José Saramago died two years ago, 15 years after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, so the publication of his 1980 novel Raised From The Ground in English is long overdue. (The translation is by Margaret Jull Costa.) It’s a masterly piece of work, beautifully shaped and composed and emotionally affecting. But Saramago was still a few books and almost 10 years away from international acclaim, and it’s easy to understand how this novel, without a famous reputation attached, could have failed to set off pandemonium in American publishing circles 30 years ago. It’s a family saga, but it doesn’t fit into any of the commercial molds that term usually conjures up. Taking place in the first half of the 20th century in Alentejo, a rural southern province of Portugal, it’s set among uneducated “landless peasants” trying to maintain a family and scrape out lives for themselves while remaining at the mercy of the local gentry and their politicians and police. Ground is touched with anger and compassion, but both emotions are so eloquently controlled that it could be mistaken as emotionless. The feeling that comes through is that these people, and their way of life, are gone: They deserve to be remembered, but it’s a little late to make a scene.
The central figure, to the degree that there is one, is Joao Mau-Tempo, son of a self-proclaimed shoemaker; it’s a measure of the family’s low social status that others snicker that he’s “really nothing but a cobbler,” so that even calling himself a shoemaker amounts to putting on airs. (Joao’s mother’s family refused to permit the marriage, until she “fell pregnant, a conclusive and usually highly effective argument when persuasion and pleading have failed.”) Neither Joao—described by the narrator as “not the stuff of heroes”—nor any of the other characters rise up, even when Joao is jailed for a few months on suspicion that he might harbor communist sympathies. The sweep of history is really the story, and the people Saramago writes about aren’t the people who make that history; they’re just along for the ride, trying to keep their families fed while world wars rage and governments change offstage, sending out ripples that sometimes affect the lives of people barely aware of the larger world. The book sometimes suggests a Social Realist mural of “the people,” with the faceless extras crowded at the margins moved front and center. The brawny, burning-eyed firebrands Diego Rivera might have painted at the center are somewhere else, doing something more exciting.
Saramago doesn’t demand that readers weep for his characters. He just demands respect for their quiet lives and limited possibilities. An American novel about the downtrodden, like The Grapes Of Wrath, might use pseudo-Biblical language to sanctify poor workers. Saramago, the postmodern ironist, uses language that’s clean and dry. His point of view is somewhat lordly, and he uses it to mock those in power, especially the church and its local representative, who spells out the official attitude toward economic justice and other societal heresies by reminding “his pastured sheep” that “Your kingdom is not of this world.” (The narrator sniffs, “Nature displays remarkable callousness when creating her various creatures.”) This novel may be Saramago’s most autobiographical, but in a roundabout way. Drawing on what he knew of the lives of his grandparents and their parents, he wrote about the existence he might have known if he hadn’t had the good fortune to have been born no earlier than he was, and to have been almost supernaturally intelligent and gifted.