People who know me know that, even as I acknowledge Lolita as the finest novel I've ever read, my heart belongs to my favouritest novel in all the world, the little known The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, a novel published in 1984 by genius Portuguese novelist José Saramago, who died last June at the age of 87. Saramago wrote Year of the Death when he was 62, and death is very much at the heart of the novel. But that's not why I like it.
On the surface, Year is an almost unbelievably dull book. Spoilers begin: Reis, a nobody Doctor who has lived in Brazil for years, has migrated back to Lisbon after learning of the death of his friend Fernando Pessoa. He spends a listless year falling in love with the young, unobtainable Marcenda, who in her shy way responds to his affection; while sleeping with Lydia, the chambermaid at his hotel, an affair he hides from the world. The ghost of Fernando Pessoa meets him occasionally, bringing wisdom, humor and friendship from a afterlife shrouded in darkness. Twisty plotlines following the state's suspicion of his sudden return to Portugal, the power dynamics at the hotel at which he stays, and his delicate balancing of his two, different loves. And then, on the second last page of the novel, as its title promises, Pessoa's ghost arrives to usher Reis into the afterlife.
So, why the love? I always knew that it was because I felt a link with Reis, buffeted by the forces of love, desire, boredom, fear and society, and unable to do more than to batten down his hatches, to take joy in a cold, friendless life when and where he could. Reis is a man who slips so quietly and unceremoniously out of his own life that nobody except the grieving Lydia and her unborn child -- Reis' only legacy -- notice his passing.
Tonight, I compare my behavior in areas like science and Wikipedia -- where I believe I would push to have my way, in some shape and form, if I was convinced that truth was on my side -- with how I act and react to human relationships. The twisty thing about simultaneously feeling worthless and unique is that you never, ever want to stand up for yourself. It's the path in the middle: the worthless part of my psyche insists that imposing myself on another human being is a crime, right up there with talking loudly on a phone on a bus, while the egotist in me insists that, welp, hey, if they don't want to interact with me, it's their own loss.
No, it isn't. And this is important.
Another teeny, tiny little point: there is one, single bit in the entire book where Reis goes out and does something. Knowing that Marcenda is heading to Lourdes in a final attempt to heal her paralyzed arm, Reis heads there himself to plead his case, to risk all in the name of love blah blah and so on and so forth. But, this final foray into standing up for his own affection, to condemn with his actions the line fate has drawn for him, is an utter failure. The lesson learned is not to fight.
Post scriptum (Dec 19, 2011): Bob Corbett reminds me of these glorious lines from the novel:... human unrest is futile, the gods are wise and indifferent, and above them is fate, the supreme order to which even gods are subject. And what of men, what is their function. To challenge order, to change fate. For the better. For better or for worse, it makes no difference, the point is to keep fate from being fate.So.