Portuguese novelist José Saramago, 75, is surely Europe's leading candidate for the title of least-known living Great Writer. His dense, fabulist explorations of the relationship -- or lack of one -- between what we call history and what we call real life are steeped in the loquacious, old-fashioned modernism of Proust, Borges and Nabokov. They don't exactly make for beach reading. Nonetheless, The History of the Siege of Lisbon (published in Portugal in 1989 and only now reaching the U.S. in an elegant translation by Giovanni Pontiero) is a flat-out wonderful book, jam-packed with engrossing detail, rapturous prose, dry insight into our hopeless quest to recover and understand the past, and a generous, warmly imaginative understanding of human desire and loneliness.
The novel uncoils itself, snakelike, on at least three different levels: There is the tale of an unlikely love affair between a proofreader and his superior in contemporary Lisbon; an unorthodox retelling of events surrounding the actual siege of Lisbon in 1147, which itself resolves into an unlikely love affair between a common soldier and a knight's concubine; and the airborne, ubiquitous narrative voice, everywhere and nowhere in the grandest authorial tradition, frequently pausing to discuss how proofreaders could save the world if they were not bound by a monastic code of conduct, or to wonder whether sexual pleasure was experienced differently in the Middle Ages. Saramago's own love affair is with language, but not as an abstract, artificial conceit. He clearly marvels at the fact that language can be used to convey something of one human being's experience to another. Many of his tenderly precise descriptions of the Portuguese capital -- another love of his, it would seem -- are so beautiful I had to read them two or three times.
Saramago's humble but appealing hero is Raimundo Silva, a solitary, middle-aged proofreader, a "thin, serious man with badly-dyed hair, as sad as a dog without a master," in his own words. Silva literally creates his own destiny with a single, almost arbitrary, stroke. He inserts an intentional error into a historical text he is proofreading (naturally enough, it's called "The History of the Siege of Lisbon"), so that the book now claims that 12th century crusaders on their way to the Holy Land did not stop to help Dom Afonso Henriques, the Catholic king of Portugal, take the city of Lisbon from the Moors who had held it for several centuries. The error is detected in due course, and Silva is rebuked by his employer. But his tiny act of rebellion -- against the fiction of historical certainty, perhaps, or against his own inhibited, circumscribed life -- initiates a chain of marvelous consequences.
Silva stops dyeing his hair, begins writing his alternative history of the siege of Lisbon (the same one we have been reading all along) and, with all the awkwardness and uncertainty of a teenager, falls in love with the woman assigned by his publisher to supervise him after his egregious "mistake." When the two eventually make love, as the echoes of an 8-century-old battle seem to clamor around them, the result is perhaps the finest literary sex scene I have ever read -- erotic, restrained, resolutely unflowery -- a fitting capstone to an unforgettable novel that brushes close to the rank of masterpiece. -- Salon