RAISED FROM THE GROUND. By Jose Saramago. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 384 pages. $26.
‘Raised From the Ground,” an early novel from Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago, was written in the 1980s and is just now available in English, having been translated from Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa.
This novel is a sweeping, multigenerational saga of the Mau-Tempo Family (translated: bad weather), landless peasants who work the vast latifundios (plantations) in Alentejo, Portugal. It recounts their daily struggle against unremitting hunger and incessant brutality and the despair that accompanies extreme poverty in the face of plenty; lives made only more precarious by world wars, the rise of the workers’ movement and the government of the dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar and his secret police, PIDE.
To simply say it is a grim tale of the lives of oppressed workers is to understate Saramago’s power of language, which turns a simple drink of water taken at the thresher into a tangible horror: “The water they drink from the clay jug grows lukewarm and slimy, as if you were drinking directly from a swamp full of worms and bloodsuckers, which is what they call leeches around here.” Life is hard.
Saramago seamlessly juxtaposes bleak realism and fanciful folklore as only someone who lived the harshest of reality can dare. The narration often is old-fashioned and kindly, explaining in a “dear reader” kind of way that, “This isn’t one of those tedious tales,” or, “Let me now tell you about Marcelino.” Then the narration suddenly shifts and a line of ants describes the torture of a worker: “The man fell again. It’s the same one, said the ants, the same ear shape, the same arc of the eyebrow, the same shadow at the corner of the mouth, there’s no mistaking him, why is it that it is always the same man who falls, why doesn’t he defend himself, fight back.”
In another instance, Joao Mau-Tempo, who we have been following since the moment of his conception, unexpectedly takes over the reins from the narrator in describing his death: “I wonder what time I will die.”
Saramago takes liberties. He writes marathon sentences and doesn’t trouble with setting the dialogue apart with unambiguous paragraphing or even quotation marks. Instead, one line of dialogue intrudes on another, without so much as a “he said” or “she said.” Sometimes it is delivered with great wisdom, and other times, unexpectedly, with humor, yet all Saramago’s prose is rendered without any sense of distance from the characters he has created.
This may be because Saramago came from the people he writes about; his own grandparents were illiterate, landless peasants, and these people, the land and time itself seems to be where Saramago installed his trust.
It is not simply the harshness of the physical world or the injustices perpetrated by the overseers and bosses; it is the domestic indignities that Saramago describes without sentimentality that convey a mortal sadness: “Wife, send the boys off to collect firewood and the girls for straw, and come to bed. Do with me as you wish, I am my master’s slave, and there, it’s done. I am pregnant, with child, in the family way, I am going to have a baby, you’re going to be a father, I’ve missed a period. That’s all right, eight can starve as easily as seven.”
Saramago knows of indignities. Jose de Sousa should have been his name; however, the registrar added a nickname by which his father was mocked: Saramago, which means wild radish, the food of those most impoverished. Many years, later, Saramago creates the Mau-Tempos without a hint of derision.
In “Raised From the Ground,” Saramago writes of ordinary people falsely accused of terrorism and communism. His central character, Joao Mau-Tempo, like his illiterate neighbors, is a reluctant pawn at an anticommunist rally, and, later, an unwitting labor leader; finally he becomes a resolute striker for the right to work an eight-hour day.
Saramago himself was an unemployable leftist, having joined the Communist Party in 1969. He told The New York Times Magazine that, “Being fired was the best luck of my life. It was the birth of my life as a writer.” His work was censored by both the government and the church.
Some readers will greatly admire this work by the gifted Saramago, while others won’t welcome the author’s unconventional signature style or bleak subject. As Joao Mau-Tempo explains, “These are the mysteries of nature, who can say why it is that this woman can’t weep and the other doesn’t know how.”
Reviewer Virginia Friedman is an independent filmmaker and writer.