A proofreader realizes his power to edit the truth on a whim, in a “brilliantly original” novel by a Nobel Prize winner (Los Angeles Times Book Review).
Raimundo Silva is a middle-aged, celibate clerk, proofing manuscripts for a respectable publishing house. Fluent in Portuguese, he has been assigned to work on a standard history of the country, and the twelfth-century king who laid siege to Lisbon. In a moment of subversive daring, Raimundo decides to change just one single word of text—a capricious revision that completely undoes the past. When discovered, his insolent disregard for facts appalls his employers—save for his new editor, Maria Sara. She suggests that Rainmundo take his transgressions even further.
Through Rainmundo and Maria’s eyes, what transpires is an alternate view of history and a colorful reinvention of a debatable truth. It’s a serpentine journey through time where past and present converge, fact becomes myth, and fiction and reality blur—especially for Rainmundo and Maria themselves, who begin to find themselves erotically drawn to each other.
“Walter Mitty has nothing on Raimundo Silva . . . this hypnotic tale is a great comic romp through history, language and the imagination.” —Publishers Weekly
Translated by Giovanni Pontiero
|Publisher:||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt|
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The proof-reader said, Yes, this symbol is called deleatur, we use it when we need to suppress and erase, the word speaks for itself, and serves both for separate letters and complete words, it reminds me of a snake that changes its mind just as it is about to bite its tail, Well observed, Sir, truly, for however much we may cling to life, even a snake would hesitate before eternity, Draw it for me here, but slowly, It's very easy, you only have to get the knack, anyone looking absentmindedly will imagine my hand is about to trace the dreaded circle, but no, observe that I did not finish the movement here where it began, I skirted it on the inside, and now I'm going to continue below until I cut across the lower part of the curve, after all, it resembles a capital Q and nothing else, Such a pity, a drawing that was so promising, Let us content ourselves with the illusion of similarity, but in truth I tell you, Sir, if I may express myself in prophetic tones, the interesting thing about life has always been in the differences, What does this have to do with proof-reading, You authors live in the clouds, you do not waste your precious wisdom on trifles and non-essentials, letters that are broken, transposed and inverted, as we used to classify these flaws when texts were composed manually, for then difference and defect were one and the same thing, I must confess that my deleaturs are less rigorous, a squiggle is good enough for everything, I have every confidence in the judgment of the printers, that famous and close-related clan of apothecaries, so skilled in the solving of riddles that they are even capable of deciphering what has never been written, And then the proofreaders set about solving the problems, You are our guardian angels, in you we put our trust, you for example, remind me of my caring mother, who would comb the parting in my hair, over and over again, until it looked as if it had been made with a ruler, Thanks for the comparison, but if your dear mother is dead, it would be worth your while seeking perfection on your own account, the day always comes when it is necessary to correct things in greater depth, As for corrections, these I make, but the more serious problems I quickly resolve by writing one word over another, I've noticed, Don't say it in that tone of voice, I am doing my best without taking too many liberties, and who does his best, Yes, Sir, no more can be expected of you, especially in your case, where there is no desire to modify, no pleasure in making changes, no inclination to amend, We authors are for ever making changes, we are perpetually dissatisfied, Nor is there any other solution, because perfection only exists in the kingdom of heaven, but the amendments of authors are something else, more problematic, and quite different from the amendments we make, Are you trying to tell me that the proof-reading fraternity actually enjoys what it does, I wouldn't go so far, it depends on one's vocation and a born proof-reader is an unknown phenomenon, meanwhile, it seems certain that in our heart of hearts, we proofreaders are voluptuaries, I've never heard that before, Each day brings its sorrows and satisfactions, and also some profitable lessons, You speak from experience, Are you referring to the lessons, I'm referring to voluptuousness, Of course, I speak from my own experience, there has to be some experience in order to judge, but I've also benefited from observing the behaviour of others, which is no less edifying as a moral science, By this criterion certain authors from the past would fit this description, wonderful proof-readers, I can think of the proofs revised by Balzac, a dazzling exponent of corrections and addenda, The same is true of our own Eça de Queiroz, lest we fail to mention the example of a compatriot, It occurs to me that both Eça and Balzac would have felt the happiest of men in this modern age, confronted by a computer, interpolating, transposing, retracing lines, changing chapters around, And we, the readers, would never know by which paths they travelled and got lost before achieving a definitive form, if such a thing exists, Now, now, what counts is the result, there is nothing to be gained from knowing the calculations and waverings of Camoens and Dante, You, Sir, are a practical man, modern, already living in the twenty-second century, Tell me, do the other symbols also have Latin names as in the case of deleatur, If they do, or did, I'm not qualified to say, perhaps they were so difficult to pronounce that they were lost, In the dark ages, Forgive me for contradicting you, but I would not use that phrase, I suppose because it's a platitude, Not for that reason, platitudes, clichés, repetitions, affectations, maxims from some almanac, refrains and proverbs, all of these can sound new, it's merely a question of knowing how to handle properly the words that precede and follow them, Then why would you not say, in the dark ages, Because the age ceased to be dark when people began to write, or to amend, a task, I repeat, which calls for other refinements and a different form of transfiguration, I like the phrase, Me, too, mainly because it's the first time I've used it, the second time it will have less charm, It will have turned into a