Zach Brennan is staff writer for two health publications in Washington, D.C.
The storyline is simple: a Portuguese physician and occasional poet, Ricardo Reis, returns to Portugal after sixteen years in Brazil. First he lives in a hotel and then he moves to an apartment. He loves two women, one is a chambermaid and the other is a virgin with a limp arm. The beginning of the Spanish revolution, and rise of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and Salazar are set in the background. That’s about it for plot.
Jose Saramago, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998, instead, centers The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis on the memories and tangents of the wandering, flawed, bored Reis and his meditations on art, sexual fantasies, and conversations with the ghost of his dead friend and fellow poet, Fernando Pessoa. The tension between storyline and uninhibited details and thought processes of Reis create questions that will not be answered directly by him or the narrative.
The book begins with a quote from the title character:
“Wise is the man who contents himself with the spectacle of the world.” -Ricardo Reis
I thought it was unorthodox to begin a novel with a quote from the title character, so I looked up Reis and found that he was actually a heteronym (a poet develops an imaginary character and personality in order to write in a different style) for the real Fernando Pessoa, an early 20th-century Portuguese poet.
So it’s not surprising that the poetic conversations between Reis and Pessoa, now a ghost in Saramago’s novel, concentrate on the metaphysical relationships between the living and dead, the artist and his art, and also parallel what could be Saramago’s own apprehensions about his creative progeny.
Pessoa says to Reis, his creation, “We mourn the man whom death takes from us, and the loss of his miraculous talent and the grace of his human presence, but only the man do we mourn, for destiny endowed his spirit and creative powers with a mysterious beauty that cannot perish.”
The conversations mix seamlessly with Saramago’s aphorisms, without paragraph breaks or chapters or standard quotation marks or even line breaks for speaker transitions. The sentence structure is similar to the Chilean author Roberto Bolano’s and is easy to wander in and out of like a dream.
Reis, like Bolano, is a wanderer who doesn’t seem content trying to describe his reasons for returning to Portugal, nor his relationships with two women, nearly his only contact with the outside world beyond his discussions with Pessoa. This failure of explanation also seems reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose characters don’t quite understand or question why they’ve initially interacted and then fallen in love.
The novel takes patience but rewards careful reading, and can be supplemented with a reading of Pessoa’s poems, written as Ricardo Reis, as well as an understanding of Reis’ motto:
See life from a distance.
Never question it.
There’s nothing it can
Tell you. The answer
Lies beyond the Gods.