Baroque Portrayal of the Sadness of the Portuguese : BALTASAR AND BLIMUNDA by Jose Saramago, translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $19.95; 304 pp.)
A national stereotype can be rejected but it can’t be ignored, particularly when it is as odd as Portugal’s. Sadness is a quality that others have claimed for the Portuguese, but mostly the Portuguese claim it for themselves.
More than Spain, their country was the exemplar of an empire impoverished by wealth. Thanks to a burst of early seafaring prowess, Portugal found itself in possession of Brazil, Goa, Macao and Mozambique. A tide of riches swept in and almost none of them stuck. They embellished the country without raising it. Its colonial power never elevated it to more than pawn status in Europe.
The sad monuments remain, and a misty legacy. Portuguese baroque–the Plateresque–is an art of manic embroidery of depressive forms. The palaces and monasteries, beautiful as they are, exhibit no whit of soaring, but a dulcet elaboration gone wild.
Set in the 18th Century, “Baltasar” takes the lavish style of Dom Joao V’s royal court and renders it indistinct from the bedbugs in the royal bed. It takes the colossal display involved in building the great monastery at Mafra and fuses it with the lives and sufferings of the conscripted workers who labored at it.
It is leveling but not reductive leveling. On the contrary, it is mysterious and sumptuous. The king is absurd, certainly, but he is not brought down to the hod carrier. Instead, the hod carrier partakes of the royal vertigo. A broken-down old soldier who is one of hundreds of scavenging camp-followers on a royal journey to Spain, is written about as if he shared in the royal pomp. It is deflation, all right, but by a process of inflation that declares not derision but–that word again–sadness.
Saramago makes the Portuguese court a choked and superheated place. When the book opens, the king is regularly performing his marital duty upon his timid and mopish Austrian wife, who has failed to conceive.
The narrator, here and through much of the book, is grandiloquent, malicious and oddly wary. He sounds like a courtier writing to a relative he does not completely trust. It gives the court scenes a porous, slightly dreamlike quality; some of it very funny.
The narrator recites the court’s concerns. The barrenness, of course, must be laid to the queen. A procession of the king’s bastards is lining up at that very moment to prove the point. There is a marvelous account of the stately mating protocol. The queen awaits her husband wrapped from head to toe, despite the heat, in the goose eiderdown she brought from home. She lies “curled up like a mole that has found a boulder in its path and is trying to decide on which side it should continue to burrow its tunnel.”
A Franciscan monk promises that the queen will conceive if the king builds a monastery at Mafra; assuming, that is, that he entrusts it to the Franciscan Order. The promise is less than it seems; apparently, the queen is already pregnant, though she is too innocent to know it. Her lady-in-waiting knows it, though, and has passed the word to the proper Franciscan circles.
The promise, in any event, is fulfilled; and the building of Mafra will be one of the major themes of the book, related in a detail that contrasts its magnificence with the deadly labor imposed upon the workers who build it. The detail is both crushing and thrilling.
Other scenes, equally detailed, are more wearying. A bullfight, a procession of penitents to be punished in an \o7 auto-da-fe\f7 , a royal journey to Spain, are virtually parodies of 19th-Century-style ironic realism. They bring the book to an ornamented standstill. This, no doubt, is intended as part of the theme, but that doesn’t help much.
Emerging from Saramago’s public chronicle is the individual story of Baltasar and Blimunda. The former is a soldier whose military career ended when he lost his left hand. He replaced it with a removable spike–good for fighting–and a hook–good for working.
Baltasar meets Blimunda at an auto-da-fe where her mother is condemned to exile for witchcraft. Blimunda is tall and fair and possesses a kind of magical X-ray vision. She can see people’s insides; she can also see a faculty that the author calls “will.” It resembles a cloud.
Date: November 1, 1987, Sunday, Late City Final Edition Section 7; Page 7, Column 1; Book Review Desk
Byline: By IRVING HOWE; Irving Howe’s most recent books are ”The American Newness: Culture and Politics in the Age of Emerson” and ”The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse,” of which he is co-editor.
Lead: LEAD: BALTASAR AND BLIMUNDA By Jose Saramago. Translated by Giovanni Pontiero. 336 pp. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. $17.95.
THE most vigorous writing of recent years has come not from the great powers of the West but from small, impoverished and sometimes ”backward” countries in Latin America, Eastern Europe and parts of Africa. As if to confirm this trend, there has now arrived from Portugal a brilliant novel by Jose Saramago, a writer who is highly regarded in Portuguese-speaking countries but little known elsewhere. This injustice should speedily be corrected with Giovanni Pontiero’s translation, at once idiomatic and elegant, of ”Baltasar and Blimunda.” And apart from its strong intrinsic interest, this novel should help put to rest the notion recently expressed in these and other pages that living in the wake of the heroic period of literary modernism dooms us to a literature of timid voices and small consequence.
