Baltasar and Blimunda

by José Saramago

Hardcover, 1987




San Diego : Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, c1987.


In early eighteenth-century Lisbon, Baltasar, a soldier who has lost his left hand in battle, falls in love with Blimunda, a young girl with visionary powers. From the day that he follows her home from the auto-da-fewhere her mother is burned at the stake, the two are bound body and soul by love of an unassailable strength. A third party shares their supper that evening- Padre Bartolomeu Lourenco, whose fantasy is to invent a flying machine. As the Crown and the Church clash, they purse his impossible, not to mention heretical, dream of flight.

User reviews

LibraryThing member gbill
Baltasar and Blimunda, set in Portugal in 1711, starts off with a bang, with king Dom Joao V visiting the bedchamber of the queen to ‘perform the royal duty’, and with early chapters describing the lascivious activities of adulterers during Lent and the horrors of the auto-da-fe.

The book has
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three main story lines: the first relating to the building of the convent at Mafra following a royal decree, made as a promise when the queen conceives, and the second relating to the title characters who fall in love. Baltasar is a man who has lost a hand at war, and Blimunda is a woman who has the power to see (literally) under the surface of things, including people. The last story line relates to the two of them working with Padre Bartolomeu Lourenco de Gusmao to build a flying machine which actually gets off the ground using energy extracted from the inner wills of hundreds of people, thus adding a surreal element to the story.

It turns out that Lourenco was a real person who did build a rudimentary airship in 1709 which resembled an enormous bird, and the Mafra National Palace / Monastery was indeed built in reaction to a royal vow when the queen conceived.

This is the historical framework Saramago uses for his book, which delivers an indictment of royalty, who are shown to be vain and cruel. Even in the construction of good works, the poor masses toil like ants to haul giant rocks over great distances. Saramago also indicts religion, showing priests to be hypocrites and rapists, and certainly far from Christ-like. And he adds a touch of magic to the common people, perhaps a sign of hope in this difficult world.

In terms of style, Saramago’s words flow freely, like a melody or a stream, and are often a joy to read. It is a rather dense book, however, with dialogue embedded into paragraphs with minimal punctuation (which I don’t mind but others might), and at times, when something like a procession is described in detail, it is a little less enjoyable to get through.
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LibraryThing member lauralkeet
In Portugal during the 1700s, Baltasar returned home from war and fell immediately in love with Blimunda, a woman with the power to "see inside" others. They encounter a priest on a quest to build a flying machine, and begin working for him in pursuit of the same goal. And then it all got a bit
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I wanted to like this book, and I gave it a good try by reading more than halfway through. However, the characters lacked depth. Baltasar and Blimunda, supposedly deep in love, seemed like two people going through the motions of life, let alone their relationship. Saramago uses the story to take satiric shots at the church and the monarchy, which provided mild amusement, but overall I was disappointed in this book.
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LibraryThing member thorold
I've only visited Portugal a couple of times, but I did once spend a rainy Saturday in Mafra. The image of that quiet little town absolutely dwarfed by one vast, overblown baroque building, a structure that looks as though the builders somehow managed to read "yards" where the architect had
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intended "feet", is one you don't easily forget.

Saramago takes the construction of this monstrous convent/palace as the centerpiece of his historical fable set in early 18th century Portugal. The building project, which took decades to complete and cost hundreds of workers' lives and consumed a large share of the gold and silver that were pouring in from the colonies, is used as a vivid illustration of the vanity of kings and the unbridled greed of the church. Saramago sets this crazy meglomaniac scheme against the efforts - perhaps equally mad, but undertaken on a human scale and in a scientific spirit of cooperation - by Padre Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão to build a flying machine, which here becomes a sort of metaphor for the Enlightenment : in Saramago's version the aircraft is literally propelled by human willpower.

