The world's threats are universal like the sun but Ricardo Reis takes shelter under his own shadow. Back in Lisbon after sixteen years practising medicine in Brazil, Ricardo Reis wanders the rain-sodden streets. He longs for the unattainably aristocratic Marcenda, but it is Lydia, the hotel chamber maid who makes and shares his bed. His old friend, the poet Fernando Pessoa, returns to see him, still wearing the suit he was buried in six weeks earlier. It is 1936, the clouds of Fascism are gathering ominously above them, so they talk; a wonderful, rambling discourse on art, truth, poetry, philosophy, destiny and love.
I read this book knowing nothing about Fernando Passoa, or his pseudonym Ricardo Reis. If I had known about these things, I surely would have enjoyed the book significantly more. This review will be most helpful for people like me: fans of good literature that know little or nothing about Portuguese history/literature.
A poet-doctor returns from Brazil to his native Portugal after 16 years away and doesn't do much except start an affair with a chambermaid and visit socially with a recently deceased. Then he decides to die. If that sounds interesting to you, then you might like this book.
I suppose it's fitting that a book whose theme -- among others -- is the absurdity and pointlessness of existence should itself be thoroughly pointless. But that doesn't make it enjoyable. After an excruciating first 70 pages in which Ricardo does nothing but wander through the rainy city over a few days, the book begins to offer promise when he meets with the dead personage of his poet alter ego. But nothing comes of it.
The entire thing feels terribly bloated. Saramago offers up some terrific observations and beautiful passages, but his conversational narrative style is distracting and annoying at times, and his main character offers nothing sympathetic to grasp onto. Almost half the book is taken up by pointless tangents and cutesy side comments, which I would normally criticize for distracting from the plot. This particular novel, however, doesn't seem to have much of a plot. The side comments are best exemplified by this one, which takes place after Saramago narrates the specific details of a maid's lamp-lighting ritual:Whether such details are indispensable or not for a clear understanding of this narrative is something each of us must judge for himself, and the judgment will vary according to our attention, mood, and temperament. p.105
The entire book is filled with such comments. While the last thought has some merit, I generally rely on an author to make the judgment of which details are and are not dispensable to his own narrative. Maybe I am too lazy or old-fashioned of a reader to fully appreciate this book, but then here Saramago appears to be writing lazily as well. Definitely not a good book with which to start your Saramago education. For beginners I would recommend more the only other of his I have read, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, not as challenging as this one and much more rewarding.
This is a book in which Saramago abjures some of the niceties of tense, quotation marks, and the usual distinctions between narration of events and philosophical exposition. I believe his intent was to blur these distinctions - his idea is that action is philosophy. He admires the users of Latin who originally said, actions speak louder than words. Actions also have their roots in ideas, and certainly Europe in the 1930s had plenty of idea-rooted action. What is the significance of this character dying in the face of fascism's spreading power? It doesn't seem likely, but is this a book about the death of monarchies? What of the apparent ability to know things of death while still being alive, and knowing about current events when one has died?
This is distinctly a book of politics, philosophy, and ideas. It is frankly, but rather mildly, fantastic; its fantastical elements are gently yoked to the ideas on offer. A very distinctive and thought-provoking book, it is sometimes tough sledding - perhaps a translation issue. I recommend this piece. It seems like a good starting poing for tackling Saramago and Pessoa, and Portuguese literature in general.
At any rate, I think Saramago is pretty brilliant and has interesting things to say, though I don't particularly enjoy reading him. I thought Saramago's Baltasar and Blimunda had more of a payoff for the work than this book.
If you're going to read this, do yourself a favor and read up on Fernando Pessoa.... if this weren't a group read where someone pointed me to the Wikipedia entry on Pessoa I would have been completely lost.
So The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is not a hard-headed or hard-hearted book; in it are both the simple, easily available hotel maid along with the remote, wounded aristocratic lady, and a dead author who appears and converses with one of his created voices, one of his heteronyms, who somehow lives on. Magic times, the days Ricardo Reis lived after his creator Fernando Pessoa died. We are in a beautiful complicated literary land here.
In my review of The Cave I observed that that was not the book that won Jose Saramago the Nobel Prize, making him a great national hero cheered in the streets when the news arrived in Lisbon; The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is.