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

My rating: 5 stars

A mesmerising and compelling book doesn’t always have to be action-packed. In O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis (The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis in the English translation), José Saramago turned one of Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms into a real person to create a gloriously ingenious novel that doesn’t require a thrilling plot to shine. I read this book for the first time around 12 years ago, and it was a pleasure to rediscover it recently. It mixes magical realism with existentialism, literary and historical fiction, while paying homage to great names of Portuguese literature.

Ricardo Reis arrives in Lisbon at the end of 1935, on a rainy day, after spending the last 16 years in Brazil. He is a 48-year-old doctor who writes poetry and was born in Porto. He decided to return to Portugal after receiving a telegram from Álvaro de Campos informing him that their friend Fernando Pessoa had died. Around the same time there was also a (failed) rebellion in Brazil. After a journey on board of the Highland Brigade, he takes a taxi at the port, and the driver suggests that he stays at the Bragança Hotel. Its manager, Salvador, is eager to discover everything he can about his clients. But Ricardo Reis isn’t sure about how long he will stay at the hotel. He could either rent a house and practise medicine in Lisbon or return to Brazil.

During his stay at the hotel, Ricardo Reis becomes interested in a young woman whom he sees at the dining room. Her left arm is paralysed. He learns from Salvador that her name is Marcenda and that she and her father have been staying at the hotel three days every month for the last three years. They are from Coimbra and apparently go to Lisbon to see a doctor because of her condition.

She is not the only woman to enter Ricardo Reis’s life, though. He is also extremely impressed with the competence of the chambermaid, Lídia. On one occasion, when she goes to his room to collect the breakfast tray, he touches her arm. Afterwards he thinks that he shouldn’t have done so and starts to worry about what she thought of his action. He is unaware that he has set her heart aflutter. That evening, Lídia leaves two pillows on his bed and enters his room in the night.

On New Year’s Eve, after spending some time in the streets of Lisbon, Ricardo Reis returns to his hotel room and finds Fernando Pessoa waiting for him. They greet and hug. Fernando Pessoa was told that Ricardo Reis went to visit him at the cemetery, so he decided to go look for him. Pessoa has eight months to walk around after his death, and only those that he wants can see and listen to him. They meet a few times throughout the novel and have philosophical conversations about various topics, including the difference between life and death, loneliness and love.

Ricardo Reis is one of the heteronyms created by the Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa. But, in this novel, he is presented as a real person, who is aware that people wrongly think that he doesn’t exist. Ricardo Reis, the character, shares some of the same characteristics as the heteronym. He likes to believe that he is a follower of the proper rules of behaviour. He hopes to always act as if the (ancient) gods are watching him. He doesn’t consider himself to be an eccentric. The way in which Saramago managed to insert details about Fernando Pessoa’s life and the concept behind his heteronyms in the story is amazing. Heteronyms have their own physical and psychological characteristics, as well as their own biographies. They are not mere alter egos or pen names.

“Na poesia não era só ele, Fernando Pessoa, ele era também Álvaro de Campos, e Alberto Caeiro, e Ricardo Reis, pronto, já cá faltava o erro, a desatenção, o escrever por ouvir dizer, quando muito bem sabemos, nós, que Ricardo Reis é sim este homem que está lendo o jornal com os seus próprios olhos abertos e vivos.”

“In his poetry he was not only Fernando Pessoa but also Álvaro de Campos, Alberto Caeiro, and Ricardo Reis. There you are, an error caused by not paying attention, by writing what one misheard, because we know very well that Ricardo Reis is this man who is reading the newspaper with his own open and living eyes.”

Fernando Pessoa isn’t the only Portuguese writer mentioned in this book, though. The opening line “Aqui o mar acaba e a terra principia” (“Here the sea ends and the earth begins”) is a play-on-words with a verse of Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads) by Luís Vaz de Camões, who wrote “onde a terra se acaba e o mar principia” (“where the earth ends and the sea begins”). If Ricardo Reis is returning to Portugal from Brazil, the sailors in the epic poem, written in the 16th century, were leaving the country.

We are introduced to what was happening in Portugal at the time while Ricardo Reis reads the daily newspapers. Salazar, both the head of government and finance minister since 1933, nominated new ministers for the corporatist and autocratic regime, which was inspired by Italian fascism but had more socially conservative and religious strands. Obviously, the newspapers were subject to censorship, so all of the news have to be taken with a pinch of salt. There is even a slight ironic tone every time something political is mentioned, such as economic progress and how the population cherished the regime, as if this novel would have to be approved by those in charge as well.

“No entanto, os governos, por supremos que sejam, como este, perfeitíssimo, sofrem de males de vista cansada, talvez da muita aplicação ao estudo, da pertinaz vigília e vigilância.”

“In the meantime, governments, even if they are as supreme as ours, which is perfect in every respect, are showing symptoms of failing eyesight, perhaps because of too much bookwork or strain.”

Ricardo Reis reads the news but doesn’t have strong opinions about them. He is a monarchist and doesn’t feel particularly interested in the conflict between fascism and communism, which dominated a part of Europe at the time. Although the majority of the book focuses on Portugal, there are also many mentions to the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Hitler to power in Germany.

Lisbon is also almost a character in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, and the locations mentioned are easy to picture. Portugal’s capital is renowned for its light and many hours of sunshine. However, when Ricardo Reis arrives in the city, it’s raining and the sky is grey. These weather conditions are common throughout the story and seem to be used as a representation of the darkness of fascism. While Ricardo Reis walks around Lisbon, the narrator takes the opportunity to muse on poverty, social inequality and aspects of the Portuguese literature and culture, sometimes resorting to irony.

The narrator seems to be observing the characters from nearby. He describes both the settings, the actions of the characters and the inner thoughts of Ricardo Reis, which occasionally are also revealed from his own perspective. As in many other of Saramago’s novels, the dialogues and the thoughts of the main character are differentiated from the rest of the text by using a comma followed by a capital letter. There are no quotation marks. For that reason, paragraphs and sentences are extremely long. However, the book is still surprisingly readable.

There is something about Saramago’s prose that turns this slow-paced book into a hugely compelling read. Stream of consciousness can be cumbersome to read. But, in this case, it’s engaging. There’s an appealing lyricism to the writing style, particularly during the conversations between Ricardo Reis and Fernando Pessoa.

Contrary to various other books by Saramago, which are set in unnamed locations and deal with general human issues, this novel may be more meaningful for a Portuguese audience. This doesn’t mean that it can’t be appreciated by other people as well, though, or it wouldn’t have been translated.

8 thoughts on “‘O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis’ (‘The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis’) by José Saramago

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