Death with Interruptions – 4/5 Stars
As I have said, I started reading Saramago because of the comments of Ursula K Le Guin in her essay collection Words are My Matter. She wrote beautifully and swimmingly about his work and how much she respected him as a political person and a moral writer. She expressly talks about how he’s not a political writer, which is more or less true, in that he’s not a partisan writer (he’s politically socialist).
Anyway, there’s a review blurb on the book of this one that talks about how Saramago takes a stoner’s late night ramblings and turn them into a beautiful novel. And having literally invented this novel in my drunk collegeboy days at about the same time as Saramago is writing this one, I couldn’t agree more.
Death is a regional post and the death of what we presume is Portugal has taken a few days off. This sends the country into an uproar and some level of chaos ensues as the regular passing of people is built into the functioning of the society, and all society.
Rather than this being from death’s perspective or darting around the country telling various stories, this novel’s narrator is more like a kind of Calvino-esque voice who speaks for the country as a whole in a kind of widespread scope and intimate tone that tells the ways in which the country collectively deals with this. I liked this one a lot and it has some similarities to magical realism of course and some other much more European novelists.
The Elephant’s Journey – 3/5 Stars
Like Death with Interruptions, I did like this one and really enjoyed a lot about the writing and the story itself. In this one, a Portuguese monarch decides to gift an elephant and its handler to an Austrian royal in the 1500s. This gift will require the elephant and a entourage to travel east through the European landscape to be delivered. Yes, it’s not all that dissimilar to the journey of Hannibals trekking through the Alps, an image not lost on this novel at all. But more so, it’s about the overwrought complications of irrational and banal decisions of those in power with the checks on their choices.
For example, the mahout (the elephant’s handler) has his named changed in order for it to be more pronounceable and palatable to Europeans sensibilities, and the elephant’s name too shifts fluidly between Sulieman and Solomon depending on who is considering it. This flexibility in identity and naming and language flows throughout the whole novel.
It’s a sad book because the convoluted and ignoble nature of the journey is so predictably fraught. The resulting book at times is deeply interesting and the narrator, a modern voice that can flow into and out of the narrative at will, paints the whole journey in some of the ways with a detached kind of irony. Ultimately some big parts of the journey are a little tedious because the language here, long flowing barely punctuated sentences fits the nature of the book, but aren’t always the most rewarding–as they will become in the third book I am reviewing.
Blindness – 5/5 Stars
This is simply put a near perfect novel. It’s absolutely terrifying, beautiful, sad, and harrowing in the ways in which describes its otherwise fantastical world. There’s too often a kind of false fatalism in a lot of literature and especially 19th century literature pits people in a world in which free will, fate, choices, and other similar ideas swirl around to create a variety of circumstances. Blindness eradicates all of that by giving us a terrifying situation that begins in a single place, allows for blame but not actual responsibility, and shows how fragile the world we live in truly is once the inexplicable happens.
One day a man is driving his car and is struck blind….a blindness characterizes by a total presence of whiteness instead of darkness. As whiteness (especially white light) is the total confluence of all parts of the visual spectrum and darkness is the absence, this whiteness prefigures the epidemic nature of his blindness. As a man who ostensibly stops to help him and ultimately rob him eventually also goes blind, as well as his wife, his eye doctor, and everyone in the waiting room, it becomes clear to the officials in charge that the blind and the exposed must be moved away from greater society. There’s an impending sense of doom throughout the city then as people begin to recount their own interactions with the blind and things begin to break down. However, our narrative most situates us with the blind in their camp, so that chaos unfolding outside is implied and gleaned rather than expressed.
There’s a failure among the blind and with the narrator to correctly put into language the nature of this blindness and the implication seems to be that to be unable to articulate something is to unable to control it and know it.