Mystery Behind José Saramago’s “Lost Book?”

Nobel Prize Winner’s Novel “Skylight” Finally Published

Nélida Nassar  05.24.2012

The 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature and its first Portuguese writer José Saramago was born in 1922 in a village in the center of the country. Following dissension and conflict with the Portuguese authorities, he left his homeland in 1992, moving to the Canary Islands, Spain. Saramago is the author of over thirty books that are often controversial (O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo,) The Gospel according to Jesus Christ, (Ensaio sobre a Cegueira) Blindeness, and (Caim,) Cain.

Two years after his death,  a worldwide audience can at last discover “the lost book” that the celebrated author wrote when young and unknown. Saramago vowed not to publish it during his lifetime. Why and what is the fate and mystery behind this book?

Saramago referred to it as “the lost book”  and “found in time” states his widow the journalist Pilar del Rio when presenting it this week in Madrid. Written in the fifties, when Saramago was thirty years old, the novel is entitled Claraboya or Skylite. It narrates and divulge his neighbors’ life in a building in Lisbon describing Justina and her brutal husband, the Spanish nostalgic woman Carmen and the shoemaker Silvestre. In 1953, Saramago asked a friend to send the manuscript to a Portuguese publisher. He never received a reply from the publisher until 1989, thirty five years after sending his text. Meanwhile his hopes were dashed. By then, he had become an established writer.  The publisher contacted him, suggesting to publish the book, alledgedly lost during a move, then found again.

The author declined this invitation thus recovering the manuscript. Mrs. Pilar del Rio resumes by saying: “He told us that after he dies, we could do what we thought best. We all knew that his desire was to have the novel published.” In the course of her presentation, his widow produced  notebooks filled with her husband’s annotations as well as the returned original manuscript. “Mr. Saramago had suffered greatly from this contempt” recalls Mrs. Del Rio. “It took him twenty years before he would write another novel, focusing his energy on his career as a journalist.” She argues that the editors did not dare publish such a “transgressive work.” The book questions  society’s pillar, the family and its nucleus, portraying them as a nest of vipers. Rapes, metaphors, lesbians’ lovemaking scenes, abuse and violence abound. The Portuguese society of the fifties would not have been able to accept nor tolerate such a novel.

In Claraboya, Skylite, Saramago emphasizes  empathy for the human condition and the isolation of contemporary urban life. His style reflects the recurring themes of identity and meaning. If his writing is also often described as allegories presenting subversive perspectives on historic event, in Claraboya or Skylite it is the family’s sedition that takes precedent. “The editors might have decided to keep the book waiting for more propitious days, but back then, nobody imagined that – the dictator Antonio Salazar – would remain in power for so long.  However, this does not justify their deceitful attitude. If an author brings you the fruits of his labor, you have the duty and obligation to reply to him,” said  Mrs. Pilar del Rio.

The novel published today is the same version as the one Mr. Saramago submitted in 1953 then retrieved in 1989. It is printed “as is” without any modifications or changes. The author refused to reread it during his lifetime. He believed that his book is an important testimonial of the fifties’ era and its complexities. Thus, it still resonates nowadays as “Today like then people are all the time trying to count their pennies and talk about the international political and economical situation.”

The novel is already in print and distributed in Portugal, Brazil, South America as well as in Spain by Alfaguara publishing group. The Italian translation was presented at the recent Turin Book Fair, May 10 – 14, while others are imminent. Random House is considering an English edition. Let us hope that it will be soon, substantiating Harold Bloom’s depiction of José Saramota as an author who is a “permanent part of the Western Canon.”

Originally Published in Berkshire Fine Arts

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