Saramago's style comes across surprisingly effectively in English translation. The lyrical set-pieces are always punctured by barbs of satirical comment, and the mood of humanist irony suggests that he had Voltaire and Diderot very much in mind.
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LibraryThing member -Eva-
This is the tale of King João V who makes a vow to build a convent in Mafra if the Queen finally becomes pregnant - a convent that ends up eating up a big part of rural Portugal's, already poor, workforce and the country's coffers - while in its shadow former soldier Baltasar and clairvoyant
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Blimunda fall in love and renegade Padre Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão aspires to build a flying machine, which will attract the attention of the Inquisition for sure. If you like Saramago's experimental style with his sparing use of periods, this is a fantastic story of the arduous work that goes into the building of a monument, but with an emphasis on the human experience; a severe critique of religious bigotry and political whims; and a magical story of love at first sight that becomes a (sort of) happily ever after. As much as I like Saramago's style with his seatbelt-required-length sentences, there are a few chapters in the middle of this one where even I got lost - nothing that a reread didn't rectify, but a bit distracting anyways - but I'm thinking this may be down to translation. My other Saramagos have been translated by the incomparable Margaret Jull Costa and until she has translated this one too, I'll have to trust that the original is clearer than this translation. Note that the original title, Memorial do Convento, describes the overall story better than the English title - our lovers are certainly a big part of the story, but this is not first and foremost a love story.
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LibraryThing member klayman
A magical trip through historical Portugal along unforgettable characters.

I picked up the book a week after visiting the monastery in Mafra.
Probably because of this, I felt even closer to the events that depict the background of the story.

I have been totally enchanted by the style of Saramago
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(thanks also to the great translation of Pontiero), his irony and his magical vision of even common events. In particular, I enjoyed the honest, sometimes harsh, view that the book has on life, religion , society and dreams.
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LibraryThing member Kristelh
Another Saramago book from 1001 list completed. This story is a story of love between the soldier who has lost a hand in battle and the girl who has been orphaned by the Inquisition. It is set in 18th century Portugal. It is also known as Memorial of the Convent. Convent of Mafra is a real place.
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If it is built then the king will have a son. It is a story of how this was built by dragooned peasants. Actual religion is not favored as Saramago is known as not a religious man. Another part of the story is the invention of a flying machine by the heretical priest Bartolomeu Lourenco (also a real person). Baltasar and Blimunda help him with building the machine. Blimunda has special powers to see into people. The relationship of Blimunda and Baltasar is the love story. There is a line in the book that there is no God but only death and life and that we don't have life until we die. There is also a social commentary and political statements. Historical magical realism, romance, social commentary, antireligion. It's all here.
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LibraryThing member gwendolyndawson
This book is filled with absolutely enchanting prose with a very unique style. Saramago portrays an enduring love between the two main characters. There's plenty of magical realism, which keeps the book lively and fresh. The book as a whole, however, is somewhat dull.
LibraryThing member atheist_goat
Gah, this was boring. Every now and then there would be a sentence or a phrase which took my breath away and reminded me who I was reading, but the last 200 pages were just about getting it over with.
LibraryThing member amwsmith
Lent out to Marissa!
LibraryThing member amerynth
I'm not a huge fan of magical realism, but I did enjoy Jose Saramago's "Baltasar and Blimunda." What really makes this book sing is the characters, which are interesting and complex... and despite being enmeshed in the story, distracted me from the elements that I liked less.

This was not an easy
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read... Saramago's sentences and paragraphs are long... but usually fairly interesting. Overall, I found him to be an interesting, if long-winded writer.
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LibraryThing member Miguelnunonave
Though well-written and researched, I just could not connect with this book. It just seems too ambitious and therefore all the more disappointing. What could be a tremendous historic novel (18th century Portugal, the construction of the pharaonic Mafra Convent, the invention of the flying machine)
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and a unique love story (Balthazar and Blimunda) turns out to be a boring book, with a tasteless operatic feeling, yet not conveying any depth on characters and feelings. All that remains is the usual (and, frankly, tired) Saramago's satyre of Church and Monarchy. Also, neither a groundbreaking nor a modern novel. I simply cannot understand how it can be forced upon Portuguese teenagers in high school. Thank God I didn't have to read it in my school time - there were so many other more brilliant Portuguese authors, even though they did not win the Nobel prize.
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LibraryThing member monamie
Saramago is a phenomenal writer. His ways with ideas and story and character through words are incredible--no doubt a large part of the reason he won the Noble Prize for Literature. This English translation of his writing is interesting, a stylistic choice of run-together sentences and thoughts
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requested by Saramago, no doubt to more closely match the original prose. This choice made the book overall more slow-going; perhaps it's a choice to force the reader to fully savor and digest every clause, every paragraph.

