Raised From The Ground

José Saramago's first novel was published in 1947, then nothing more for almost 20 years, when The Possible Poems appeared in public. 10 more years passed before publication of a second novel, Manuel of Painting and Calligraphy, by which time Saramago was almost 55 years old. The rest, as the saying goes, is history: around a dozen extraordinary novels written in the next 20 years (so in the period when Saramago was 55 to 76 years old) before he was awarded the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature. Saramago wrote 8 more novels in the final 12 years of his life, and died in 2010 at the age of 87.

I had never heard of José Saramago until he won the Nobel Prize. I suspect that's the case for a lot of readers trapped in the English language, many of whom are also likely to have then focused on works like Blindness. Raised From The Ground is one that's easy to miss, in part because though Saramago wrote it in 1980, it wasn't published in English until 2012 (so not in his lifetime). The cognoscenti know that this was the work in which Saramago found his unique authorial voice: everything that followed is pre-figured in this wonderful novel, which chronicles the archaic feudal life of peasants and landowners in the agricultural region called Alentejo (which means "south of the Targus"). While the time period is mostly the first 75 years of the 20th century, the narrative weaves in older events that illuminate the roots and implicit destiny of the Mau-Tempo family (their name translates as "bad weather"). 

When Raised From The Ground was published in English, Ursula Le Guin wrote a perceptive review for the Guardian, which you can read here. For me, Raised From The Ground is one of the essential novels of the 20th century. The writing is breathtaking, as is the sense conveyed of what it was (still is?) like for working people to live generation after generation under the constraints of self-justifying systematic oppression, and how forces of state and religion made (and still make) that possible. The triumph of the novel is that regardless of the sociopolitical focus of the content, the characterizations and storytelling techniques are never polemic. Whatever the reader discovers is made available through the emotions, thoughts, and actions of people who are in every sense alive, with all the strengths and weaknesses we recognize in ourselves regardless of where we were born, have lived, and will die.

This is a must read: there are not enough stars to bother trying to give it a score.   

Bruce Sheridan