I’m going to go out on a limb and say it: The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is Jose Saramago’s greatest novel. Can I prove such a thing? Of course not, but then again, I can’t really prove any one novel is greater than another without extrapolating from a series of premises and theories which (arguably) have more place in academia than they do on this blog. Even then, who’s to say? De gustibus non est disputandum. So, let me refine this statement: The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is Jose Saramago’s most enjoyable novel...to me. And I’m not entirely sure about even that. Enough hemming and hawing?
In our story, poet Ricardo Reis has returned to Portugal from Brazil after his long self-imposed exile upon the death of the great writer Fernando Pessoa. Of course, in real life, Ricardo Reis was a fictitious character, a heteronym, created by Pessoa himself. I find it a fascinating premise to write a story where a character or made-up persona can mourn the death of his creator. It reminds me of the claim made by Jacques Bonnet that literary characters are real while their creators are the fictions. In the hands of a lesser writer, such a thing would devolve into little more than a literary game or slight of hand, a trifle. But Saramago is able to create so much depth and vitality that these fictitious characters become far more real than Pessoa ever was, even though it was Pessoa who ever really drew breath and had blood pumping through his heart. Reis and the rest are modern humans, with real concerns and feelings. And even beyond the lives of these characters, Saramago makes the time and the setting come to life. The sharp and heavy blade of history, especially the history of the fascism in place and to come, hangs over Lisbon and over the lives of everyone there. Destiny is the protagonist of this book. And Lisbon breathes. It watches. It conceals.
As far as plot goes, this one is pretty slight. Then again, books like this aren’t about plot. Sure, Reis sleeps with the help at the hotel at which he is staying. He amuses himself in attending a meeting of fascists, he goes to carnival, he has conversations with the dead Fernando Pessoa and others, he eventually moves to a rental house. He follows Pessoa to the grave in the end. But really, he does nothing. He is as still as the grey city of Lisbon, as unmoving and unchanged as the roofs and crooked streets. Amusing then, all the talk of how he has changed when he has done no such thing. The main feeling I took away from all of this is one of inevitability. Things change, but nothing changes. There is emptiness, there is hope, there is despair, but it is all unmoving and unmoved.
Reis resembles that great Melville character Bartleby, who, though asked to do a great many things, responds, “I would prefer not to.” Reis prefers not to, to remain neutral, to get by.
An excellent read.