BOOKS / The Independent Foreign Fiction Award: A romantic pseudonym on the loose in Lisbon

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The Independent Culture
The winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Award for July / August is The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis by Jose Saramago, translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero (Harvill, pounds 14.99). It is the first novel on the shortlist for the annual pounds 10,000 award

The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is a remarkable description of an imaginary life in Lisbon. When the poet Fernando Pessoa dies, one of his pseudonyms returns from Brazil, feeling that a space has been left only he can fill. He pursues some romantic lost causes and wanders the city along with Pessoa himself. The two men discuss poetry, philosophy and everything else with a rare blend of wit and seriousness. The English version by Giovanni Pontiero magically recreates Saramago's mesmerising style.

She goes through the usual motions, is about to lift the tray, has already gripped it, holds it level, hoists it into the air in a semi-circle, and heads for the door. Oh my God, will he speak, not speak, perhaps he won't say anything, perhaps simply touch me on the arm like the other day, and if he does, what shall I do, it won't be the first time a guest has taken liberties, twice I gave into them, why, because this life is so sad. Lydia, Ricardo Reis spoke her name. She put down the tray, raised her eyes filled with terror, tried to say Doctor, but her voice stuck in her throat. He did not have the courage, repeated, Lydia, then said almost in a whisper, horribly banal, the ridiculous seducer, I find you very pretty. He stood there staring at her for a second, he couldn't bear it for more than a second, and turned away. There are moments when it would be preferable to die . . . The door closed slowly, and only later could Lydia's footsteps be heard retreating.

Ricardo Reis spent the whole day out of doors brooding over his shame, all the more so because he had been unmanned not by an adversary but by his own fear. He decided that the following day he would change his hotel or rent part of a house, or return to Brazil on the first available ship. These may seem dramatic effects for such a tiny cause, but each person knows how much it hurts and where. Ridicule is like heartburn, an acidity continuously revived by memory, an incurable wound.

(Photograph omitted)

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