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Raised from the Ground, by Jose Saramago

review published on November 4, 2013. Reviewed by Stephen Joyce

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Politics is the syphilis of art. It’s a disease picked up in a feverish lust for utopia which then riddles one to the core with its blighted spirit.

This is because all political narratives are clichéd attempts to marshal support for a point of view. The other side is full of bad people (rich bankers, welfare moochers, teenage single mothers, etc.) and we are the righteous and unjustly oppressed (unappreciated titans of industry, the noble poor, teenage single mothers, etc.). Gone is any hint of complexity, of conflicting motives, of ironic paradoxes. Political narratives divide the world into black and white by excising the most colourful hues of the spectrum of human experience. Propaganda is the only branch of art never to produce a masterpiece, and with good reason.

This is why I found Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago’s breakthrough novel Raised from the Ground, only recently translated into English, to be such a disappointment. The novel tells the story of the Mau-Tempo family, poor peasants on the harsh Portuguese latifundio, desperately eking out a living from the soil while suffering from the oppression of evil landowners, evil army officers, evil politicians, and evil priests.

Oh yes, there is no shortage of bad men on the latifundio.

On the other side, we have the peasants: stoic, long-suffering, slightly dim. “The people were made to be hungry and dirty… it’s a point of honour and of manhood with them to wash neither face nor hands and to remain unshaven… that’s the great thing about this day and age, the sufferers glory in their suffering, the slaves in their servitude.” They never seem to understand that the bad men have stacked the system against them, so they blunder on under the unforgiving sun, digging in the dirt for another potato.

Oh yes, there is no shortage of misery for the poor on the old latifundio.

And who is the hero in this dramaturgical triad? Who will ride to the rescue of the Mau-Tempos and their fellow peasants? Why, yes, it’s you, the reader! Galloping off on a white horse to join the Portuguese Communist Party. To arms, comrades, etc.

Centuries ago, Shakespeare demonstrated that the great artist seeks out the admirable qualities in evil (Macbeth) or the shortcomings of those who desire to do good (Hamlet). None of that exists here. The bad men bludgeon the honest but stupid peasants again and again and again and again. Even if this is the truth as Saramago sees it, it is an uninteresting truth. What insight is there in saying a bad man does bad things because he is bad? This is the logic of a second-rate action movie, although I’m not sure even Nicholas Cage could save the film adaptation of Raised from the Ground.

The other signature aspect of the novel is Saramago’s famed style, the knowing, digressive narrative voice that agglutinates commentary and description and dialogue into one continuous flow:

The day came, and at the appointed time, the men gathered in the street, and while they waited, some went into the taberna and drank as much wine as their pockets could afford, each drinker sticking out his lips to catch the surface bubbles bursting under his nose, ah, wine, blessed be the man who invented you.

The style has an attractive rhythm, like a garrulous old storyteller feeling free to drop off-the-cuff remarks as he narrates. However, the style also involves some major losses; in particular, it is so all encompassing that none of the characters develops a distinctive voice or identity. For example, when Joao Mao-Tempo is being interrogated after unwittingly helping to instigate a strike:

Speak, man, there’s no one else here, just me, Father Agamedes, the lieutenant, the policeman and you, there are no other witnesses, why can’t you tell us what you know, which probably isn’t much, but each man does what he can, you can’t do more than that, Look, Father Agamedes, I don’t know anything, I can’t repent of something I didn’t do, I would give anything to be back with my wife and my daughters, but I can’t give you what you’re asking me, I can’t say anything because I don’t know anything…

Although two people are speaking, there is really only one voice, the voice of the narrator, who effectively puts the words in the characters’ mouths. This is a puppet show rather than a drama. For all the charm of Saramago’s style, the way it overrides his characters is a major weakness.

Even though most reviewers seem to have gushed over this novel, it’s telling that none of them spoke much about the characters or the plot. Instead they praised Saramago’s commitment to social justice and his style. But a novel is all about characters and plot. Take that away and regardless of what prize you won, you are effectively writing a political tract. I’m not sure why anyone would want to be harangued for four hundred pages about the need to improve the conditions of the Portuguese peasantry in the 1930s, but if you feel some righteous anger on this subject then this is the book you’ve been waiting for all your life. Those who desire something else from literature, however, will need to look elsewhere.

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