Sunday, January 13, 2013

Raised from the Ground - Jose Saramago

Call it as a reader's superstition, but you always wanted to begin the year with reading a great book. Last year, it was Laszlo Krasznahorkai with "Melancholy of Resistance" and I had one of the best year, thus far, in reading. To choose the first book of the year was a big task. There are more than 25 books lying in the shelf unread and it wasn't easy to pick one given the above prerequisite. When in doubt, its better to go with the known names, especially one who has not yet disappointed you.
Raised from the Ground was originally published in 1980, and surprisingly, this was not available in English until 2012, two years after his death. This one, apparently was one of the early works of Saramago and gives us the glimpses of the style and narrative voice that we are familiar in his later works, that made him famous. This too employ, long sentences but have a bit more controlled and paragraphed. The narrative voice is continue to be in control, often shifting, and merging with the characters and taking independent observer form most of the times, being omnipresent through out the history.

This is Saramago's vesion of the 20th century Portugal through the 4 generations of the fictional family Mau-Tempo. From the first decades of the 20th century until the fall of Salazar's regime is in discussion here through life of the Southern Portugal peasants and workers. The word "Mau Tempo" means "bad weather", trying to give the indication of the times the family has lived through. The World Wars, the famine, the raise of Salazar's regime, the elections, the resistance movement that attracted many a workers, the arrests and torture, the fall of the regime and the new Portugal have been the subject of the book very cleverly and written with great style and compassionate voice.

The novel begins with a beautiful description of the the drunkard shoe maker Domingoes Mau Tempo and his family ( wife Sara and infant son Joao) arriving at a small town of Southern Portugal, drenched in storm rains and struggling through the dirty muddy road, in search of a living. Domingoes, always a nomad, never able to stay and earn a living in one place, known as a drunkard and wife-beater, did not last long, committing suicide by hanging on a branch of tree. Young Joao, who inherited the blue eye of his ancestor, a German who molested and raped an adolescent girl in the 15th century giving the generations the blue eye, a reminder of the cruel injustice done to them, had to fetch himself for a living at the young age of 10. Finding labour at the land owners, mending sheeps and pigs. The social and political system of Portugal is undergoing a change. The land owners, continue to hold control over the workers and the police. The regime of Salazar is in power. The poor workers, continue to live under famine, illness and at the mercy of the powerful land owners. There are resistive movements inspired by the Soviet revolution. The reflection of the same arrive at their land as well.

The collective forces of the Regime, the land owners, the army and the Church is always oppressive of any raise. There were arrests and torture. Joao, despite his limited involvement gets arrested and tortured. Neither the torture nor the promises manages to shake his resolve. The workers continue to press their demand, making slow progresses amidst the continued interrogation and arrests. The new generation of workers including Antonio, the eldest son of Joao, his son-in-law and the rest now take the leadership. The success is sure to come. Before the imminent, the land owners escape to safer havens, rather than increasing the wages and the other welfare of the workers. We see the occupation of the lands by the workers in the final chapters, distributing among themselves.

While I am not qualified to comment on the historical part of the book, to me this is a significant achievement in bringing out the 20th century Portugal through the life of a common man. When the novel begins, Portugal is not a republic. While the impact is not known, the people seem to rejoice in being a republic, not knowing what does it mean to them. The Republic then falls in the hands of a dictator, who ruled the country for most part of the century. The regime changes to a democracy after a 'revolution' in 1974. When the last of the family member Maria is still in her middle ages. At the outset, these changes are very superficial and deep down to the peasant's life, these have little significance. Their life in poverty and hunger continued through out the decade. Even after the revolution, the land owners leave the country en-masse fearing retaliation from the people, taking away substantial sum of money and all the resources. the spread of revolution itself is slow, and even the participants, did not know they are part of the large movement. When he gets arrested for the second time, Joao was as clueless as he was four years ago. He did not have much information to reveal, and any amount of torture did not get him to speak as he did not know. However progress they make, slowly. They demand minimum wage, and succeed. The working hours, now are eight hours. But all these were possible only after prolonged activities and suffering of a few.

The peasants did not understand why they are not given work. “What kind of world, is this, divides into those who make a profession of idleness and those who want work but can’t get it”. Their life continue to be at the mercy of the land owners to the level of slavery.
The people were made to be hungry and dirty. People who wash regularly are the people who don't work....That is the great thing about this day and age, the sufferers glory in their sufferings, the slaves in their servitude. The beast on earth must remain a beast, who never rubs the sleep from his eyes from moring to night, indeed the dirt on his hands, face, armpits, groin, feet, arsehole must be for him the glorious aura surrounding work on the latifundio, man must be lower than the beast of the field, for they, at least, lick themselves clean,man,however, must degrade himself so that he respects neither himself nor his fellows.
To Saramago's credit, the novel goes beyond the political propaganda. The peasant life, the knowledge of 'latifundo' and its behaviour, the social and political upheaval of the Portugal is handled with a masterly sensitive hand. The reference to the blue eye, symbolizing the injustice done to them for generations and other the use of metaphor ( the ants , the constant representative of the church Father Agemedes etc) appear through out the book. The innocent peasant minds, the subtle changes in the style and language towards the later part, each fabulously and cleverly crafted. Some very moving passages, some explosive revelations, some insightful sentences makes this an astonishing read. The first chapter, the workers life under latifundio, the chapter on the torture and death of the prisoner ( with the ants play a great part of the narrative), the interrogation of Joao, the town meeting and the resulting police action.. there are many memorable scenes of recollection. The often slippery narrator, moving from third person to first person is the only area I was a bit uncomfortable in the whole book.

Very powerful, often with his characteristic humour and a sensitive portrayal of the peasants and workers life in the rural Portugal during the regime by one of my favorite writers of twentieth century. This novel stands along with his other top books ( Gospal according to Jesus Christ , blindness etc). Brilliant..
Raised from the Ground ( 1980 )

Jose Saramago ( translated from Portuguese by Margeret Jull Costa in 2012)

Harvill Secker

387 Pages
NY Times, Guardian, Miguel


Miguel said...

I'm glad you liked this novel and that you chose it as your first of 2013. It's one of my favourite novels and I think Saramago's best.

The novel is a great tribute to harsh lives of his ancestors, who were poor farmers like the characters in the novel. Saramago himself took care of pigs, like João in the novel. I think it's the one that was most clearly written from the heart, and it's why it's so beautiful and sad at times.

Jayan Parameswaran said...

Thanks Miguel for the insight. I did drop a mail with certain clarification. Did you receive that?


Miguel said...


Sorry for taking so long to reply to the e-mail.

crobl005 said...
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