cover image The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis

The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis

Jose Saramago. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt P, $21.95 (358pp) ISBN 978-0-15-199735-0

Ricardo Reis, ``age, forty-eight, place of birth, Oporto, marital status, bachelor, profession, doctor, last place of residence, Rio de Janeiro,'' returns to his native Portugal in 1936 as Europe rattles toward war. Published to acclaim in Portugal in 1984, this novel--full of poetry and philosophical musings--traffics over many levels: there is the world-weary Reis, coming home (perhaps) to die; there is an aging Europe, on the eve of its worst hours, seen from the peculiar vantage of a tiny country whose soul has removed to Brazil; and there is the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa who, though dead, visits Reis in his rooms and in cafes, wryly discoursing about life as seen from the other side. Saramago evokes an unforgettable image of Lisbon--surreal and ludicrous--an odd but affecting mix of elegy and gothic humor. Readers alert to subtleties may suspect that Reis is actually a pen name used by Pessoa, and that the women who haunt Reis--frail Marcenda with the paralyzed hand and Lydia, the maid whom he regularly beds, are figments of Pessoa's poetry finally laid to to rest. This extraordinarily nuanced work alternates a sunlit Borgesian playfulness with darker, more obsessive musings in what is altogether a bravura performance. (Jan.)