa? We know that he writes poetry. Saramago quotes some of the poetry and it is, indeed, the poetry that Pessoa wrote under the name of Ricardo Reis. Soon Reis is visited by the ghost of Pessoa. As a ghost, he can only be seen by Reis. The ghost of Pessoa cannot read. His time still on Earth is only limited to a year (hence the title of the novel). While the two do talk about poetry and life, it is gossip as much as anything else that interests Pessoa (as he cannot read, he cannot pick up the gossip from the newspapers).

Meanwhile, Reis carries on his existence. He writes poetry, continues his affair with Lydia, takes great interest in Marcenda and get to know her and even offers to help with her medical condition and even gets a temporary locum job as a doctor. During the course of the novel he will read (but never finish) The God of the Labyrinth by the very fictitious Herbert Quain. All around him events are taking place. Through the newspapers, we learn of both local events, such as the murder of a nationalist but also floods and strikes, as well as of international events. We follow the start of the Spanish Civil War, the rise of Nazism, Mussolini’s adventures in Abyssinia and the death of George V and Edward VIII’s accession to the throne. Reis and most commentators take a generally right-wing view of the world but Saramago, directly, but also indirectly through the second-hand view of Daniel Martins, a Portuguese sailor who is the much-adored brother of Lydia, gives us a counterpoint. Many of Saramago’s comments are slyly sarcastic, mocking Mussolini’s adventures, the actions of Portuguese dictator Salazar and the British support of Hitler’s ambitions.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this is one of those novels that could have been very boring but in the hands of Saramago, it is fascinating, even if you know nothing about Pessoa. While we suspect early on that Reis is indeed the alter ago of Pessoa, Saramago leaves an element of doubt. Reis has his own identity and own actions. He makes plans for the future. He disagrees with Pessoa on various issues, not least his affair with Lydia. His life is independent, though he does continue to write the poetry that we know came from the hand of Pessoa. But he is also part of his environment, the life of Lisbon and the political upheavals going on in Portugal and the world. We certainly get a tour of Lisbon with him – he even goes as far as Fátima – but it remains, at least to foreigners, as a somewhat mysterious place. Ultimately, it is one greater Portuguese writer paying homage to another great Portuguese writer but a novel that, at the same time is thoroughly readable.

Publishing history

First published 1984 by Caminho, Lisbon
First English translation 1991 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
Translated by Giovanni Pontiero