José Saramago was a writer I already had on my (extensive) to-try list, but after a couple of pushes, his name was lifted right to the top. The first was the excellent Saramago month which Miguel, over at St. Orberose, ran last November; the other was a podcast I listened to recently, in which translator Margaret Jull Costa talked about the Portuguese legend’s work. After deciding to give Saramago a try then, the next step was to work out where to start. Luckily for me, both my sources had a recommendation ready and waiting…
Raised from the Ground (translated by Margaret Jull Costa), begins in an almost Hardyesque manner, as we meet a family trudging along a dusty road in Portugal’s Alentejo region. There’s bad weather on the horizon, both literally and metaphorically – rather apt for a man named Domingos Mau-Tempo. Along with wife Sara and baby João, Domingos is looking for a new home and a new start after a series of setbacks. He’ll find one, but the other is destined to elude him…
The novel is not really about Domingos though; instead, it is a multi-generational tale of life as a peasant in twentieth-century Portugal. It’s a time of great historical change, as the country overthrows the monarchy to form a republic, one which later evolves into a dictatorship. However, for the poor people nothing changes, even when the dictatorship comes to its peaceful end – the fields, and the hardship the workers face, remain the same.
Raised from the Ground is a personal novel for Saramago, as his grandfather was a poor farm worker. He uses the work to describe the realities of a life of poverty, detailing the lives of people on the bottom rung of society’s ladder:
“The family grows, even though many children die of diarrhoea, dissolving in their own shit, poor little angels, snuffed out like candles, with arms and legs more like twigs than anything else, their bellies distended, until the moment comes and they open their eyes for the last time to see the light of day, unless they die in the dark, in the silence of the hovel, and when the mother wakes and finds her child dead, she starts to scream, always the same scream, these women whose children have died aren’t capable of inventing anything, they’re speechless. As for the fathers, they say nothing and, the following night, go to the taberna looking as if they’re ready to kill someone or something. They come back drunk, having killed nothing and no one.”
p.80 (Harvill Secker, 2012)
Above all, it’s a story of how the poor are always exploited, unable to make ends meet and violently persecuted for any move away from the status quo. A good example is when four workers quit their temporary job, simply because they can’t take the inhumane conditions any more. Before the four exhausted workers even reach their home village, there are guards waiting to arrest them – for inciting a strike…
It’s all made possible because of the vested interests of the landowners and their police defenders. The land is divided into latifundios, vast, landed estates, passed down through the generations, and the landowners work together, in a kind of cartel, to keep the workers poor and ill-fed. They treat their employees like animals, ignoring their basic needs and rights, although perhaps a better metaphor would be machines:
“Since they were born to work, it would be a contradiction in terms for them to have too much rest. The best machine is always the one most capable of continuous work, properly lubricated so that it doesn’t jam up, frugally fed and, if possible, given only as much fuel as mere maintenance requires, and, in case of breakdown or old age, it must, above all, be easily replaceable, that’s what those human scrapyards known as cemeteries are for, or else the machine simply sits, rusting and creaking at its front door, watching nothing at all pass by or else gazing down at its own sad hands, who would have thought it would come to this.” (p.344)
The sad thing is that nothing appears to be able to help the workers move above this semi-servitude, and that there is nobody who can stand by them in their attempt to do so.
The Norbertos, Gilbertos, Adalbertos and Bertos who lord it over the latifundios are less people than types, one interchangeable with any of the others, and with the protection of the guards (who are very much in their pockets), they are safe in their big houses. They are also protected by the church, which teaches the workers that if they behave in this life, they will surely get their reward in the next one. The ever-present Father Agamedes, as the narrator points out, is another type, a representative of the hypocrisy of the church, and his behaviour is not exactly designed to instill faith in a benevolent God…
If it all sounds a little grim, you’d be mistaken. It’s a serious topic, but handled ironically; Saramago has a unique style and can always find an intriguing angle from which to get his message across. Starvation, death and torture are mostly described with a light touch (in one memorable torture scene, we view events through the eyes of an ant – lending matters a very different perspective). In other hands, this could be an unreadable litany of sufferings; it is the sign of a great writer that Raised from the Ground rises above this.
If the beginning and the setting are reminiscent of Hardy, the style most definitely isn’t. Saramago’s writing is unusual and fascinating, with his long sentences, full of short clauses, which constantly dart off on tangents and digressions. There are no quotation marks and direct speech is introduced solely by use of a comma and a capital letter. Another common feature is narratorial intrusion, with the narrator often becoming as much a part of the story as the people he is talking about:
“Then the man said, We were so near, and then all this rain, these were words spoken in mild anger, uttered almost unthinkingly and hopelessly, as if to say, the rain won’t stop just because I’m angry, well, that’s the narrator speaking, which we can quite do without.” (p.8)
It’s a style which does take a bit of getting used to, and I was initially suspicious of the verbal gymnastics. However, the more I read, the more it appealed, and the more I appreciated the way Saramago set out his story.
While the writing is often humorous, occasionally it can simply be beautiful. The best example of this is a ten-page section recounting the birth of baby Maria. In this chapter, the writer sets out an adapted nativity scene, with the father, uncle and grandfather of the new-born child taking on the role of the three kings. While the poor men are unable to produce much gold, frankincense or myrrh, they are able to bring some much more important gifts to bless the baby girl with…
In short, Raised from the Ground is superb. Saramago’s style takes time to get used to for a reader encountering it for the first time, but it’s definitely worth the effort involved. After nearly four-hundred pages of struggle, the upbeat ending is throughly enjoyable – just as long as you ignore Miguel’s review telling you what really happens… Jull Costa’s translation is also excellent; it must have been tricky to perfect the voice needed, but I think she nails it.
Oh, I almost forgot – I already have my next Saramago lined up 🙂