Tuesday, May 18, 2004

José Saramago's History of the Siege of Lisbon

I acquired this book while passing through Atlanta airport. The usual piquant collection in the airport bookstore treated me to the latest bestsellers, 5th volumes of various fantasy epics, romance novels, and business books. But among them was this book - an accident no doubt, likely contributable to the Nobel Prize that José Saramago won recently.

I love to read. My roommate, another Reader, would find me at five in the morning in the kitchen of our flat, desperately trying to finish last few chapters of Yet Another Book. So I bear special fondness to books that are about book readers and book writers. My particular favourite, as one can tell from the description of this blog, is Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler. Two kinds of sad melanholic thoughts are perpetually associated with my reading addiction. One, that I will never read all the books that are out there. Two, that I will never be able to write anything comparable to some of the best books I've read. My feeling was always, that the only reason to write something would be if I could be sure it would be of some quality.

History of the Siege of Lisbon is about all of those concerns. The main character is a proof-reader; someone who read books his entire life for living, and now, in his 50s, a lonely sad character with his life tapering off until a book he reads (called, of course, History of the Siege of Lisbon) reignites some internal curiosity in him. He puts a big fat NO in the middle of a sentence describing the momentous decision of the crusaders to help out portugese with the abovementioned siege, and his life suddenly acquires meaning. He starts to write his own book, and his life stops being a sequence of "deleaturs."

Saramago's writing quirk is that of no sentence, except for the last in a paragraph, endng in a period. They all end in commas. They are all run-in sentences flowing into one another, which makes the few dialogues in the book rather interesting. Mostly, they are internal dialogues of the proof-reader with himself, his relationship with the city where he lived his entire life. Both, the city and him, passive entities until they get connected by the book he writes. A discovery on both sides.

The book is hard to get started on, and it is a character book, where people are few, and some inanimate objects acquire almost life-like stature. But it is beautiful and touching book, though perhaps ironically much less bombastic than its name seems to imply.