Set in early 18th-century Portugal, ”Baltasar and Blimunda” knits together a number of fictional modes. It is a work of harsh realism, picturing the abominations of absolute power and Inquisitorial fanaticism; but weaving around the realistic pages is a fable about a flight into the marvelous, a lyric fantasy about a company of free spirits escaping for a moment into freedom. And then, as still another narrative strand, Mr. Saramago spins a love story, as sober as it is exalted, about two young plebeians bound in absolute devotion. All the while a self-conscious narrator keeps breaking in with jokes, aphorisms, a scale of ironies and critical observations (”After all,” he explains, ”this is a fairy tale”).
This full-bodied novel is organized as a series of contrasts between rulers and ruled, those who luxuriate and those who labor. Though Mr. Saramago often reveals a bracing contempt for the powerful of this world, he is not primarily concerned with the struggle between classes. What excites his imagination is the conflict between a stiff moralism of morals, manners and speech – those social and ecclesiastic rituals denoting the death of spirit – and a free play of feeling at a time when the idea of individuality has begun to stir European consciousness.
On one side, the Portuguese monarch, Dom Joao V, a febrile nincompoop who diverts himself with toys by day and impregnates compliant nuns at night. Around him circle his sleepy queen, fawning nobles, starchy footmen. Eager for an heir, Dom Joao V promises the Franciscan order that if it intercedes effectively with the heavenly authorities, he will reward it with an enormous (and unneeded) convent in the town of Mafra. The Queen conceives – hurrah! The King lives up to his promise – bravo! The Portuguese peasants, conscripted to labor in Mafra, sweat and suffer.
On the other side, two characters based on historical persons. Padre Bartolomeu Lourenco, a heretical priest who disdains the Trinity, keeps working on a machine named the Passarola (Portuguese for big bird) with which he means to take off for freedom. And Domenico Scarlatti, the famous musician, comes to Lisbon to teach the King’s clumsy daughter but soon finds himself far more interested in the padre’s plans for flight.
Joining Padre Bartolomeu as loyal helpers are the two central figures of the book, the young lovers Baltasar and Blimunda, he an ex-soldier who has lost a hand fighting for his feckless king and she a nubile beauty whose mother, ”one-quarter converted Jewess,” has been shipped to Angola by the Inquisition. These lovely young creatures live for each other’s word, each other’s touch – and also for the project of the heretical priest.
Interspersed between these stories of the monarch and the flight-obsessed heretics are a number of set pieces rich in flair and color. Mr. Saramago renders autos-da-fe and bullfights, both releasing blood lusts. There’s a charming episode in which Scarlatti plays his harpsichord while the padre and the young lovers assemble the Passarola. (”God,” Mr. Saramago assures us, ”has a weakness for madmen, the disabled, and eccentrics, and most certainly not for the officers of the Holy Office of the Inquisition.”) And toward the end Mr. Saramago executes a powerful tour de force in portraying how 50,000 peasants are driven to build the convent in Mafra because of a monarchical whim.
Meanwhile, Mr. Saramago is constantly present as a voice of European skepticism, a connoisseur of ironies. I think I hear in his prose echoes of Enlightenment sensibility, caustic and shrewd. Here is a passage describing a Lenten procession of penitents: ”The flagellants move forward, unable to speak yet roaring like rutting bulls, and if the women and mistresses feel that the penitents are not flogging themselves with enough force to inflict open wounds and draw blood for everyone to see, then the female choir erupts into a hideous wailing, as if possessed, inciting the men to greater violence. They want to hear the whips crack and see the blood flow as it flowed from the Divine Saviour. Only then will their bodies throb under their petticoats.” Such sardonic interventions suggest that in relation to Padre Bartolomeu’s fantasy of flight, Mr. Saramago is a kind of secret sharer.
”Baltasar and Blimunda” opens on a note of high comedy. His Majesty solemnly makes one of his semiweekly visits to the queen’s chamber, in hope of royal impregnation. The bed creaks, the nobles wait expectantly, all seems well – but for the subversive interference of nature, bedbugs to whom the King’s ”blood tastes no better or worse than that of the other inhabitants of the city.”