platitude, Or topic, which is the learned word, Do I detect a hint of sceptical bitterness in your words, I see it more as bitter scepticism, It comes to the same thing, But it does not have the same meaning, authors have always tended to have a good ear for these differences, Perhaps I'm getting hard of hearing, Forgive me, that is not what I was suggesting, I'm not touchy, carry on, tell me first why you feel so bitter, or sceptical, as you would have it, Consider, Sir, the daily life of proof-readers, think of the horror of having to read once, twice, three or four or five times books that, Probably would not even warrant a first reading, Take note that it was not I who spoke such grave words, I am all too aware of my place in literary circles, voluptuous certainly, I confess, but respectful, I fail to see what is so terrible, besides it struck me as being the obvious ending to your phrase, that eloquent suspension, even though the suspension marks are not apparent, If you want to know, consult the authors, provoke them with what I have halfsaid and with what you have half said, and you will see how they respond with the famous anecdote of Apelles and the shoemaker, when the craftsman pointed out an error in the sandal worn by one of the figures and then, having verified that the artist had corrected the mistake, ventured to give his opinion about the anatomy of the knee, At that point Apelles, enraged at his insolence, told him, Cobbler, stick to your last, a historic phrase, Nobody likes people peering over the wall of his backyard, In this case Apelles was right, Perhaps, but only as long as some learned anatomist did not come along to examine the painting, You are definitely a sceptic, All authors are Apelles, but the shoemaker's temptation is the most common of all amongst humans, after all, only the proofreader has learnt that the task of amending is the only one that will never end in this world, Many of the shoemaker's temptations make sense in the revision of my book, Age brings us one good thing which is bad, it calms us down, and quells our temptations, and even when they are overpowering, they become less urgent, In other words, he spots the mistake in the sandal, but remains silent, No, what I allow to pass is the mistake of the knee, Do you like the book, I like it, You don't sound very enthusiastic, Nor did I note any enthusiasm in your question, A question of tactics, the author, however much it may cost, must show some modesty, The proof-reader must always be modest, and, should he ever get it into his head to be immodest, this would oblige him, as a human figure, to be the height of perfection, He did not revise the phrase, the verb to be three times in the same sentence, unforgivable, wouldn't you agree, Forget the sandal, in speech everything is excused, Agreed, but I cannot forgive your low opinion, I must remind you that proof-readers are serious people, much experienced in literature and life, My book, don't forget, deals with history, That is indeed how it would be defined according to the traditional classification of genres, however, since I have no intention of pointing out other contradictions, in my modest opinion, Sir, everything that is not literature is life, History as well, Especially history, without wishing to give offence, And painting and music, Music has resisted since birth, it comes and goes, tries to free itself from the word, I suppose out of envy, only to submit in the end, And painting, Well now, painting is nothing more than literature achieved with paintbrushes, I trust you haven't forgotten that mankind began to paint long before it knew how to write, Are you familiar with the proverb, If you don't have a dog, go hunting with a cat, in other words, the man who cannot write, paints or draws, as if he were a child, What you are trying to say, in other words, is that literature already existed before it was born, Yes, Sir, just like man who, in a manner of speaking, existed before he came into being, What a novel idea, Don't you believe it, Sir, King Solomon, who lived such a long time ago, affirmed even then, that there is nothing new under the sun, so if they acknowledged as much in that remote age, what are we to say today, thirty centuries later, if I correctly recall what I read in the encyclopaedia, It's curious that even as a historian, I would never have remembered, if suddenly asked, that so many years have passed, That's time for you, it races past without our noticing, a person is taken up with his daily life when he suddenly comes to his senses and exclaims, dear God, how time flies, only a moment ago King Solomon was still alive and now three thousand years have passed, It strikes me that you've missed your vocation, you should have become a philosopher, or historian, you have the flair and temperament needed for these disciplines, I lack the necessary training, Sir, and what can a simple man achieve without training, I was more than fortunate to come into the world with my genes in order, but in a raw state as it were, and then no education beyond primary school, You could have presented yourself as being self-taught, the product of your own worthy efforts, there's nothing to be ashamed of, society in the past took pride in its autodidacts, No longer, progress has come along and put an end to all of that, now the self-taught are frowned upon, only those who write entertaining verses and stories are entitled to be and go on being autodidacts, lucky for them, but as for me, I must confess that I never had any talent for literary creation, Become a philosopher, man, You have a keen sense of humour, Sir, with a distinct flair for irony, and I ask myself how you ever came to devote yourself to history, serious and profound science as it is, I'm only ironic in real life, It has always struck me that history is not real life, literature, yes, and nothing else, But history was real life at the time when it could not yet be called history, Sir, are you sure, Truly, you are a walking interrogation and disbelief endowed with arms, That only leaves my head, Everything in its own good time, the brain was the last thing to be invented, Sir, you are a sage, Don't exaggerate, my friend, Would you like to see the final proofs, There's little point, the author has already made his corrections, all that remains now is the routine task of one final revision, and that is your responsibility, I appreciate your trust, Well deserved, So you believe, Sir, that history is real life, Of course, I do, I meant to say that history was real life, No doubt at all, What would become of us if the deleatur did not exist, sighed the proof-reader.
