I’ve been thinking a lot about my recent trip to Portugal. Not only because I’d love another holiday, but because I’m trying to read more historical fiction (especially novels) at the moment, whilst I have the time. A few weeks ago I read The Glass Palace (Amitav Ghosh, 2000) which might well get a post of its own. However, as well as reading more literature based in other continents, I’m also trying to read more literature in translation, which, as I native English speaker, I must admit that I don’t do a lot of!
I came across this article on social media (well, it had blatantly been advertised for me based on my previous internet search history, but we’ll overlook that for now…) and was drawn to the work of Jose Saramago (1922-2010). I really want to get hold of Baltasar and Blimunda, which was recommended in that piece, but actually I’m quite glad that I ended up reading another of Saramago’s works! Sometimes it’s better to read an author’s earlier, lesser known (or praised) books, before moving onto some of their classics. It helps to understand the essence of their writing style whilst they were still formulating it themselves, and to predict which elements might reappear in their later works.
The fact that there wasn’t a wide selection of Saramago’s books in my local library, albeit a city library, the best stocked for miles around, is hardly surprising. There is an ongoing bias against literature translated into English, I feel, and this often leads to a lack of diversity in British libraries.
Actually, on a broader theme, reading this book took me back to my undergraduate history days. Everyone dreaded the lectures on peasants. No one wanted to spend a whole week’s worth of research and essay-writing time on them. All peasants ever seemed to do was revolt. We couldn’t wait to move back to the glittering worlds of the middle and upper classes next week! Art, music, culture, even politics, to a large degree, were seen as belonging to these classes, not the peasants who seemed to contribute nothing to society except the bread and livestock which everyone else depended on. The lives of “ordinary” people, that is to say – historically speaking – the vast majority of people, were seen as inherently dull. The middle classes were politically active and played a role in reforming religion, or education, and the upper classes were glamourous and extravagant, from Versailles to Renaissance Venice.
I continued to feel pretty much the same as most of my classmates until I read a book which changed everything towards the end of my third and final year. After months of pleading with us during his only lecture (in a two month lecture series) a professor whose name I’ve since forgotten implored us to really consider the lives of these early modern European peasants on a scale not really tried before, an individual level. Now here was something different!
The book was Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms (1976), a depiction of the worldview and “cosmos” of a sixteenth century Friulian miller, Domenico Scandella, also known as Menocchio. Ginzburg was writing in the ’70s, reacting against the previous “quantitative turn” in history, in which every historical trends was brought down to a matter of statistics. The 1970s was the age of “micro” histories, and a time in which Febvre’s concept of a collective class identity first came under attack. The Cheese and the Worms uses the historical record of two Inquisitorial trials, during which Menocchio was interrogated about possible heretical religious beliefs. Yet these trial records raise more questions than answers. How did Menocchio have knowledge of “elite” texts? (the Decameron, for example), and where did an obscure miller get such radical ideas from? In what ways could an illiterate man express such fantasies, in the limited vocabulary of his time?
By coincidence, this work is also a translated one, though I didn’t register that at the time. Anyway, most family sagas and generational novels that I read are set firmly in the middle and upper classes, such as The Forsyte Saga or One Hundred Years of Solitude. I decided that now was the time to read about those that worked on and for the latifundio (“land property”/ “large estate”), whose lives were dominated, and explicitly shaped by, the land which they were destined to spend their entire lives cultivating.
In Raised from the Ground, the title takes on new significance as the landscape, the ground itself, remains the only constant in the lives of the Monte Lavre peasantry, in particular, the Mau-Tempo family. In a time frame which spans from the end of the 18th century to the arrival of two World Wars, and the Carnation revolution (1974), the repetition of locations (e.g, the village fountain) as the backdrop for important events can feel jarring and physically stifling, which is possibly the intended effect when depicting village life. Characteristics recur between generations of characters , from a detrimental preference for wanderlust, to those “foreigner” blue eyes.
Characters meet, fall in love, give birth, and die, with startling similarities. There is only so much that can happen in the life of the average peasant, suggests Saramago. Yet there is so much more than meets the eye. Individuals, raised in the same household, might be fated for such different paths. Seemingly inconspicuous farming stock find themselves caught up “in the inland sea of the latifundio”[pg. 384, Harvill Secker, 2012 edition], the currents of discontent with church and state which will lead to strikes and a workers’ revolution.
Saramago describes the excitement of Lisbon through the eyes of a villager, the delight of the characters who see the sea, for only the second time, at Caixas (where the railway line from Cais de Sodre still runs along the shore!). Portugal’s colonies in India and Africa are referenced, and the first line of The Lusiads (a Portuguese epic published in 1572, glorifying Portuguese navigators), itself a reference to the opening of The Aeneid is mocked. For these reasons I was taken aback by the similarity of content between Raised from the Ground and my last post reflecting on Portuguese colonialism when visiting Lisbon.
As an omniscient narrator, Saramago’s prose is oddly god-like and prophetic. There is little direct speech or dialogue, rather the thoughts and conversations of different characters blend into each other to form a stream of consciousness narrative, a collective din. There are moments in the text which come close to fantasy, and others which are so raw they seem almost crudely realistic.
An example which resembles magical realism;
But Antonio Mau-Tempo, who knew he was dreaming, pretended he hadn’t heard this order and continued sleeping, a bad move because he never knew that a weeping princess had been sitting beside him, and that she held his hand…
On the transcendant nature of human society compared to nature;
Thus flowed the rivers and the four seasons of the year, on those one can rely, even when they vary. The vast patience of time and the equally vast patience of money, which, with the exception of man, is the most constant of all measurements, although, like the seasons, it varies.
On the unwritten stories of peasants;
But who are these other people, small and disparate, who came with the land, although their names do not appear in the deeds, dead souls perhaps, or are they still alive?[…] there is the latifundio and those who will work it, go forth and multiply. Go forth and multiply me, says the latifundio. But there is another way to speak of all this.
On a pastoral style paradise, in which the landscape holds a communion of the living and the dead;
“the living notice nothing, they think they’re alone, that they’re carrying on their task as living people, the dead are dead, and buried, that’s what they think, but the dead often visit…”
“[…] and others whose names we may not know, although we know about their lives. Here they all are, the living and the dead”.