We shift to an auto-da-fe. One hundred and four men and women are to be burned, and we shall never know, Mr. Saramago remarks gravely, ”what the inhabitants of Lisbon enjoyed more, autos-da-fe or bullfights, even though only the bullfights have survived.” A dry-eyed Blimunda, careful not to betray that her mother stands among the heretics, watches the procession as ”the rabble hurls furious insults . . . the women scream abuse . . . and the friars prattle among themselves.” Turning to a tall young man with a missing hand, Blimunda asks, ”What is your name?” Baltasar. They leave together and that night their life together is sealed. Next morning Blimunda reveals that she enjoys a strange power of clairvoyance: ”I can look inside people” – though only into their bodies. (Souls, explains Mr. Saramago, belong to the church, bodies and their wills to Blimunda.) The priest moves toward the heretical view of denying the Trinity. That is a grave heresy sloping toward Judaism, and Judaism means the risk of Inquisitorial fires. Padre Bartolomeu, as if fanned by the breezes of the Enlightenment, indulges in greater heresies still: ”God sees into the hearts of men . . . and if a man’s sins were so serious that they should not go unpunished, God would see to it that he was judged . . . on the Day of Judgment, unless in the meantime his good deeds compensated for his evil ones. For it may also come to pass that everything will end with a general amnesty or universal punishment. All that remains to be known is who will pardon or punish God.”
The Passarola is almost ready. All that’s needed to make it fly, the Padre tells Blimunda, is a supply of ”human wills” to serve as a kind of fuel. (How can freedom be won without ”human wills”?) Blimunda, seer into bodies, can collect these and then, once she has done so, the Passarola will take off. Earthly miracle, celestial miracle, whichever it may be, the three of them soar rapturously toward the sky. ”Where are we going?” asks Blimunda. ”Where the arm of the Inquisition cannot reach us,” the priest answers, ”if such a place exists.”
They land. They scatter. The priest, fearing the arm of the Inquisition, flees to Spain, there to die. Baltasar and Blimunda go to Mafra, where, to earn their bread, he works as a drover with the other laborers at the king’s convent. One night the peasants sit before a fire and one of them asks Baltasar the heretical question: ”How does a drover become a man?” ”Perhaps,” he answers, ”by flying.”
The novel moves toward climax. The tone darkens and the exuberance of the early pages thins out. The sheer hardness of life, the implausibility of any full liberation, emerges as a dominant theme. Yet Baltasar and Blimunda do not yield; they remember the Passarola, and every now and then Baltasar journeys to Monte Junto, where the flying machine lies hidden, to tend and adore it.
In the novel’s most tender passage, we see the aging Baltasar coming back from work – and suddenly Mr. Saramago drops his occasional mask of objective narrator and cries out to him with a full heart: ”Your beard is full of white hairs, Baltasar; your forehead is covered with wrinkles, Baltasar; your neck has become scraggy, Baltasar; your shoulders are beginning to droop. . . . But now here is surely a question of failing eyesight, because it is a woman in fact who is coming toward us, and where we saw an old man, she sees a young man, who is none other than the soldier whom she once asked: What is your name?”
Baltasar visits Monte Junto for the last time and, perhaps because it has still kept some ”human wills,” the blessed machine takes off with him as its sole passenger. Where to? We never learn. Blimunda – she too has wrinkles now – spends nine years scouring Portugal for her man. She finds him, a prisoner at an auto-da-fe, ”the last man to be burned.” The novel ends: ”Blimunda said: Come. The will of Baltasar . . . broke free from his body, but did not ascend to the stars, for it belonged to the earth and to Blimunda.”
Much reverberates in memory after reading this enchanting novel, but most of all the love story which soars over the rest of the action like a flute across a heavy orchestra. Mr. Saramago, a writer of sharp intelligence, keeps this love story under strict control, free of pathos or sentimentality. It is a love of, and on, this earth.
And the Passarola? I’d like to think we need assign it no precise symbolism, since it is so splendid an object in its own right. But if we must succumb to the rudely explicit, let’s say that the Passarola and its creator are agents of a freedom glimpsed at a moment before it can be realized in history; that they sponsor an imaginative playfulness disdaining all orthodoxies; that they are precursors of the idea of the self – that great invention of the modern mind – as it breaks past every life-thwarting formalism.
The whole machine creaked, the metal plates and the entwined canes, and suddenly, as if it were being sucked in by a luminous vortex, it . . . soared like an arrow straight up into the sky. . . . Padre Bartolomeu Lourenco had grabbed one of the plummets that supported the sails, which allowed him to see the machine move away from earth at the most incredible speed. . . . What’s that yonder in the distance? Lisbon, of course. And the river, ah, the sea, that sea which I, Bartolomeu Lourenco de Gusmao, sailed twice from Brazil, that sea which I sailed to Holland. To how many more continents on land and in the air will you transport me, Passarola? . . . If only the King could see me now . . . if only the Holy Office of the Inquisition could see me now. . . . Baltasar and Blimunda finally scrambled to their feet, nervously holding on to the plummets, then to the rail, dazed by the light and the wind. Suddenly they were no longer frightened. Ah, Baltasar shouted, we’ve made it. He embraced Blimunda and burst into tears. From ”Baltasar and Blimunda.”