cover image The History of the Siege of Lisbon

The History of the Siege of Lisbon

Jose Saramago, Joe E. Saramago. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), $24 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-15-100238-2

Walter Mitty has nothing on Raimundo Silva, the middle-aged bachelor and proofreader in a contemporary Portuguese publishing house who's the protagonist of Saramago's dazzling postmodernist novel. The focal point is the siege of the Moorish city of Lissibona (Lisbon) in 1147 by Portuguese forces under Christian King Alfonso I, its conquest and the expulsion of the Moors-a battle in which as many as 150,000 perished. Raimundo changes a single word in a manuscript, thereby implying, contrary to the historical record, that the Crusaders refused to help the Portuguese besiege and capture the city. At the suggestion of his younger, iconoclastic boss, Maria Sara, with whom he falls in love, Raimundo writes his own alternative history of the siege, weaving a web of chivalrous deeds, love and intrigue around the bare historical record. As his romantic affair with Maria blossoms, the present and the imagined past feed into one another in a challenging narrative that shifts constantly between past and present tenses and shuttles across the centuries from American cowboys to medieval knights, from Freudian symbolism to Machiavelli, from the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor to the Portuguese army's construction of a tower to break Moorish resistance. On one level, Saramago is exploring the thirst for power, religious and political fanaticism, intolerance, hypocrisy and jingoism, as well as the human need for love, companionship, sex. On another level, he is developing his abiding theme that history is a form of fiction, a selective reordering of facts. Although the novel's stream-of-consciousness technique, baroque prose and paragraphs that run on for pages may daunt some readers, this hypnotic tale is a great comic romp through history, language and the imagination. (May)