Only when a vision a thousand times sharper than nature can provide might be capable of perceiving in the eastern sky the initial difference that separates night from day, did the muezzin awake. He always woke at this hour, according to the sun, no matter whether summer or winter, and he needed no instrument to measure time, nothing other than the infinitesimal change in the darkness of the room, the first hint of light barely glimpsed on his forehead, like a gentle breath passing over his eyebrows, or that first and almost imponderable caress which, as far as is known or believed, is the exclusive and secret art never revealed to this day of those beautiful houris who attend the believers in Mohammed's paradise. Secret, and also prodigious, if not an impenetrable mystery, is their ability to regain their virginity the moment they lose it, this by all accounts supreme bliss in eternal life, thus proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that death does not bring an end to our labours or those of others, any more than to our undeserved sufferings. The muezzin did not open his eyes. He could go on resting there a little longer, while the sun, very slowly, began approaching from the earth's horizon, but still so far away that no cockerel in the city had raised its head to probe dawn's movements. It is true that a dog did bark, to no avail, for everyone else was asleep, perhaps dreaming that they were barking in their dreams. It is a dream, they thought, and went on sleeping, surrounded by a world filled with odours that were certainly stimulating, but none so potent as to rouse them with a start, the unmistakable smell of danger or fear, to give only these basic examples. The muezzin got up and fumbled in the dark until he found his clothes, and dressed before leaving the room. The mosque was silent, nothing but hesitant footsteps that echoed under the arches, a shuffling of cautious feet, as if he were afraid of being swallowed up by the ground. At no other time of day or night had he ever experienced this torment of the invisible, only at this early hour when he was about to climb the stairs of the minaret in order to summon the faithful to morning prayers. A superstitious scruple made him feel quite guilty that the inhabitants should still be sleeping when the sun was already over the river, and awakening with a start, dazzled by the light of day, would ask aloud, where was the muezzin who failed to summon them at the appropriate hour, someone more charitable might say, Perhaps the poor man is ill, and it was not true, he had disappeared, yes, carried off into the bowels of the earth by some evil genie from the darkest depths. The winding staircase was difficult to climb, especially since this muezzin was already quite old, fortunately he did not need to have his eyes blindfolded like the mules who drive the water wheels blindfolded to prevent them from becoming dizzy. When he got to the top he could feel the cool morning breeze on his face and the vibrations of the dawning light, as yet without any colour, for there is no colour to that pure clarity which precedes the day and comes to graze one's skin with the merest suggestion of a shiver, as if touched by invisible fingers, a simple impression which makes you wonder whether the discredited divine creation might not, after all, in order to chasten the sceptics and atheists, be an ironic fact of history. The muezzin slowly ran his hand along the circular parapet until he found engraved in the stone the sign pointing in the direction of Mecca, the holy city. He was ready. A few more seconds to give time for the sun to cast its first rays on the earth's balconies and for him to clear his throat, because a muezzin's declamatory powers must be loud and clear from the very first cry, and that is when he must show his mettle, not when his throat has softened with the effort of speech and the consolation of food. At the muezzin's feet lies a city, further down, a river, everything is still asleep, but restless. Dawn begins to spread over the houses, the surface of the water mirrors the sky, and then the muezzin takes a deep breath and calls out in piercing tones, Allahu akbar, proclaiming the greatness of Almighty God to the heavens, and he repeats these words, just as he will utter and repeat the following phrases, in an ecstatic outburst, calling upon the world to witness that there is no other God than Allah, and that Mohammed is the messenger of Allah, and having affirmed these essential truths he summons the faithful to prayer, Come to recite the azalá, but man being indolent by nature, although a believer in Him who never sleeps, the muezzin charitably reproaches those whose eyes are still closed, Prayer is better than sleep, As-salatu jayrun mitt an-nawn, for those who understand this language, and he ended by declaring that Allah is the only God, La ilaha illa llah, but once only this time, for that is enough when pronouncing definitive truths. The city murmurs its prayers, the sun has come out, lighting up the roof-terraces, and soon the inhabitants will start to appear in their patios. The minaret is bathed in full light. The muezzin is blind.
Excerpted from "The History of the Siege of Lisbon"
Copyright © 1989 José Saramago and Editorial Caminho, SA Lisbon.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
THE HISTORY OF THE SIEGE OF LISBON,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book was hard to follow during the historical parts that Silva is to have rewritten. It was dull.