To some, the waning days of 2016 bore a surprising and unsettling resemblance to the start of the Second World War. The center, it seems, can’t hold much longer. If you’re anything like me, amid all this geopolitical dread, you reach for a novel. More than 30 years after it was written, José Saramago’s “The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis” feels eerily relevant for our troubled times. A postmodern, dreamlike chronicle of existential revolt, this is not a soothing novel by any stretch of the imagination, but it may be just the bitter medicine we need in 2017.
Ricardo Reis returns to the colorless city of Lisbon aboard an English steamship after a decade abroad in Brazil. The year is 1936; the occasion, the death of his only friend, the poet Fernando Pessoa. In Ricardo’s absence, the authoritarian António Salazar has assumed control of Portugal’s government, and the current of cultural conservatism is at its highest ebb. Taking up residence at the Hotel Bragança, Ricardo passes his days alone, pouring over newspapers, composing odes and, when it isn’t raining, roaming the streets aimlessly, a numb stranger in his own city. As he settles in, a cast of characters emerges from the gray background of the hotel: Lydia, a maid with whom Ricardo begins a passionless affair, a group of Spanish aristocrats exiled from their homeland by the Spanish Civil War, an elderly lawyer from Coimbra and his beautiful daughter, whose hand has been paralyzed since the death of her mother.
Saramago’s distinctive prose flows like raindrops on the lazy face of the Tagus, forming a complex pattern alive with surprising insights. The attention of the omniscient narrator — who may or may not be Saramago himself — wanders from the narrative at hand to the history of the city to lyrical meditations on what it means to live at this time, in this place, wherever and whenever that may be. Rife with metafictional references, this is partly a book about the role books play in our efforts to make sense of life. Ricardo himself is named for an alter ego of the actual Fernando Pessoa, who published under more than 75 names, each representing an independent character with his own intellectual life.
Ricardo follows along in the papers as the situation across interwar Europe deteriorates, remaining unaffected by the mounting unrest. During his sleepless nights, he is visited by Pessoa’s ghost, who teases Ricardo with firsthand accounts of the hereafter. Life has little appeal, but Ricardo has just as little interest in death. The only thing he seems to desire at all is the girl with the paralyzed hand, whom he pursues when she leaves Lisbon on a pilgrimage, hoping to be healed by the power of the Virgin. A stillborn courtship leaves Ricardo to withdraw deeper into himself, as the line between life and death becomes more and more difficult to discern.
You’d be hard pressed to find a more depressing story than this one, and yet Saramago is still optimistic about the human condition. Ricardo Reis is an existential rebel in the mold of Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.” He’s not interested in politics or pleasure or fulfilling his human potential at all. It’s not that society has no place for him; he just refuses to participate in it. Thus, his alienation becomes an assertion of his agency. “The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis” offers a psychological exploration the Heideggerian concept of “thrownness,” an expression of human existence’s arbitrariness. Triumph over fate is impossible, as is making meaning in the face of the incompressible; instead, Ricardo opts to be anesthetized. Given current political realities, I think we could all use a little metaphysical navel-gazing, if not for comfort, then at least for something new to be nervous about.
Contact Iain Espey at iespey ‘at’ stanford.edu.