‘História do Cerco de Lisboa’ (‘The History of the Siege of Lisbon’) by José Saramago

My rating: 3 stars

História do Cerco de Lisboa, or The History of the Siege of Lisbon in the English translation, was the sixth book that I read by José Saramago. Sadly, it didn’t live up to my expectations. It comprises two intersected strands, one focusing on the life of the main character and the other on the siege of Lisbon in the 12th century. At first the novel is gratifying, and the plot seems to be moving in an interesting direction. However, it doesn’t get to a rewarding destination. The book appears to convey that, in order to change something, first we have to say no and then fight for what we want to say yes to. An interesting message that required an overall more engrossing story.

The main character in this novel is Raimundo Silva, a proofreader who is working on a history book about the siege of Lisbon during the Reconquista, a set of campaigns by the Christians to recapture lands from the Moors. He is older than 50 and unmarried. He avoids correcting some factual mistakes, because the author may consider it insulting. His role is to abide by the grammar and language rules. Nevertheless, during his last read, he feels the urge to add a new word. He tries to resist it but fails to. He puts a ‘no’ where there was none. And the history book now wrongly states that the crusaders didn’t help the Portuguese to take the city of Lisbon.

Afterwards, he is afraid of staying at home in case someone from the publishing company appears to confront him with what he did. So, he strolls around his neighbourhood, Alfama and the area surrounding the castle. Throughout the book there are various charming descriptions of Lisbon, even when the narration is centred on the far less exceptional story of the siege.

“Lisboa aparecia como uma joia por assim dizer reclinada na encosta, oferecida às volúpias do sol, toda coberta de cintilações (…).”

“Lisbon looked almost like a jewel resting against the slope and exposed to the voluptuaries of the sun, sparkling all over (…).”

Thirteen days after his impulsive action, Raimundo is called for a meeting at the publishing house. He doesn’t deny the fraud but is unable to explain why he did it. Surprisingly, he is not dismissed. The publisher hires a woman, Maria Sara, to oversee the work of all proofreaders instead. During their second meeting, she suggests that he should write a fiction book about what would have happened if the crusaders hadn’t really helped in the siege of Lisbon.

Raimundo immediately finds Maria Sara attractive, although her inquisitiveness irritates him. He thinks about her often afterwards and becomes concerned about looking old. The words chosen to describe the way in which his feelings for her evolve are generally poignant. He wants to change something about his life but is apprehensive at the same time.

The narration of Raimundo’s actions is fairly detailed and at times is interspersed with comments about what might be happening at the siege of Lisbon in 1147, like the past is bleeding into the present. Unfortunately, the parts about the siege are not as gripping and, occasionally, are even tedious. Too many people, who aren’t developed enough to be considered characters, are mentioned. And that becomes even more noticeable as soon as Raimundo and Maria Sara benefit from being more fleshed out as their connection progresses.

Taking into consideration all of the books that I read by Saramago, he had a remarkable ability to construct a plot-based narrative interspersed with stream of consciousness. Alas, half of the plot of this novel is not particularly interesting. When it comes to Raimundo’s life, the narrator often loses himself in his thoughts, and they are either engaging, connected with the story or used to make thought-provoking and even funny social considerations. Thus, it is a shame that the pages focusing on the siege were not used to develop the story of Raimundo and Maria Sara further.


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