- José Saramago "Revises," Or Out of Africa and Into Cyber-History
Nobel Prize winner José Saramago's most cited novels are complexly allusive to Portuguese culture. Everything from official history and canonized literature to historical documentation, local histories, urban planning, and many strands of contemporary popular culture, both national and international are invoked, in jumbled and a-chronistic fashion, in such titles as Memorial do Convento (1982) (English trans.: Baltasar and Blimunda). It is probably because of that mode of presentation—and the irreverent tone that accompanies it—that while Saramago sells extremely well in Portugal and the rest of the Portuguese-speaking world and has become so well-known internationally that the Nobel Prize for literature has followed, he is not held in high regard by a significant portion of the Portuguese literary and intellectual establishment. His long-standing public adherence to the Portuguese Communist Party doubtlessly adds to that low regard which perhaps in turn underpins his preference to make his home in neighboring, and rival, Spain.
Another way of characterizing Saramago's practice is to observe that rather than focus on a discrete set of issues, as conventional novelistics dictates, his novels regularly mix discourses, cutting across a broad swath within the Portuguese symbolic, explicating, critiquing, interrelating, and intervening, apparently at whim, as they go—and clearly, in the process, claiming a considerable operativity for themselves within that symbolic realm. This practice is most in evidence [End Page 73] in his "historical" novels, the aforementioned Memorial do Convento and both O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis (1984) (The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis) and A História do Cerco de Lisboa (1989) (History of the Siege of Lisbon), which take on a labyrinthine character as a result. Indeed, in O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis, the image of the labyrinth is thematized and played upon. This essay intends to explore such aspects of that diffuse but simultaneously blatant operativity as touch on the Portuguese colonialist imaginary.
It is a truism in Portuguese cultural criticism to observe that over the past two decades the nation has been, and continues to be, interrogated and symbolically reconstructed through reference to the twin poles of national history and colonialism—because those were key areas within which the inherited concept of the nation was principally constructed. Less regularly mentioned is the fact that (as the ensuing pages will evidence) national history and colonialism come so interwoven that reconstruction often has to be directed to both at once. It will not, therefore, surprise that, in order to explore issues having to do with the colonialist imaginary, these pages will focus on a "historical" novel—at first glance, an unlikely one for the purpose—História do Cerco de Lisboa, which deals not with a colonial subject matter but instead with the Christian taking of Lisbon from the Arabs in 1147. Or, rather, it deals with the complex interaction between that past event and an obscure present-day Lisbon copyeditor named Raimundo Silva.
Early on, História takes on a form that the Portuguese reading public would find quite recognizable: it involves a central character who is also an author writing an historical text by drawing on a prior historical text for his material. Alluded to—in effect an intertext to História—is the novel A Ilustre Casa de Ramires (The Illustrious House of Ramires) (1900) by the classic realist novelist Eça de Queirós (1845–1900). A standard of Portuguese literature, Ilustre Casa gives us one of its most fascinating and problematic figures: the hereditary nobleman Gonçalo Mendes Ramires. In Saramago's História, Gonçalo is clearly enough alluded to that not far into the book he becomes an ongoing "pair" of Raimundo Silva. Their life situations are similar, their plot location in many ways identical, and História continues to produce textual echoes, when not what are essentially parallel passages (cf., e.g., História, 318  and Ilustre Casa, 59 ), all of which keep that doubling before the reader. The result is a specific configuration of the textual labyrinth, namely the palimpsest. It is as though História...