The latest posthumous English-language Saramago release is an early work, Raised from the Ground, originally released in Portuguese in 1980 and now newly translated and hard-backed. If you know your Saramago, you’ll be in familiar territory; if not, expect politics, a scathing, self-conscious and omniscient narrator, and some very, very long sentences.
Set in the Portuguese province of Alentejo, on a vast agricultural estate known as the latifundio, Raised from the Ground follows the fortunes (misfortunes) of the Mau Tempo (Bad Weather) family, from the feckless patriarch, Domingos and his suffering wife, Sara da Conceição, to their agitator son, João, and his children and grandchildren. The family’s story tracks the story of Portugal’s political turmoil through the twentieth century – the coming of the Republic, the dictator Salazar, the awakening of the Communist movement – as the trickle-down effects of regime and policy changes alter the lives of the farm labourers that populate the latifundio.
Sketched out pretty much just like that in the blurb – a dynasty, the land, the sweep of a century – I expected something akin to The Grapes of Wrath, but Steinbeck doesn’t need to worry: Raised from the Ground failed to move or even particularly engage me. I think there’s a couple of reasons for that. One, I’ve read a lot of Saramago. His work is politically astute, imaginative and outspoken, and full of rage at social injustice, systemic idiocy and state repression. So far, so good. But while, say, Blindness – or its semi-sequel, Seeing – fixes upon a precise situation (we all go blind; nobody votes) and pushes it to a logical, horribly believable extreme, unmasking all the nasty brutal individualism that lurks beneath the surfaces of a purportedly socially-aware society, Raised from the Ground (an earlier novel) tackles a broader, more nebulous, and much more difficult to tackle subject (the effect of politics upon the generations of a family and a community) and doesn’t do it half as much justice. The usual wit and insight and compassion is there, but it’s spread too thin and it doesn’t have the shocking bite of the better-known works – so if you’ve read those books, this one isn’t going to come out very well, comparatively speaking. Two, then: as I think is the case in many political books, the characters are put to work to play out the various institutional practices that the author wants to criticise, but the key task for the writer then must be to humanise them so that the horror of the politics smacks the reader in the face as his favourite character is made to suffer. And there’s the problem: Saramago’s characters here read as ciphers for their situations – poor peasants, protesting peasants, hypocritical priest, etc.. In almost four hundred pages of prose, I wanted to care about the individuals, but they were illustrative cut-outs – unfortunate victims, exemplary rebels, and (my bugbear) endlessly reproductive wives (there’s one exception to this, but in the main the women huddle in the background). Rather than making me care about a family, the fortunes of which then make me care about the society, a la Steinbeck, this book tackles it the other way round (whether that’s intentional or not, I couldn’t say), so that the nastiness of the various regimes is really well-drawn but I had trouble really caring about the specific consequences for the Mau Tempo clan.
Any Cop?: Saramago’s a fantastic writer. This was his breakthrough novel, the book where he first fully realised his now-famous style – and his satirical asides, huge vision and his convoluted, deceptively informal sentence structure are as evident here as in any of his more famous books. There’s plenty to like. But the later volumes have a specificity and a force to them that’s missing here. So I’d say check it out if you want to complete the collection (and/or if you’re interested in Portuguese history), but if you’re new to Saramago and curious, this isn’t the place to start.