The History of the Siege of Lisbon: A Novel by José Saramago (San Diego: Harcourt & Brace, 1998. 314 pp)

José Saramago was a Nobel Prize winning author from Portugal. He passed away at the age of 87 on June 18, 2010. Although Saramago did not receive widespread recognition until he was 60 years old, he has been highly prolific in the years since. Blindness, one of Saramago’s most highly regarded books was made into a major motion picture in 2008. He is survived by his wife Pilar Del Rio and a daughter from a previous marriage.

Before we begin, I must confess that José Saramago is one of my favorite authors. His creativity, social critiques, and pseudo-realism in works like Blindness, The Stone Raft, and All the Names leave spellbinding memories etched in my brain.  With Saramago’s recent passing, I felt it necessary to finally read his Nobel Prize winning book, The History of the Siege of Lisbon.

Characteristic of Saramago’s work, The History of the Siege of Lisbon contains long flowing sentences with little punctuation. Where a period would usually suffice, Saramago inserts a comma; where quotation marks typically reside, he deletes them. With these characteristics in mind, the book requires a close reading.

The History of the Siege of Lisbon follows a lonely proof-reader named Raimundo Silva through his secluded lifestyle within the remarkable metropolis of Lisbon. Raimundo’s only friends seem to be reference books on grammar and his only hobby is to correct the thoughts of others. One day while Raimundo edits a book detailing the history of the siege of Lisbon, he decides to create instead of edit. Where the book once reminded us that the crusaders came to the aid of the Portuguese in the war against the Moors, Raimundo’s newly revised edition  concludes that the crusaders most certainly did not heed the call to help their Portuguese brethren. A simple “no” not only alters the course of history, it also modifies his relationship with his publishing house. Ultimately, Raimundo’s talent is the only thing that keeps him from unemployment.

The turmoil generated by a proofreader’s decision to create instead of edit brings Raimundo some unlikely benefit: the publishing house hires a lovely woman named Maria Sara to proofread the proofreaders. As the narrative expands, Raimundo and Maria’s relationship slowly turns from professional to something slightly more romantic. Raimundo’s brazen attempt to alter a historical fact intrigues Maria and one day she encourages him to finish the history of the siege of Lisbon with the changed premise regarding the crusaders. What follows is a masterfully blended tale of both Raimundo and Maria’s relationship and the relationship of characters developed in the revised history book Raimundo writes at the request of Maria Sara.

“The two roses in the vase are standing in water from which they draw nourishment, it is true that they do not last long, but relatively speaking, neither do we” (285).  

The History of the Siege of Lisbon is ultimately a book about life, death, and the relationships that keep us going. Years pass on a clock and years pass on a face, but the more important part of life is the relationship you have with the people around you, the joy of having a second rose in the vase.

As mentioned before, The History of the Siege of Lisbon is a challenging read. José Saramago’s unique style coupled with a story told in two dimensions requires an astute eye. However, persistence pays off with this book as the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who is willing to work through the challenging syntax in order to see the narrative as a whole. However, if you are new to José Saramago, I urge you to start with a more popular work such as Blindness.

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