“There are certain words that draw back, that refuse to be uttered, because they are too laden with significance for our word-weary ears.”
Every once in a while, you read a book that stirs your imagination long after you read the last line. Skylight by José Saramago, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is one of those books. The story is not complicated; in fact, the plot is rather weak. It is, instead, a series of intricate character studies. The nuanced portrayals of ordinary people engaged in mundane tasks—such as darning socks or sewing buttonholes into a shirt—is breathtaking.
The subjects of the novel are residents of a small apartment block in Lisbon in the late 1940s. A philosophical cobbler and his wife must take in a lodger to make ends meet. A widow with her sister and two spinster daughters do their best to find beauty in hard times. A couple who lost their daughter to meningitis find they have nothing in common anymore. A desperately lonely salesman and his angry wife compete for the attentions of their young son. A retired prostitute preserves her dignity even as she loses her lover and the home he provided for her. Two overly-solicitous parents attempt to save the reputation of their beautiful daughter, only to deliver her into the hands of a sexual predator.
Saramago is a true master of his craft, giving voice to everyday phenomenon we often take for granted:
But it is his poignant descriptions of quiet moments where his craftsmanship really shines. A mother dreams of her dead daughter and feels “the obsessive presence of someone behind a door that all the strength in the world could not open." A father confesses his loneliness and despair to his sleeping son, not realizing that the child is very much awake and hanging on every word. A kept woman cries when she realizes she has been replaced and will have to start over. Again. “Just two tears. That’s all life is worth.”
Although Skylight is Saramago’s first work, it was not published in Portugal until after his death in 2010. Strikingly modern, the book was written in the early 1950s. It touches on several deeply hidden aspects of human relationships, including marital rape, incest, domestic abuse, infidelity, prostitution, sexual harassment.
How, then, did it come to be published?
The answer can be found in the introduction, written by Pilar del Río, President of the José Saramago Foundation. A Spanish journalist, writer and translator, del Río was also Saramago’s wife.
Saramago submitted the manuscript for Skylight to a publisher in 1953. He received no response until thirty-six years later, when the publishing house was preparing to move offices and the lost manuscript was rediscovered. Upon its discovery in 1989, the publishing house immediately called Saramago with an offer to publish his earliest work.
He never forgave the publishing house for failing to respond to his submission. The day he received the phone call, he collected his manuscript from the publishing house and forbid it to be published during his lifetime. After his death in 2010, the foundation bearing his name arranged for the publication of this, his first novel.
Exactly why the manuscript was set aside is not clear, but it is certainly open to conjecture. In 1953, Portugal was ruled by an authoritarian dictator, the devout Catholic, António de Oliveira Salazar. Censorship was ubiquitous and any opposition to Salazar’s regime was swiftly squelched by the secret police. A portrait of ordinary working people struggling to make ends meet would not have been popular with the anti-Communist regime. Given this historical context, and the nature of Saramago’s writing, it is easy to imagine a publisher weighing the very real risks of incurring the wrath of the current regime against the negligible rewards of publishing an unknown author.
This is the first of Saramago’s books that I have read. It provides a foundation to his future work and affords an opportunity to see how the author’s style evolved over the course of his writing life. Written more than sixty years ago, the novel is still relevant today. And I can’t help but compare Portugal’s authoritarian regime of 1953 to the current administration’s authoritarian bent. It saddens me to think that Saramago’s last line still rings true today: “The day when we can build on love has still not arrived.”
Skylight, a novel by José Saramago, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa, published by Mariner Books, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, in 2015.
This book review is presented as part of my personal challenge to read and write a thoughtful review of at least 30 books in 2018. To learn more about this challenge, the books I have selected, and my imperfect rating system, click here.