Jose Saramago is one of Portugal’s most eminent writers, and his elaborate novel “Baltasar and Blimunda” has an authentically national theme. It is about the melancholy of magnificence.
A national stereotype can be rejected but it can’t be ignored, particularly when it is as odd as Portugal’s. Sadness is a quality that others have claimed for the Portuguese, but mostly the Portuguese claim it for themselves.
More than Spain, their country was the exemplar of an empire impoverished by wealth. Thanks to a burst of early seafaring prowess, Portugal found itself in possession of Brazil, Goa, Macao and Mozambique. A tide of riches swept in and almost none of them stuck. They embellished the country without raising it. Its colonial power never elevated it to more than pawn status in Europe.
The sad monuments remain, and a misty legacy. Portuguese baroque--the Plateresque--is an art of manic embroidery of depressive forms. The palaces and monasteries, beautiful as they are, exhibit no whit of soaring, but a dulcet elaboration gone wild.
With a deliberately baroque ornamentation of its own, elements of magic, pervasive irony and sudden, touching moments of realism, “Baltasar and Blimunda” deconstructs the magnificence.
There is no elevation in human affairs, it declares, except in airplanes fueled by the human will. That image--an example of the magic--is a central one, as we shall see.
Set in the 18th Century, “Baltasar” takes the lavish style of Dom Joao V’s royal court and renders it indistinct from the bedbugs in the royal bed. It takes the colossal display involved in building the great monastery at Mafra and fuses it with the lives and sufferings of the conscripted workers who labored at it.
It is leveling but not reductive leveling. On the contrary, it is mysterious and sumptuous. The king is absurd, certainly, but he is not brought down to the hod carrier. Instead, the hod carrier partakes of the royal vertigo. A broken-down old soldier who is one of hundreds of scavenging camp-followers on a royal journey to Spain, is written about as if he shared in the royal pomp. It is deflation, all right, but by a process of inflation that declares not derision but--that word again--sadness.
Saramago makes the Portuguese court a choked and superheated place. When the book opens, the king is regularly performing his marital duty upon his timid and mopish Austrian wife, who has failed to conceive.
The narrator, here and through much of the book, is grandiloquent, malicious and oddly wary. He sounds like a courtier writing to a relative he does not completely trust. It gives the court scenes a porous, slightly dreamlike quality; some of it very funny.
The narrator recites the court’s concerns. The barrenness, of course, must be laid to the queen. A procession of the king’s bastards is lining up at that very moment to prove the point. There is a marvelous account of the stately mating protocol. The queen awaits her husband wrapped from head to toe, despite the heat, in the goose eiderdown she brought from home. She lies “curled up like a mole that has found a boulder in its path and is trying to decide on which side it should continue to burrow its tunnel.”
A Franciscan monk promises that the queen will conceive if the king builds a monastery at Mafra; assuming, that is, that he entrusts it to the Franciscan Order. The promise is less than it seems; apparently, the queen is already pregnant, though she is too innocent to know it. Her lady-in-waiting knows it, though, and has passed the word to the proper Franciscan circles.
The promise, in any event, is fulfilled; and the building of Mafra will be one of the major themes of the book, related in a detail that contrasts its magnificence with the deadly labor imposed upon the workers who build it. The detail is both crushing and thrilling.
Other scenes, equally detailed, are more wearying. A bullfight, a procession of penitents to be punished in an auto-da-fe , a royal journey to Spain, are virtually parodies of 19th-Century-style ironic realism. They bring the book to an ornamented standstill. This, no doubt, is intended as part of the theme, but that doesn’t help much.
Emerging from Saramago’s public chronicle is the individual story of Baltasar and Blimunda. The former is a soldier whose military career ended when he lost his left hand. He replaced it with a removable spike--good for fighting--and a hook--good for working.
Baltasar meets Blimunda at an auto-da-fe where her mother is condemned to exile for witchcraft. Blimunda is tall and fair and possesses a kind of magical X-ray vision. She can see people’s insides; she can also see a faculty that the author calls “will.” It resembles a cloud.
Baltasar and Blimunda are both ordinary and pure. They are passionately devoted to each other; their marriage is one of earthly sensuality and near-saintly fidelity. Most of the time, Baltasar works as an ox-cart drover at the Mafra project; it allows him and his wife to live in something better than extreme poverty.
Blimunda’s gift, however, takes them out of their hard-working domesticity. They are enlisted by a visionary priest, Father Lorenzo, who is trying to build a flying machine. They help him put together the body, which resembles a giant bird. It lacks a flying element, however. After a four-year course of study at the University of Coimbra, Father Lorenzo returns, having discovered what is needed.
This is an element he calls “ether.” Ether has an affinity for the sun; when the sun warms it, it rises. It consists of human wills; and Blimunda goes to Lisbon where, assisted by the plague, she collects 2,000 wills in amber bottles.
The machine flies successfully but after Father Lorenzo and his two helpers land it on a mountain, the priest flees to Spain, fearing the Portuguese Inquisition. The machine remains where it is, and for many years--ending with one last flight--Baltasar and Blimunda interrupt their ordinary lives to make periodic visits to repair it.
The flying machine is Saramago’s redeeming image. In a heavy world of squandered wealth, of back-breaking poverty, of ignorance and oppression and a messianic compulsion to build grim and elaborate monuments, liberation, lightness and flight are provided by human wills drawn to the sun.
It is a very playful image, and the author handles it without solemnity. Quite arbitrarily, he has Domenico Scarlatti, then working at the Portuguese court, ride out from time to time during the construction to play for the three visionaries on a portable harpsichord.
Baltasar and Blimunda are natural creatures, not supernatural ones. They are earthy, though not earthbound. Their magic is almost incidental; the real magic is in their unforced goodness in an age and a society of pretense and pretension.
Saramago has succeeded with them, and he has succeeded, in part, in his portrait of the world around them. Sometimes, it is a matter of excessive success. The reader is all too often buried in the deliberately elaborate and lifeless detail that Saramago compiles to portray the sickness in his country’shistory.