BOOK REVIEW / Death in Lisbon: a poet disintegrates: 'The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis' - Jose Saramago; Tr. Giovanni Pontiero: Harvill, 7.99 pounds

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THE Portuguese writer Jose Saramago has recently joined the distinguished list of novelists who have offended governments. His new book, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, was part of Portugal's entry for the European Literary Award, but Lisbon's cultural commissars, led by the Under-Secretary of State Antonio de Sousa Lara, saw it as a challenge to 'Christian principles' and censoriously withdrew it. Saramago's English translator, Giovanni Pontiero, tried to provoke British interest in the affair, but Saramago seemed like one of those faraway names of which we knew little, and no one took much notice.

We should have done. The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis shows Saramago to be a novelist of the grandest sort. Ironically, one of the book's targets is the harsh and petty patriotism of the pre-war years in Portugal, but this is by no means its main claim upon us. It is, indeed, a bold and ambitious adventure about what we have to call, if you'll excuse the expression, the human predicament.

To talk about the human predicament at all assumes that there is such a thing. A great many novels sustain a good-natured faith in the reliability of ambiguous things like 'character'. Saramago is assured enough to lack confidence in all that. He adores Borges, and it looks, from the devoted attention he brings to the perfect descriptions of a man dining alone in a hotel restaurant, as if he admires Thomas Mann as well. But The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is no mere homage to great antecedents: it is a dramatic work of great philosophical weight, filtered through a refined contemplative intelligence.

It is probably going to sound, in synopsis, much more baffling and affected than it really is. Ricardo Reis was one of three pseudonyms deployed by Portugal's most admired modernist poet, Fernando Pessoa. Saramago engineers a series of meetings between the two, in which the poet and the alter ego debate their idiosyncratic, yet perhaps complementary, visions of the world.

Reis, a doctor who has emigrated to Brazil, returns to Lisbon at once when he receives news that Pessoa has died. He has no concrete plans; he is moved only by a vague sense of propriety, a feeling that Pessoa's death has left a gap that only he can fill. He checks into a hotel, walks round Lisbon, plays around with lines of poetry ('Wise is the man who contents himself with the spectacle of the world'), looks for the drift of current affairs in the columns of the newspaper and eats solitary meals. He embarks on two liaisons: one a shaming erotic affair with a chambermaid called Lydia, the other a poetic fancy involving a one-armed girl called Marcenda. Each represents a different facet - physical or idealistic - of a snobbish machismo; and the querulous movement of Reis's involvement with Lydia, in particular, is pursued with nail-biting ingenuity.

Every now and then Pessoa appears, and the poets chat away about the ethics of romantic life and death, the nature of art, individual identity and all kinds of existential notions. Theirs is a tense rumination on what sensitive souls are supposed to do in a world shrieking towards war. But it is one of the novel's great accomplishments that the dense documentation of the roaring world outside never seems like background information or mere historical ballast. The boundaries between Reis's intimate life and the life of Europe are so blurred and ambivalent that it is hard, sometimes, to tell them apart.

Ostensibly, then, the novel would seem to require both a basic knowledge of Portuguese history and a working acquaintance with the work of Fernando Pessoa. That this is not the case is a tribute to Saramago's exceptional craftiness as a dramatist, and also to Pontiero's heroic inventiveness in finding a vigorous English version. It cannot have been easy. Saramago's sentences jump around with alarming agility: they include scraps of dialogue, lines of poetry and moments of interior monologue, as well as the odd observation by the author. It sounds tricky, but the effect is precisely the opposite, of a studious and intense faithfulness to nature.

'Ricardo Reis had told the manager, I would like breakfast brought up to my room at nine-thirty. Not that he intended to sleep so late, but he wished to avoid having to jump out of bed half-awake, struggling to slip his arms into the sleeves of his dressing gown, groping for his slippers, and feeling panic that he wasn't moving quickly enough to satisfy whoever was standing outside his door, arms laden with a huge tray bearing coffee and milk, toast, a sugar bowl, perhaps some cherry preserve or marmalade, a slice of dark grainy quince paste, a sponge cake, brioches with a fine crust, crunchy biscuits, or slices of French toast, those scrumptious luxuries served in hotels. We shall soon learn if the Braganca goes in for such extravagance, because Ricardo Reis is about to sample his first breakfast. It would be nine-thirty on the dot, Salvador promised him, and did not promise in vain, for here at nine-thirty on the dot Lydia is knocking on the door.'

It takes, to be sure, a page or two to get used to this. But it soon acquires a mesmeric clarity. The flickering of narrative emphasis - from that Pooterish business with the dressing gown and the mouthwatering breakfast fantasy, to the sudden inescapable knock on the door - sucks us in fast and then makes our head spin. The novel is always moving swiftly between delicacy and indelicacy, between lofty abstractions and knockabout humour. Reis's personal life is pursued with minute and equivocal vigilance, while the life of Portugal achieves a climax of its own in a bitter parody of the civil war heating up over the border. Not many novels in recent years have been able to bind spells with anything like this alliance of wit and seriousness. Maybe this is what masterpieces are made of, who knows?

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