Skylight by Jose Saramago

Reviewed by Gillian Castellino

It is rare for an author's first novel to be published after his death, but that is exactly what happened with Jose de Sousa Saramago's novel Claraboia (or Skylight). Written in the 1950s, it was sent to a publisher who never acknowledged it, a fact which caused it's author to stop writing fiction until 1977. He did finally receive a response some 36 years after he sent it, which was also some 60 years after it was first written! By then, Saramago had already received the Nobel Prize for Literature and had also decided not to have the book published during his lifetime. Given the background, it is just as well that it was printed posthumously.

Translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa, the book is dedicated to the memory of Jeronimo Hilario, the author's grandfather, a landless peasant from Azinhaga, Portugal, whom the Nobel laureate described as "the wisest man I ever knew". 'Saramago' (which means 'wild radish' in Portuguese) is not the family name, but an insulting nickname given to his father and recorded on Jose's birth certificate by a village clerk, perhaps in error, possibly in a drunken haze, or may be as a prank. That, became his legal surname and not his actual patronymic 'de Souza'.

Skylight was first submitted for publication in 1953, when Saramago was 31 years old. In her preface to the novel, his wife Pilar del Rio - an acclaimed writer in her own right, explained that Skylight is a gateway into Saramago's later work. A map of what was to come.

Set in a shabby, working-class apartment building in Lisbon, in the 1940s, at a time when the dictator Salazar ruled Portugal, it is not a political novel, but one about "characters". There are 18 in all (ten of whom are women) and collectively they occupy six flats. In the male characters we find prototypes of those who populate Saramago's later novels, but his female characters are strongly nuanced as well.

The strongest character, opens the book. He is a "philosophical cobbler" in his eighties who is married to Mariana who in turn is "so fat as to be comical, so kind as to make one weep". The couple take in a young man, 28-year old Abel Nogueira, as a boarder and the two men, despite their age difference, bond over games of droughts and discussions on the meaning of life. These become a pretext for Saramago to present some scathing insights to the reader:

"Peace ... comes from dulling one's mind, which was what most people did... We all receive our daily dose of morphine that dulls our thoughts. Habits, vices, repeated words, hackneyed gestures, boring friends and enemies we don't even really hate, these are all things that dull our minds... The morphine of habit, the morphine of monotony."

"We won't become what we are meant to be in life by listening to other people's word or advice. We have to feel in our own flesh the wound that will make us into proper men. Then, it's up to us to act...'

The next next set of characters to appear in the book are four women, two elderly sisters Amelia and Candida and the latter's adult daughters Isaura and Adriana, who resembled "a sack of potatoes tied up in the middle". All four women have clearly known more prosperous times. While they grapple with the privations imposed by poverty, together they draw sustenance from a classical musical program over the radio, mealtimes spent together and shared confidences. As we become acquainted with their story, we become aware of a "a painful silence, the inquisitorial silence of the past observing us and the ironic silence of the future that awaits us." Repressed sexuality precipitates a sad and scarring lesbian encounter between the sisters, leading to secrets that settle heavily over the group.

Next, we are introduced to the diabetic Justina, her brutish husband Caetano and their dead daughter Mathilde. A story of hatred, misunderstanding, lust, different manifestations of psychological ugliness including marital rape and its consequences. Saramago has been criticized for his depiction of rape, especially the female perspective, which does not ring true.

The only 'single' in the building, Lidia, teetering on the brink of middle age, is the mistress of a much older businessman Paulino Morais who is already on the look-out for a younger replacement. There is a third player - Lidia's mother who shows up regularly for a hand-out. When Paulino finally replaces Lidia, she sheds "Just two tears. Because that's all life is worth." Then she pragmatically picks up her life - venturing out into the night in search of her next conquest.

Another family group comes next. They are Anselmo, an armchair football enthusiast, his wife Rosalia and their nineteen-year-old daughter Maria Claudia (also known as Claudinha). Pretty, self obsessed and inexperienced, Claudinha is encouraged by her parents to boost the family income by working for Paulino Morais - a move initially encouraged by Lidia who wants to win the goodwill of her neighbours. When it is almost too late, Claudinha realises that her employer sees her as a potential new mistress. She is now faced with a quandary - to back out and risk unemployment and destitution or to capitulate and risk her good name and integrity.

The last family group in this parade of characters are Emilio, a salesman, who is in a loveless marriage with his Spanish wife Carmen. Both are tied together by their trusting little son Henriquinho. Frustrated and abusive, both Emilio and Carmen wish desperately to be released from their marriage. Then Carmen and Henriquinho take a trip to Spain and Emilio gets a taste of the freedom he craved. It's uncertain how their story will end.

Though written in conventional style and language, Skylight underlines the compromises and inanities that are part and parcel of everyday life. Saramago's ending - the closing dialog between Silvestre and Abel is clear about the fact that "anything that is not built on love, will generate hate". The brand of love recommended is "lucid love" as opposed to the other unnamed but clearly drawn examples of love illustrated within the novel. Then comes the final line - "The day when we can build on love has still not arrived." Make of that what you will.

Original post on Healing Scribbles.

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