The gems that appear through the muddle and confusion of description, dialogue and action all running together are worth pause and marvel, as if you are stopping to take in a single, beautiful wildflower amidst acres of tall grass you're traversing, sweating as you cut down the grass with a machete just to make it to the other side.

"Baltasar Mateu, alias Sete-Sois, makes no attempt to speak but gazes upon Blimunda, each time she returns his gaze, he feels a knot in his stomach, because eyes such as hers have never been seen before, their colouring uncertain, grey, green, or blue, according to the outer light or the inner thought, sometimes they even turn as black as night or a brilliant white, like a splinter of anthracite."

"However, since laughter is so close to tears, reassurance so close to anxiety, relief so close to panic, and the lives of individuals and nations hover between these extremes..."

"They rested at intervals during the long journey, silent as they went, for they had nothing to say to each other, even a simple word becomes superfluous when our lives are changing, and even more so when we are changing, too."

While the writing is on par with what you would expect from Saramago, the story left me wanting more (or another). Saramago abandons focus on Baltasar and Blimunda about two-thirds of the way through to painstakingly detail the exploits and extravagances of the King and royal family during this time of the Inquisition. But while earlier in the book, the historical details were woven into Baltasar's story, at some point we diverge nearly completely from Baltasar and Blimunda, only wrapping back around in the last short chapters. I missed the main characters and wished we had stayed with them the entire time, providing more focus and less length to the novel.

"Baltasar dutifully thanks the recruiting clerk and leaves the Inspectorate General feeling neither happy nor sad, a man must earn his daily bread by some means somewhere, and if that bread fails to nourish his soul, at least his body will be nourished while his soul suffers."
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LibraryThing member antao
“If Adam was punished for wishing to resemble God, how do men come to have God inside them without being punished, and even when they do not wish to receive Him they go unpunished, for to have and not to wish to have God inside oneself amounts to the same absurdity, and the same impossible
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situation, yet the words Et ego in illo imply that God is inside me, how did I come to find myself in thus labyrinth of yes and no, of no that means yes, of yes that means no, opposed affinities allied contradictions, how shall I pass safely over the edge of the razor, well, summing up, before Christ became man, God was outside man and could not reside in him, then, through the Blessed Sacrament, He came to be inside man, so man is virtually God, or will ultimately become God, yes, of course, if God resides in me, I am God, I am God not in triune or quadruple, but one, one with God, He is I, I am He, Durus est hic sermo, et quis potest eum audire.”

In “Baltasar and Blimunda” by José Saramago, Giovanni Pontiero (translator)

(“ […] Se a Adão por querer assemelhar-se a Deus, como têm agora os homens a Deus dentro de si e não são castigados, ou o não querem receber e castigados não são, que ter e não querer ter Deus dentro de si é o mesmo absurdo, a mesma impossibilidade, e contudo Et ego in illo, Deus está em mim, ou em mim não está Deus, como poderei achar-me nesta floresta de sim e não, de não que é sim, do sim que é não, afinidades contrárias, contrariedades afins como atravessarei salvo sobre o fio da navalha, ora, resumindo agora, antes de Cristo se ter feito homem, Deus estava fora do homem e não podia estar nele, depois, pelo Sacramento, passou a estar nele, assim o homem é quase Deus, ou será afinal o próprio Deus, sim, sim, se em mim está Deus, eu sou Deus, sou-o de modo não trino ou quádruplo, mas uno, uno com Deus, Deus nós, ele eu, eu ele, Durus est hic sermo, et quis potest eum audire.”

