Harvill Secker, £16.99. Order at the discounted price of £13.99 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop

Skylight by José Saramago, book review: Publishers missed a trick by sitting on this gem

 

Publishers often take a while to decide whether to publish a novel, but 36 years is pushing it. This is what happened to the Portuguese writer José Saramago, whose book Skylight was submitted in 1953 and returned in 1989, a few years before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The author, whose work has been translated into 26 languages and whose sales exceed 2m copies, refused to let the novel be published in his lifetime. It would be a constant reminder, he thought, not so much of rejection, but of indifference and bad manners.

Posthumously things are different and this early work, which prefigures so many of the writer's later themes, has been made available in a fluid and imaginative translation by Margaret Jull Costa. It's an early example of what we might now call "apartment block" fiction, in which all the characters inhabit the same building, a genre that begins with Emile Zola's Pot-Bouille, and has since been continued by Georges Perec in Life: a User's Manual and, most recently, in Chris Ware's graphic novel of 2012, Building Stories.

This bird's-eye, or "skylight", view looks down on a block of flats in Lisbon in the late 1940s inhabited by poor couples, manual labourers and middle-class families who have fallen on hard times. There's a family of four women: a widow with her sister and two spinster daughters who are both driven mad by repressed sexual desire; Dona Justina and Caetano Cunha, an unhappily married couple who lost their daughter to meningitis two years previously; Emilio Fonseca, the bitter sales rep and his Spanish wife with a "permanent desire for contradiction"; Dona Lidia, the kept woman visited three times a week by a lover who is already on the look-out for a younger replacement; and Silvestre, the cobbler, who takes in a lodger to make ends meet.

It is this lodger, the 28-year-old Abel Nogueira, whose arrival and departure bookends the narrative. A drifter yet to undergo national service, Abel has taken a series of part-time jobs because he doesn't want to be tied down: "Life is an octopus with many tentacles. It takes just one to trap a man. Whenever I start to feel trapped I cut off the tentacle." (He is surely the author manqué: Saramago submitted the novel at 29.)

The reader never leaves the building. As the characters depart and return, days end and insomniac nights begin, we are taken into the inhabitants' money worries, fears of loneliness and abandonment, and expectations of confrontation. Simple greetings and moments of small-talk contain undercurrents of apprehension. What tricks will fate play, even on seemingly insignificant lives? How will these characters survive, and what will become of them?

It is a masterly creation: pessimistic without being bleak, lyrical without being sentimental. So why was it not published? It could be that the book requires early perseverance; the reader is introduced to some 15 characters in the first 10 pages and the book takes time to find its focus. The theme of ordinary working people struggling to make ends meet in a world where employment is precarious and the government authoritarian would not have gained much favour under the repressive regime of President António de Oliveira Salazar. There is little appreciation of Catholic family values. The novel goes out of its way to undermine any notion of contented domesticity with its plethora of unhappy marriages, infidelity and domestic abuse; and that's before Saramago turns his attention to lesbian incest and marital rape. It's perhaps no surprise that the publishers sat on this for so long.

But they missed something wonderful. Brilliantly structured, the novel contains moments of extraordinary poignancy. A mother dreams of her dead daughter, feeling "the obsessive presence of someone behind a door that all the strength in the world could not open". A man sits on his young son's bed, thinking the child is asleep, never realising the boy is awake and can hear every word; Dona Lidia sheds two tears when she realises she is going to have to start all over again. "Just two tears. That's all life is worth."

Abel Nogueira contemplates "the egotistical flow of life: greed, fear, longing, hope, hunger, vice", reads Dostoevsky and, "on those grim days when he felt surrounded by the vacuum of absurdity", he quotes Fernando Pessoa, the poet whose heteronym Saramago will come to use 30 years later in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis:

"'Do they want me married, futile and taxable?' Fernando Pessoa had asked. 'Is that what life wants of everyone?'"

The existential questions Abel poses are taken further in the novels Saramago later wrote when he contemplated what would happen if a plague of blindness was visited on a country (Blindness), or if people refused to vote (Seeing), or if people simply stopped dying (Death at Intervals).

One is tempted to wonder what kind of writer Saramago would have become had the novel been accepted and published in 1953. Might he have been more conservative and consciously "populist"? Did he need 20 wilderness years to think about what it must mean to be a truly radical writer, experimenting with form and style before discovering a unique voice that ultimately dispensed with most punctuation, and even the use of capital letters?

We now have both the younger and the older Saramago; two different novelists connected by a mutual imagination that lifts the reader away from "the morphine of monotony". "I have a sense that life, real life, is hidden behind a curtain, roaring with laughter at our efforts to get to know it." Abel Noguiera explains. "And I want to know life."

Saramago tears back that curtain to reveal not only the stage on which life is performed but also backstage, under unflattering working lights; to show humanity at its most anxious, its most vulnerable and most true.

Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before