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Toying With History

Toying With History

Anthropologist and Senator Darcy Ribeiro died on February 17. He was
considered by most an accomplished educator, novelist, anthropologist,
and politician. President Fernando Henrique Cardoso went to his funeral
and even declared a national three-day mourning period in the days following
his death. Was he only a façade? Was Ribeiro the shrewdest cheater
Brazil has ever seen? That’s what this article wants to prove.

By Bondo Wyszpolski

"…he holds his biro with a steady hand and adds a word to the page, a word the
historian never wrote, that for the sake of historical truth he could never have brought
himself to write, the word Not, and what the book now says is that the crusaders will Not
help the Portuguese to conquer Lisbon…"

Proofreader Raimundo Silva is a bachelor in his fifties who, with the stroke of a pen,
undermines a book (with the same title as the latest novel by José Saramago, of course)
to make it seem as if the first Portuguese king, Afonso I (Afonso, not Alfonso; this isn’t
Spain), didn’t require the outside assistance of the Crusaders in expelling the Moors from
Lisbon in 1147.

It’s an audacious act (of rebellion? or impish delight?), and Silva’s colleagues are
flabbergasted. It also raises the eyebrows, and piques the interest, of Silva’s new
supervisor, Dr. Maria Sara, fifteen years his junior. She urges the mischievous
proofreader to tell his own history of Lisbon, basing it around the naughty not he’d
earlier inserted.

Saramago’s distinctive style—sentences and passages like a rolling landscape
without end—allows past and present, fiction and history, to wash back and forth
across the page. Because Lisbon is such an old city, the events, or even physical
remnants, of the era which the story recounts persist to this day. As Silva reworks and
develops his story, he can see or visit the actual sites where crucial turning points of
the 12th century occurred.

As Silva’s revisionist history takes shape, so does his relationship with Maria Sara.
Saramago’s book needs 200 pages before Silva even gets around to calling his boss at home,
but once planted, their passion is quick to bloom. Equally quick to unfold, at this point,
is Silva’s rehandling of history, which is marked by a budding romance (to balance out his
own) between Mogueime, a Portuguese hero/warrior, and Ouroana, concubine of the knight
Heinrich.

Presumably the `siege’ of Maria Sara, the siege of Lisbon, and the entwined destinies
of Mogueime and Ouroana all resonate and echo off of one another, but Saramago’s larger
concerns seem to be about the `rewriteability’ of history and thus the curious
relationship between made and made-up. Towards this end, a working knowledge of Portuguese
medieval history as well as a familiarity with Lisbon itself would certainly help. Finer
points, one feels, are lost—and ironies missed—if one has but the faintest
understanding of this small but special country.

The History of the Siege of Lisbon is the fifth of Saramago’s novels to find its
way into English, and their late translator Giovanni Pontiero will be sorely missed. But Siege
is also the most challenging—and trying—of the author’s works, its subject
matter making it seem more academic (and therefore less `fun’) than such earlier gems as Baltasar
and Blimunda (just reissued as a Harvest paperback) and The Year of the Death of
Ricardo Reis. While the new book rewards the truly patient reader, and may in fact
extend Saramago’s reputation, I do not think it will extend his readership. For all that,
José Saramago is a modern master, there’s no doubt of that, and one of the most
consistently compelling authors of our time. 

Excerpt
(from p. 232):

Raimundo ran his hand over his forehead for a second, then said, I used to dye my hair
but no longer, white roots are not a pretty sight, forgive me, in time my hair will get
back to its natural color, Mine has stopped being natural, because of you I went to the
hairdresser today to have these venerable white hairs tinted, They were so few I wouldn’t
have thought it worth the bother, So you did notice, I looked at you closely enough, just
as you must have looked at me and asked yourself how a man of my age could be without
white hairs, No such questions entered my mind, it was obvious that you dyed your hair,
who did you think you were deceiving, Probably only myself, Just as I’ve decided to start
deceiving myself, It comes to the same thing, What do you mean by the same thing, Your
reason for dyeing your hair, mine for no longer dyeing it, Explain yourself, I stopped
dyeing my hair in order to be as I am, And what about me, why have I tinted my hair, To go
on being as you are, Smart thinking, I can see that I’ll have to practice mental
gymnastics daily in order to keep up with you, I’m no more intelligent than you are,
simply older. Maria Sara smiled quietly, Irremovable evidence that clearly worries you,
Not really, our age only matters in relation to that of others, I suspect I’m young in the
eyes of someone who is seventy, but I’m in no doubt that a youth of twenty would consider
me an old man. And in relation to me, how do you see yourself, Now that you’ve tinted the
few white hairs that you possess and I’m allowing all of mine to show, I’ve become a man
of seventy in the presence of a girl of twenty, You can’t count, there is only a
difference of fifteen years between us, Then I must be thirty-five, They both laughed…

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