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Posted January 1, 2002
From this novel's very first sentence, 'Here the sea ends and the earth begins,' readers know that this is a surrealistic and imaginative story written in a classical and formal style. The setting is 1936 Lisbon. Fascism is on the rise in Spain and that country is moving toward civil war. In Portugal, Salazar is in power and establishing a police state. Ricardo Reis, after sixteen years in Brazil, has chosen to return to Lisbon. As he sets down the required information in the register of the waterfront hotel in which he has chosen to stay, we learn that he is a forty-eight year old bachelor physician from Oporto who has just arrived in Portugal on a Royal Mail Steamer. It is Reis, himself, who says that these few lines contain the beginning of a confession or an intimate autobiography, the problem being, of course, how to interpret them. Although Reis is a physician by profession, he is really more of a poet, and it is mysticism and philosophical musings, rather prescriptions, that occupy his mind. Three fascinating and languid characters, two women and the ghost of a dead poet, intersect with the new life of Ricardo Reis and propel this novel forward. The dead poet, the ghost of Fernando Pessoa, walks effectively through walls and doors and comes heavily laden with symbolism and mystery. Pessoa, who died in 1935 at the age of forty-seven, is considered to be Portugal's greatest modern poet. Pessoa created Ricardo Reis as one aspect of himself; the conversations between the ghost of Pessoa and Ricardo Reis, will, of course, be more meaningful to those who are familiar with the history and literature of Portugal. Even those who have never heard of Pessoa, however, can still enjoy this fascinating book. I would caution against anyone trying to figure out if Saramago's Reis is really Pessoa or simply a figment of this brilliant author's imagination. The literary puzzles in this book are extraordinarily complex; if you want to decipher them, that's fine, but just be aware that it's not necessary to do so to enjoy the story. Another fascinating character in this book is the city of Lisbon, itself. As Ricardo Reis strolls through its wide main boulevards and its meandering side streets, the reader comes to feel he can really see the ships in the harbor or smell the onions on the breath of the state political policeman who begins to follow Ricardo Reis. Saramago's trademark prose is showcased to its finest in this book. It takes a few pages to get used to his style, but once you do, the words simply pull you in; they are both riveting and mesmerizing. The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is definitely Jose Saramago's masterpiece and one of the greatest books of the twentieth century. Blindness, however, will no doubt remain more popular, especially with American readers, for Blindness (also a masterpiece) is a more generic book, one that could easily take place anywhere and anytime. The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, on the other hand, is heavily steeped in the history and literature of Portugal. It is, however, a far superior book; one that is melancholy, dismal, lyrical, symbolic and meditative. It is a gorgeous work of art that deserves to be much more widely known and appreciated.
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Posted September 6, 2004
This is my favorite of Saramago's! One does not need to be familiar with history to enjoy and be enveloped by this tale. The ripple - effect continues throughout the book and at times there may seem too much to absorb. Voracious readers and thinkers will be back however. I found this to be very thought provoking and enjoyed the author's/protagonist's mindful meanderings!
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Posted July 30, 2014
Posted July 20, 2010
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