“Life is too short for a man to learn everything, and so is yours” (328)
This is a beautifully complex book. It is a book in which not much happens except love, death, and birth, which is of course everything that could happen. The actions of the protagonist, Dr. Ricardo Reis, are often mundane and uninspired. If this story were told by any other author it would be a painful bore and unworthy of attention, however this story is told by Jose Saramago. Saramago is an author of respected merit who paints with the written word in a unique and profound style that is both dream-like and surreal while oddly representative of the true reality of the mind’s eye. The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis isn’t simply a book about a man’s final year of life, it is an artistic presentation of man’s relationship to the art, culture, and the circumstances of his times.
In reading this book I would often lose myself in the text, transported by the fluidity of Saramago’s narration that is light on the punctuation and can include paragraphs that go on for several pages. At times the narrative voice would interject opinions smoothly into the description without failing to lose track of the forward movement of the descriptive process. To provide an example of this narrative style, read the following passage that depicts a conversation between Ricardo Reis and his lover, Lydia:
“The people are like me a hotel chambermaid who has a revolutionary brother and sleeps with a doctor who is against revolutions. Who taught you to say these things. When I open my mouth the words are there, its just a matter of letting them come out. Generally, one thinks before he speaks. Well perhaps in my case it is like having a baby, which grows without our noticing it and is born when the time comes. How have you been feeling lately. If it weren’t for missing my periods, I wouldn’t believe I was pregnant. You are still determined, then to have the child, My baby boy, Your baby boy, Yes, and I am not likely to change my mind, Think about it carefully, But I don’t think.” (324)
The above passage not only ignores the expected apostrophes to separate dialogue, but towards the end the back and forth banter is only indicated by a comma followed by a capitalization of the other character’s first word of dialogue. This style may cause confusion or frustration for many readers but being a fan of this type of writing I found this style easy to follow and necessary towards placing the reader in the mind of Ricardo Reis. For Ricardo Reis is a unique man who admires life but does not question it. He is an observer who distastes both traditional and revolutionary thought. He is man that pleasures in being without question. Saramago uses the narrative style I’ve described above to paint a view of the world from Reis’s perspective, a perspective that is both detached and involved.
I must say that all of the Saramago works that I have read thus far have included some element of supernatural or magical realism. These elements are inserted as though they are fact with little attention drawn to the wonder of the occurrence. In The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis the fantastical element is observed in the visitation of Dr. Reis by his posthumous friend, Fernando Pessoa, the famed Portuguese poet who died in November 1935, just one month prior to the novel’s beginning. Throughout the novel Fernando pops in to visit Ricardo, and unlike a ghost, Fernando has a physical form that is merely unique in that his form is visible only to those he chooses to view him. Fernando’s appearances are like the appearance of any other character, he converses with Ricardo, discusses politics and Ricardo’s feminine exploits, and criticizes the poetic odes that Ricardo writes to occupy his time.
Now, what I didn’t know until after I finished the novel is that Fernando Pessoa was a real person and influential Portuguese poet who actually died in November of 1935. What is unusual about Saramago’s choice of Pessoa as a character is that Pessoa wrote using heteronyms, which are imaginary characters used to allow the poet to write in different personalities. Ricardo Reis was one of Pessoa’s heteronyms, so in casting Ricardo Reis as the protagonist to this novel Saramago is exploring the life of Pessoa’s fictional character after the death of his narrative creator. With this understanding the inclusion of the foretold death of Ricardo Reis at the novel’s end provides an illumination upon Saramago’s intent as this novel’s author, to use the dialogue and the character’s actions as his own heteronym to explore the use of characters to express ideas other than his own. In this Saramago has craftily displayed his art with precision, making this a notable book.