Raised From the Ground by José Saramago (Trans by Margaret Jull Costa)
Harvill Secker, 400pp, £18.99
It might seem surprising that only now – 14 years after José Saramago won the Nobel Prize in Literature and two years after his death – is this major novel, first published in Portugal in 1980, appearing in English translation. Then again, politically radical fiction is often a tough sell. While Saramago was an outspoken member of his country’s Communist Party (“Marx was never so right as now,” he remarked at the outset of the recent global financial crisis), in his best-known work his politics are embedded in allegory or fantasy, allowing readers to view them as loosely humanist or to overlook them entirely.
For all the delay in its appearance in English, Raised From the Ground is astonishingly topical. It asks: “What kind of world divides into those who make a profession of idleness and those who want work but can’t get it?” The novel even ends with descriptions of a kind of Occupy movement – though one with higher stakes – as peasants take over farm estates whose owners have relocated rather than pay their workers a living wage.
In the novel Saramago braids together 20th-century Portuguese history and the lives of several generations of the Mau-Tempo family (whose name means “bad weather”). The story begins on a dirt road in southern Portugal during a heavy storm. Heading for a new home in a new hovel are the boozing shoemaker Domingos; his wife, Sara; and their son, João, whose blue eyes derive from a 15th-century German ancestor who raped a local girl. This unpunished crime comes to symbolise the brutal injustices that have beset the local people for centuries. The main part of the story follows João and his wife, Faustina, as well as their children Antonio and Gracinda and their son-in-law and granddaughter, as they eke out lives under regimes that are as callous to the peasants as they are amenable to the usual beneficiaries of far-right conservatism: landowners, industrialists, the army and the church.
In 1910, when a republic proves no advance on the monarchy, the peasants working the estate where the family lives demand change. During the Salazar dictatorship, socialist agitators begin “roaming the latifundio,” and after the Second World War the local people ask for a minimum daily wage – one that “wouldn’t even pay for a filling in one of the boss’s teeth”. Eventually, João is arrested for striking; within four years he’ll be arrested again, with more harrowing consequences.
Saramago himself was born and reared in the world he evokes here and his intimate, particular knowledge of peasant life is one of several reasons the novel transcends propaganda, by a long shot. Others include his gift for lyric realisations of the countryside (“Hidden in the forest of the wheat field, the partridges are listening hard. No sound of men passing, no roaring engine, no tremulous shaking of the ears of wheat as the sickle or the whirlwind of the harvester approach”) and his skill at enacting physicality – pleasure, fatigue, hunger or the suffering of a tortured striker who, in the book’s unforgettable centrepiece, “sits slumped in the chair like an empty jacket”. Then there are the interludes of humour – like Antonio Mau-Tempo’s prescription for catching literate hares with a newspaper and a pinch of pepper. These welcome remissions recall Primo Levi’s insight that when novelists depict atrocities they never experienced themselves, respectfulness or ignorance leads them to banish all humour, while in fact humour is a survivor’s indispensable resource.
If this novel’s vision of entrenched inequalities makes it seem timely, another factor makes it aesthetically essential: By Saramago’s own reckoning it was the book in which he found and developed his style. Readers familiar with his prose – the shifting pronouns, perspectives and tenses; the way dialogue and exposition are wedged together; the long sentences with their chains of spliced clauses, mischievous qualifications and omniscient interjections – will be delighted: “The pig is not really a suitable animal for nativity scenes, it lacks a sheep’s elegance, thick coat, soft woolly caress, pass me my ball of yarn, will you, darling, such creatures are made to bend the knee, whereas the pig rapidly loses its sweet look of a pink, newborn bonbon and becomes instead a bulbous-nosed, malodorous lover of mud.” A short sample can’t really suggest the spell this prose casts and compounds over hundreds of pages, or how, days after you’ve set the book down, its cadences go on looping through your mind like an odd, addictive music.
There are some bathetic lapses. Comparing animals and people, Saramago crowds two trite observations into a single sentence: “The lives of human beings are far more complicated, for we are, after all, human.” And the author’s verbal playfulness can wax too fanciful: “An ill wind of insurrection was blowing through the latifundio, the snarling of a cornered, starving wolf that could cause great damage if it should turn into an army of teeth.” Worse, an early scene where strikers face scab labourers seems mechanically explanatory, like a dramatisation for students at a Soviet youth camp: “Those from the north say, We’re hungry. Those from the south say, So are we, but we refuse to accept this poverty, if you agree to work for such a low wage, we’ll be left with nothing.”
But such cavils fade in the heat of this book’s sustained vitality, narrative sweep and earned indignation. Like Antonio the hare-catcher, Saramago is “a great teller of tales about things he has either seen or invented, experienced or imagined,” and possesses “the supreme art of being able to blur the frontiers between the two”. Luckily, Margaret Jull Costa has shown congruent skill in bringing his work across that other key frontier, the one between languages. Her concise footnotes help the reader unpack Portuguese literary references and wordplay, while also supplying necessary historical background. Her efforts have lent us access, at last, to a great writer’s first major work, a novel that resounds with relevance for our own time.