In “Memorial do Convento” by José Saramago


Arriving in Mafra, let us imagine ourselves as part of the crowd that, on October 22, 1730, attended the consecration of the convent. Impossible not to be impressed by this façade more than 230 meters in length. To the centre, the basilica with its dome and bell towers, and on each side the imposing turrets. The portico columns clearly showed the neoclassical influence, complemented by several sculptures in the same style. Saramago tells us that 40,000 workers worked night and day so that the Basilica could be finished on D. João V's birthday. Three centuries later, this Portuguese National Monument gave way to the atmosphere of the sacred places: a row of chapels, a high altar with an altarpiece of an Italian master and a magnificent crucifix four meters high. Of course little Manuel had no idea who Saramago was. "Do you think this an ugly or beautiful King?" Mafra's convent guide asked little Manuel, as the group passed by his portrait in one of the rooms. The little visitor's response was peremptory: "It's ugly!" “Very fat, it appears that the King ‘even brought chicken legs to the opera,’” the cicerone whispered to little Manuel. But it was this monarch that clothed the Palace with the most valuable furnishings and other artistic treasures such as tapestries and paintings by renowned artists of the time. During his exile in Brazil, he also took with him a large part of these works. The guide also told little Manuel that the massive silver bathtub commissioned from England by King John V was also missing, although he did not bathe very often. At the time, the idea was that the maladies of the body entered through the pores of the skin. Therefore, the more they were covered by accumulated dirt, the fewer diseases they picked up. For this, the "sangrias" (bleeding) were used a lot at the time; little Manuel also saw in the Infirmary and in the Botica objects to remove blood, male sweepers and syringes with large centimeters in size and width, attached to the nucleus of Sacred Art (also visited). Without stopping, the guide still had time to mention in passing, about the time of greater decorative magnificence of the Convent, that the building "was perhaps one of the first in the country to have a mechanical elevator" and that Queen Maria Pia (regent who almost indebted the Portuguese crown with her whims) demanded that her piano not be transported by a normal joint of oxen, but rather by the effort of "eight men of confidence", who brought it along on the their shoulders to Mafra, traveling about 40 kilometers. Thomaz de Mello Breyner (1866-1933) was the 4th Count of Mafra and doctor of D. Carlos I. When he was a child, at the end of a vacation before returning to Lisbon, he left an inscription on the walls of one of the corridors of Church that visitors can still observe today. What this inscription has of special relevance is that the author is the grandfather of the poetess Sophia de Mello Breyner and great-grandfather of Miguel Sousa Tavares. Ludicrous was also the way King D. Carlos hunted pigeons on the terrace: he ordered torches to be put in the chimneys' respirators, where those birds nested, and these, frightened by the smoke, fled. The monarch, comfortably seated, shot at them. It is said that "only 43 pigeons were caught at a time, suspecting that many others had fallen around the neighborhood," says the guide with her eyes gleaming with gusto… It was also the pigeons that motivated the Convent's greatest myth: the existence of murderous rats. A soldier from the Infantry Prison School (who had been in the building for nearly 100 years as the story goes), when he was on the terrace hunting pigeons with a colleague, fell off from eight stories high, directly into the sewer canals. The colleague did not immediately report the accident to his superiors so as not to be punished, and a few weeks later the body was found chewed on by the rats. Obviously he was not attacked by rats; died yes, of the dizzying fall. But the story went beyond the borders of the village and recently a laboratory talked about the possibility of delimiting the area for reasons of public health. There are even schools in various parts of the country that still call the Palace to ask whether students can visit the Palace safely without being bitten. "I am living proof that the rats do not harm anyone. I visited the sewage canals and the rats ran away from the slightest presence of light," said the guide rubbing her hands together with a malevolus look towards little Manuel. It’s also true that even bats fly through the endless Library of the Convent of Mafra. Although the eighteenth-century paper of the nearly 38,000 existing volumes is of high quality, these small rodents of the night help preserve the books of small insects that are harmful to the maintenance of the huge tomes. Amazed, little Manuel could even see one of these small animals, dead, in the hands of the guide when they went through the library, through many reading-rooms and the scientific study rooms. Also a must-see, for a complete script of the book's action, are the Throne Room, the Hunting Room, the Music Room or the Royal Rooms. Saramago tells us of the cold meetings between the king and his wife, twice a week, in which he made the 200 meters that separated his rooms in the North Tower from the South Tower (the rooms of D. Maria). Of course little Manuel was not told of the King’s perambulations by the guide.

Coda - In 2010 I wrote this:

The body of José Saramago was cremated this Sunday in Lisbon next to an edition of the "Memorial of the Convent", one of his fundamental works and thanks to which he met his wife, Pilar del Río. The work was placed next to the coffin by Eduardo Lourenço, contemporary of Saramago and considered one of the most outstanding Portuguese intellectuals of the twentieth century. Lourenço handed over the book, with tears in his eyes, to Pilar del Rio and wrote some words that nobody was able to read, since it was deposited and closed next to the coffin in Lisbon’s City Hall.
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