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The History of the Siege of Lisbon


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A proofreader tinkering with a historical text opens up a world of ambiguity and invention

About the Author

Born in Portugal in 1922, Jose Saramago was one of the most important writers of his generation. He was in his fifties when he came to prominence as a novelist with the publication of Baltasar & Blimunda. A huge body of work followed, which included plays, poetry, short stories, non-fiction and over a dozen novels, including Blindness which was made into an acclaimed film. He has been translated into more than forty languages, and in 1998 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died on 18 June 2010, shortly after the Portuguese publication of Cain.


Walter Mitty has nothing on Raimundo Silva, the middle-aged bachelor and proofreader in a contemporary Portuguese publishing house who's the protagonist of Saramago's dazzling postmodernist novel. The focal point is the siege of the Moorish city of Lissibona (Lisbon) in 1147 by Portuguese forces under Christian King Alfonso I, its conquest and the expulsion of the Moors-a battle in which as many as 150,000 perished. Raimundo changes a single word in a manuscript, thereby implying, contrary to the historical record, that the Crusaders refused to help the Portuguese besiege and capture the city. At the suggestion of his younger, iconoclastic boss, Maria Sara, with whom he falls in love, Raimundo writes his own alternative history of the siege, weaving a web of chivalrous deeds, love and intrigue around the bare historical record. As his romantic affair with Maria blossoms, the present and the imagined past feed into one another in a challenging narrative that shifts constantly between past and present tenses and shuttles across the centuries from American cowboys to medieval knights, from Freudian symbolism to Machiavelli, from the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor to the Portuguese army's construction of a tower to break Moorish resistance. On one level, Saramago is exploring the thirst for power, religious and political fanaticism, intolerance, hypocrisy and jingoism, as well as the human need for love, companionship, sex. On another level, he is developing his abiding theme that history is a form of fiction, a selective reordering of facts. Although the novel's stream-of-consciousness technique, baroque prose and paragraphs that run on for pages may daunt some readers, this hypnotic tale is a great comic romp through history, language and the imagination. (May)

Portuguese novelist Saramago (The Stone Raft, LJ 2/15/95) is fascinated by how history, often constructed from the slightest shreds, fails to acknowledge the reality of unavailable evidence. When proofreader Raimundo Silva dares to falsify a statement in a history text‘namely, that Galician warriors conquered Lisbon from the Moors in 1147 without the help of returning Crusaders‘instead of losing his job, he gains the respect of his supervisor and begins an affair with her. She encourages him to recast the event as a novel. Soon he is rooting for a Moor over the Archbishop of Braga and suspecting that there is more Moorish than Aryan Christian blood in the modern Portuguese nation. With its paragraph-long sentences and page-long paragraphs, this panoramic tale of daring and timidity challenges readers to consider the sprawling no man's land where fiction and history merge.‘Jack Shreve, Allegany Community Coll., Cumberland, Md.

Marvellous, seriously witty, erotic and edgily surreal -- Lucy Hughes-Hallett * Sunday Times *
Saramago is one of Europe's most original and remarkable writers...his writing is imbued with the spirit of comic enquiry, meditative pessimism and a quietly transforming energy that turns the indefinite into the unforgettable -- Richard Eder * Los Angeles Times *
This cryptic, ingenious novel...is never dull or humourless... No candidate for [the Nobel Prize] has a better claim to lasting recognition than this novelist who was born in 1922 but was in his mid-50s before he started to publish the fiction that has won him an international reputation -- Edmund White * New York Times *
A book filled with lyrical and intellectual rewards -- Bill Marx * Boston Globe *
This hypnotic tale is a great comic romp through history, language and the imagination * Publishers Weekly *

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