We all have, to a certain extent, multiple characters existing within ourselves, strains of our personality that are almost distinct people in themselves. The poet Fernando Pessoa called these characters heteronyms and gave them names. Ricardo Reis is one of these heteronyms and he features in this stunning novel by Jose Saramago. Before I speak about novel itself I want to say a few things about Pessoa’s most renowned work The Book of Disquiet. Most bibliophiles know that it is a collection of short prose fragments written by the poet and which were discovered [so the legend has it] in a trunk after his death. His intention, apparently, had been to assemble, and work, these fragments into a conventional novel. He died though, unfortunately, before this task had been completed, which means that the book you can take out of your local library, or buy online or in a bookshop has been assembled by scholars.
A lot of people adore The Book of Disquiet, and I understand their reasons, but I find it a deeply flawed text. Firstly, because it is, for me, impossible to read cover-to-cover; there is no narrative arc, no momentum, no real connection between the fragments. Secondly, as with all unfinished work we do not know what the author would have kept and what he would have discarded. This often means that the published work is uneven in quality, and Disquiet is no different. How so? Well, and I do seem to be in a minority here, I believe that there is some pretty embarrassing writing in the book. Despite being capable of composing beautiful, moving, and memorable epigrams, Pessoa also had a tendency [was it ironic? Certainly no one treats it as such] to descend into schoolboy existentialism [things like: I am a door, that is always closed], the kind of rubbish that if, let’s face it, you were told it was a rock lyric you’d snigger at and dismiss. This brings me to Saramago and Ricardo Reis, because I believe that this book, which is written in a style reminiscent of Pessoa, corrects many of the faults with Pessoa’s own prose work. It reads like a finished version of The Book of Disquiet, and that, I hope, is enough to sell it to some of you.
The plot [for we must always talk about plot] is as thin as the hair on Jose’s head.
[Jose’s head: Jose’s plot]
Ricardo Reis returns to Portugal, from Brazil, after 16 years and installs himself in a hotel. He beds one of the maids, becomes somewhat infatuated with a crippled girl who only has the use of one arm, and is sometimes visited by the ghost of Fernando Pessoa. That’s it, folks. There is, yes, some mention of the rising tide of Fascism, and a suggestion of imminent war [a war we all know will indeed come], but that isn’t what held my attention.
More interesting for me was Saramago’s portrayal of what I call a superfluous man. The Japanese writer Soseki wrote almost exclusively about these kind of men, and it was he [as well as the aforementioned poet] that this novel most reminded me of. Ricardo ambles through the year, doing nothing in particular, and feeling very little, other than an overriding ennui. And maybe some of you can’t relate to this, you emotive go-getters, but I could. It’s a book that gives you the same kind of feeling one might experience when standing alone on a beach in the evening looking out at the sea and realising that the waves contain a life-force more intense than your own; or when, after partying all night, you trudge home from the strange house you slept at, early, 6am in the morning, to avoid the harsh glare of those going to work, feeling tired and strangely dissatisfied. And you might stifle a cry, in these moments, even though you won’t know why. Yes, while reading The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis I stifled quite a few of those.