“The journey never ends,” José Saramago once wrote. “Only travelers end.” We may proclaim the voyage over, but we know in our hearts it isn’t true. There will always be the need to see all we’ve never seen; see again what we saw before; see in spring what we saw in summer; see in daylight what we saw at night.
Now, in a twist straight out of a Saramago novel, a traveler begins long after his life is over. “Skylight,” a manuscript penned in the 1940s and stranded in an editor’s drawer for almost 40 years, has just been published in translation. In it, we see what Saramago called “the green that preceded the harvest” — the beginning of his brilliant, Nobel Prize-winning career.
Although Saramago tinkered with fiction as a young man, a publisher’s blatant inattention to his early manuscript brought him to a creative standstill. He didn’t attempt to write another novel for 20 years. Nor did he garner international fame as a novelist until he was 60, with the wildly successful “Baltasar and Blimunda.” He had been born into humble circumstances in a tiny village in Portugal, the grandson of illiterate pig farmers, and he came of age in 1930s Lisbon, where his father worked as a police officer. He started out as a garage mechanic, became a welfare agency functionary, then moved to printing, proofreading and eventually journalism. Fired from his job at Diário de Notícias for his passionately communist commentary, Saramago began writing novels as a last resort. He was 52.
“Skylight” by then was all but forgotten, a book he had written in his 20s and submitted to a Lisbon publisher when he was 31. The work had languished in editorial limbo well into Saramago’s successful career as a novelist — before he got a telephone call from an editor who had stumbled upon it, found it delightful and was interested in publishing it. Saramago refused the offer, collected the yellowed original, brought it home and deposited it on his desk, where it sat for more than 20 years.
His wife, Pilar del Río, tried to persuade him to release “Skylight,” but, as she explains in the introduction of this edition, “Saramago stubbornly refused, saying that it would not be published during his lifetime. His sole explanation . . . was this: no one has an obligation to love anyone else, but we are all under an obligation to respect each other. . . . While a publishing house is clearly under no obligation to publish every manuscript it receives, it does have a duty to respond to the person waiting impatiently and even anxiously day after day, month after month.” He had been dealt an act of supreme rudeness, he insisted, and seeing a sprightly little copy of the novel in print would only remind him of the humiliation.
We have that sprightly little copy now, four years after Saramago’s death. Although it lacks the maturity of the Nobel laureate’s later works — the confident hand of a master the critic Irving Howe called the “connoisseur of ironies” — it provides a fascinating glimpse into the young writer. There are no long, mesmerizing passages here, no quirky punctuation, no nimble leaps between grim reality and zany comedy that are Saramago’s hallmark. Even so, the novel is unmistakably Saramago — strikingly modern, dealing with themes that were largely taboo in the 1950s and well might have unnerved a cautious publisher: marital rape, lesbian incest, domestic abuse, prostitution. And like most of Saramago’s novels, it boasts a proverbial village and a chorus of voices; we meet more than a dozen characters in the first 10 pages alone.
The story focuses on a residential building in Lisbon. Like other works of “apartment-block fiction” — George Perec’s “Life, A User’s Manual,” for example, or Cristina Henríquez’s “The Book of Unknown Americans” — there is a cramped, almost unbearable intensity to the human relationships. In the case of “Skylight,” the residents are struggling, working-class families, trying to make ends meet. There is Silvestre the cobbler and his roly-poly wife, who take in a young nihilist as a lodger for the extra money; Adriana and Isaura, spinster sisters whose repressed sexuality bedevils their shared bed; Lidia, a kept woman whose lover is on the lookout for younger quarry; Caetano, a randy brute, who finds novel ways to torture his long-suffering wife; Emilio and Carmen, who use their young son as a weapon in their cultural warfare. The rising chorale of pettiness, paranoia and lust can seem overwhelming, but the young Saramago — like his mature counterpart — forces us to look hard at ordinary humans. For all the unhappiness that consumes these characters, for all the claustrophobia of their hive, Saramago draws us into the intimacy, and we grasp motives that they themselves will never fully understand. This, then, is the germ around which Saramago’s genius was built, the humble tableau he transformed into a universal language.
Make no mistake: “Skylight” is no “Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis,”nor “The History of the Siege of Lisbon,” nor “The Stone Raft,” nor even “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ.” It is what it is: a sketchbook for the superb work that Saramago would ultimately produce. But there is no shortage of wonders to be found in it. This master of human observation — who will be given a major tribute at the Kennedy Center March 14 — clearly had a few literary faculties in place even as he was ratcheting bolts on cars. In time, he would become the equal of Gabriel García Márquez, Gunter Grass and Italo Calvino. He simply needed to wander the wilderness of neglect for more than 30 years to sharpen his consummate sense of irony.
Arana is the former editor in chief of Book World and the author of “American Chica,” “Lima Nights” and a biography of the Latin American political leader Simón Bolívar.