Sunday, May 17, 2015

Skylight - a mosaic of unhappiness

book review

Nobel Prize winner José Saramago's first novel, published posthumously, looks at the domestic life of the middle-class Portuguese

Book: Skylight
Author: José Saramago

It isn't particularly unusual for writers to choose not to publish one or more of their manuscripts during their lifetime. A number of celebrated authors have specified that some of their writings would only be shared with the world after they were no longer with us; while there have been others who preferred that their works not be made public even after they're gone.

Mark Twain, for instance, decreed that his lengthy autobiography only be published 100 years after his death so that he could speak with his 'whole frank mind'. J.D. Salinger reportedly left explicit instructions detailing how and when several of his unpublished works would be released, years after the reclusive author's demise. And we wouldn't even have access to a chunk of Franz Kafka's catalogue if his friend Max Brod hadn't ignored Kafka's wish to have the manuscripts destroyed after his death. 

José Saramago's decision not to print Clarabóia (Skylight), therefore, doesn't seem all that peculiar, but the reason that prompted this decision is what makes the novel all the more fascinating.

Written in the 1950s, when the then-unknown Saramago was making a living as an office worker, Clarabóia was submitted to a publishing house in 1953. It took the publisher 36 years to reply. The manuscript was relegated to the archives for nearly four decades before it was rediscovered in 1989 and Saramago was offered the chance to publish the novel. He, however, declined. Being snubbed by the publisher had discouraged the Portuguese author so much that it would take him nearly two decades to once again pursue his passion for writing. He would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998, but he clearly never got over this slight of ignorance. He did not re-read Clarabóia, and did not allow it to be published in his lifetime.

A year after his death in 2010, the novel, which he referred to as 'the book lost and found in time' was finally released in his native Portuguese, and an English translation, titled Skylight, subsequently followed in 2014, over 60 years after the original tome was written.

Set in late-1940s Lisbon, the novel tells the story of the financially-strained occupants of an apartment building, whose paths occasionally intersect as they go about their day-to-day lives. The families that inhabit each of the apartments have their own unique issues and frustrations, but nearly all of them have something in common: unhappiness.

Silvestre and Mariana, an elderly cobbler and his plump wife, are struggling to make ends meet, and take in loner Abel as a lodger to help pay the rent. Justina, who is unhappily married to the philandering linotype operator Caetano, is still grieving the death of her only child, daughter Matilde. Lídia, the mistress of businessman Paulino, is judged for her lifestyle and choices. Rosália and Anselmo dote over their daughter Maria Cláudia, whose beauty attracts a much older man. Reading enthusiast Isaura and her sister Adriana live with their widowed mother Cândida and her likewise bereaved sister Amélia, and bond over their love for music. Salesman Emílio and his Spanish wife Carmen, the parents of young Henrique, flounder miserably in their failing marriage.

Saramago creates a mosaic of working-class strife, and the mundanity of everyday life, as his characters face domestic issues, deal with financial difficulties, and wrestle with their repressed desires, therein proffering an examination of the intricacies of union, sexuality, and society. When they grapple with their thoughts, the drama takes on a philosophical air, serving as a platform for poignant reflections and existential questions. But these thoughts and subjects aren't tackled with the same level of creativity that would eventually make the author an acclaimed voice in the world of literature. There is an inbuilt elegance to the intersecting arcs and their execution, but not all the stories that are woven through the narrative immediately draw you in or ultimately prove to be remarkable and memorable. Likewise, the thorough descriptions of faces, features, feelings, relationships, and thoughts suggest that the writer hadn't yet developed the level of trust in his reader's imagination that could allow him to convey the same information in more subtle strokes. Also, at times, translator Margaret Jull Costa's choice of words seems a tad repetitive and dry, although only those who are fluent in Portuguese can comment on whether much, if anything, has been lost in translation here.

It is hard to deny the fact that Skylight probably would not have generated the same level of interest had it not been for the fascinating history associated with it, and as part of the study of an author's evolution, the novel is definitely an intriguing read. With Skylight, Saramago is still honing his style, which, we all know, will eventually go on to power much more creative endeavours. But even in this, one of his earliest pieces of work, the Nobel laureate has created an affecting portrait of unhappiness by way of the preoccupations of the ordinary, and done so with considerable skill. Everyone who admires Saramago's contributions to fiction will surely acknowledge the significance of Skylight and appreciate the chance to go on this anachronistic literary journey.

- By Sameen Amer

 Books & Authors, Dawn - 17th May, 2015 *

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