Mini-review: The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis

yearofthedeathFinally, a book review! It’s really depressing to me how little I read (for pleasure) in comparison to how much time I spend watching TV/movies. Part of that, though, may be my book selection! I spent the first month or so of 2009 reading The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis by Jose Saramago. Having read Blindness in the past and loved it, I was excited to read something else by him. Alas, my faith was naively placed.

Saramago writes in a fairly distinctive style. It’s not quite stream-of-consciousness but has similarly long, meandering sentences and multi-page-long paragraphs. There is no punctuation aside from the occasional period. For instance, opening the book at random:

The traveler heard the harsh screeching of a tram going up the street. The taxi driver was right. It seemed ages since the traveler had left the taxi waiting, and he smiled inwardly at his fear of being robbed. Do you like the room the manager asked with the voice and authority of his profession but ever courteous, as befits someone negotiating a rental. it’s fine, I’ll take it, How long are you staying, I can’t tell you, much depends on the time it takes to settle my affairs. It is the usual dialogue, the exchange one expects in such situations, but on this occasion there is an element of falsehood, because the traveler has no affairs to settle in Lisbon, no affairs worthy of the name, he has told a lie he who once declared that he despised inaccuracy.

Whew! That was quite the little passage. And normally, I love writing like this – I’ll read Faulkner at the drop of a hat. But it didn’t quite come off as well in this book. The writing seemed quite perfunctory and boring. The book is as much a description of Portugal as it is a story per se, but his descriptions of the country sound like he is attempting to copy Calvino without much success. He also has little ‘philosophical’ digressions. Sometimes they are playful:

All of us once possessed a father and a mother, but we are the children of necessity, whatever that means. It is Ricardo Reis’s thought, let him do the explaining.

But more often they are serious and, well, kind of dumb. They reach at profundity without coming anywhere near it.

Oh yes, I should probably mention the story. Or, ‘story’. Ricardo Reis is a poet returning to his native Portugal from Brazil. Europe is in decay, falling inevitably into World War II. Reis hears that his good friend, Fernando Pesoa, has just recently died. Reis then lives out the next months in Lisbon, staying at a hotel and having an illicit affair with a maid and also pseudo-love affair with a fellow guest. Nothing much happens as Reis floats through Portugal, his life becoming more insubstantial as the book goes on.

And this is a book with a Point. It is more of an intellectual exercise than an interesting story. This primarily is seen through Reis’ interactions with Pesoa. Apparently, in the real world Reis was a heteronym of Pesoa. But this idea – is Reis real? is he the shadow of the ghost of Pesoa? – isn’t terribly interesting especially when the story is bo-ring. I read it to the end in the hope that something really interesting was going to happen, that it would all be worth it because the ending made me think. But it didn’t. Not really a book I’d recommend.

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2 thoughts on “Mini-review: The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis

  1. Okay, so I didn’t like Blindness, so I probably wouldn’t like this anyway. But you have definitely talked me out of reading it.

    I’m still waiting for a review of 2666.

  2. i agree…i read the first 20 pages or so. it wasn’t that great…though i enjoyed the grey descriptions of lisbon (i love rainy grey landscapes, i blame it on my early love of english moors through british victorian fiction.) w/regards to faulkner: he has this amazing method of unwrapping a story like eating through artichoke leaves. also, he’s stylistic but with a purpose that is tangible yet evasive. i love it. this book, however, was not anything close to that kind of craft.

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