Baltasar and Blimunda

I used to hate Saramago with a blinding vehemence. A regular grammar Nazi, I was outraged at the uncontrolled profusion of his prose, at his lack of respect for natural limits. Never mind that he is a Nobel awardee, and I a mere undergraduate. But about three-quarters into The Double—after I grumpily gave up my grammar issues—my eyes were opened. Saramago went from loathed offender to favorite author. I used to say that, outside the obvious range, only two deaths would sadden me: Jose Saramago’s and Hayao Miyazaki’s. After the novelist died, I regulated my intake of his now-limited literature. Baltasar and Blimunda, another gift from Kai, is the first Saramago book I’ve read in years.

“God clearly did not know what He was doing when He created Adam and Eve.” Most anywhere else, this statement would seem like thoughtless sacrilege, but in Saramago’s hands even blasphemy becomes witty, perceptive, truthful. Although his trademark humor allows readers to take everything in stride, one cannot escape without at least a nagging feeling of unease. A romance, a fantasy, and an adventure story, Baltasar and Blimunda is most of all a dark social commentary. In highlighting the excesses of royalty and religion, the novel paints a dismal portrait of 18th century Portuguese society. Monarchs are constrained by expectations, priests tread a path of eternal conflict, and peasants are condemned to a life of sacrifice and subservience. Like unwilling nuns trapped in a convent, everyone is confined to his proper place, denied even an inch more.

Doubtless, Saramago’s storytelling is superb and his visionary ambition inspiring, but I find it strange that the blurb trumpets this as his “best-loved” work. Although his criticisms remain incisive and relevant, I felt shortchanged by the actual story. The book’s titled Baltasar and Blimunda but its focus is elsewhere: uneven power relations and religious hypocrisy—as revealed in chapter-long descriptions of processions and festivities. This excessive detailing underscores shallowness but does not make for an absorbing narrative. Still, if pure enjoyment is what one expects in a novel then one is better off reading other books instead. Why read Saramago unless you want to be disturbed, unsettled? Compared to his other works, Baltasar and Blimunda seems uncharacteristically bland, but it does tease the mind out of torpor, prompting us to consider former horrors and ponder how much—if at all—the world has changed since.

Sete-sóis could feel his mouth watering, it seemed as if all the hunger accumulated during the four years of war now bursting the dykes of resignation and self-control.

…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…

…once she has finished she opens her eyes, turns toward Baltasar, and rests her head on his shoulder while placing her left hand where his is missing, arm touches arm, wrist touches wrist, life is amending death as best it can.

It ought to be sufficient to state what someone is called and then wait for the rest of your life to find out who he or she is, if you can ever know, but the custom is otherwise, Who were your parents, where were you born, what is your trade, and once you know these facts, you think you have learnt everything about the person.

It is a well-known fact that Baltasar likes a drink, though without getting drunk… But when he drinks there always comes a point when he feels Blimunda’s hand rest on his shoulder, and that is all he needs, Blimunda’s tranquil presence in the house is enough to restrain him, Baltasar reaches out for the tankard filled with wine, which he intends to drink as he also drank all the others, but a hand touches his shoulder, a voice says, Baltasar, and the tankard is returned to the table untouched and his friends know that he will drink no more that day.

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