Skylight by Saramago


Just as a skylight is an opening in the roof, either admitting a brief illumination of light or giving outsiders a peek as to what’s inside, so Jose Saramago gives us a view of the inhabitants of an apartment building in Lisbon during the early 1950’s. Each member becomes almost as familiar to us as the members of our own family; in fact, I felt as if I was living in the apartments with these people. Which wasn’t always a pleasant feeling, for we are face to face with a lonely cobbler and his wife who have recently taken on a renter, a beautiful mistress and her benefactor, a family of four spinster women: the mother, aunt and two adult daughters, and an embittered couple with their ten year old son.

Each family has its own dreams and disappointments; their lives are lived out before us as a slice of life. We, as the reader, never leave the apartment. But, we see the complexities and emotional drama inherent to each person. We find ourselves taking sides, nodding our heads in agreement with a conversation, or silently cursing foolish choices.

When I closed the book, I had only an indication of where each person’s path would take them. Nothing is wrapped up or finalized. But I saw that the steps which had been taken would be next to impossible to reverse, and that for each family, nothing much would change.

The elderly cobbler and his wife would continue to love each other throughout their old age and loneliness; the mistress would continue to find a benefactor who would support her financially; the embittered couple would go their own way with excuses for needing freedom; and the four women would listen to classical music as they continued to stifle their inner passions. It isn’t concluding what would happen that makes this novel fascinating, it’s discovering who each character is, how he thinks, and what prompts him to take each step in his life.

It is no wonder to me that Skylight is in the top of the important book lists lately. Although it took almost four decades to be published, it is a beautifully written observation of human lives. I will be thinking of it for a long time to come.

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. ~Independent

Some favorite quotes:

“They had their past to remember, the present to live in, and the future to fear.”

“On this side- or perhaps on the other side too – of the inevitable noises lay a dense painful silence, the inquisitorial silence of the past observing us and the ironic silence of the future that awaits us.”

“All I mean is that we won’t become what we are meant to be in life by listening to other people’s words or advice. we have to feel in our own flesh the wound that will make us into proper men. Then it’s up to us to act.”

Baltasar and Blimunda

What started as a joy to read quickly became tedious for me because I cannot read endless pages with sentences which have no punctuation whatsoever strung one after another filled with metaphor and allusion. One or two illustrations I can smile upon such as God having no use for a left hand since Jesus sat at His right others are beyond my point of reference.
Let me back up.
We begin in Lisbon, Portugal,  the year is 1711. The friar Antony of St. Joseph promises King Dom Juao V,  and his wife Dona Maria Ana, an heir to the throne if he will build a convent. This promised, their first child is conceived and born. Meanwhile, Baltasar Mateus, more fondly known as Sete-Sois (or Seven Suns) has been deprived of his left hand. Part of it remained in Spain,  part in Portugal, while he was fighting in the war over who should occupy the Spanish throne: Austrian Charles or French Philip?

When Sabastiana Maria de Jesus, condemned by the Inquisition and sentenced to exile for having spoken of visions and revelations, is walking to her auto da fé,  we are introduced to her daughter, Blimunda. She simply asks Baltasar his name, for he is standing close by, and in so doing their union is begun.
Padre Barolomeu Lourenco, the priest, accompanies Baltasar to Blimunda’s house. Padre Bartolmeu is known as The Flying Man,  because he is building a Passarola; a machine which can fly. And so the story continues, with the one handed man, the girl who can see visions, and the priest who can reach the heavens.
Having read Saramago’s novel Blindness and throughly enjoyed every page, I am intrigued to find his illusions to blindness in this book. Blimunda fasts in the night, and breaks her fast in the morning by eating bread with her eyes closed. She does this so she can see with her unique ability to understand visions.  “This is a day for seeing not just for looking, which may be all right for all those who possess eyes yet suffer from another form of blindness.”
I also appreciate the introduction of Domenico Scarlatti, whose harpsichord music I loved to play while studying at Wittenberg University’s music conservatory. Like Johann Sebastian Bach, I find his music brings an ordered elegance to whichever environment in which it’s played.
But, I must confess to becoming weary halfway through Baltasar and Blimunda. Tired of endless pages of philosophy and metaphor, with an extremely slow build up to either the building of the convent or the flying machine, I abandoned ship around page 200. Perhaps I will continue; perhaps Tom of Wuthering Expectations will so enlighten me about this work that I will pick it up again. If not, I’m glad that at least I had exposure to another Saramego book.

Blindness by Jose Saramago

Title: Blindness
Author: Jose Saramago
Published: 1998
Number of pages: 326
Rating: 5 out of 5

There are no names of characters here. Only “the girl with the dark sunglasses,” or “the doctor”, or “the boy with the squint.”

There are no quotation marks delineating conversations here. Only a random, stream-of-consciousness kind of dialogue as one voice interacts with another.

What there is is blindness. Unexpected blindness which comes upon its victims in the form of a milky white sea instead of total blackness.

While driving home one day, a man sits in his car at the intersection unable to proceed because he has lost his sight. A stranger helps this man to his apartment, and then goes back to steal his car. The stranger becomes blind. The eye doctor from whom the man seeks medical assistance becomes blind. The patients who were waiting in the doctor’s office when the man is called become blind. Blindness seems to rub off from one to another as easily as the hair from a cat when it rubs against you.

How does one function when one has suddenly lost sight? How do those around react when an ailment is suspected of being contagious? It’s rather a survival of the fittest here, except for the doctor’s wife, who inexplicably is not without her sight. Yet she has willingly accompanied her husband with the other blind people into the wards of the empty asylum where they are interned.

A sort of order begins in the wards. People organize themselves so that the distribution of food which they are given, never enough to go around, is at least given equally. But, how are they to manage cleanliness? Believing that they are unseen, not knowing that the doctor’s wife still has her sight, some defecate on the floor; soon filth prevails. Worse, a kind of mafia has set itself up demanding payment for the food which the government promised would be provided.

The soldiers guarding the place are paranoid that the blindness will spread to them, and when the inmates come for assistance they are instantly shot. This book, more than a treatise on being blind, is a treatise on civilization. It is fantastic.