Jose Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, 2000/2002, Harcourt Books.
This joins the list of books that can only be described as a pleasure of ambivalence. Saramago relies on his reputation (not to mention that Nobel Prize for literature) to encourage you to slog through the long, long sentences that are bereft of conventional punctuation. Sometimes unravelling the dialogue can be like a particularly challenging Scrabble game postmortem. And Saramago does not limit himself to making the mechanics of reading the only difficulty awaiting the reader — there are many self-indulgent asides, where he explains why he chooses a given adjective to describe a character, or engages in a stylistic monologue on why he varies the names by which he refers to the characters.
Once getting past the barricades that Saramago erected, we find ourselves in the world of an old potter in a beautiful, simple dystopian world. This world is familiar: the villages are being absorbed into the city, and the ciy is being absorbed by a shopping/planned-living facility known simply as The Center. The potter struggles with his changing world, the shift of the economic environment, and the usual issues of family, inlaws, and an adopted pet. These struggles are beautifully depicted, alternating between bold strokes and subtle details, and Saramago’s genius shows clearly.
The ending of the story comes abruptly, and, although we’ve been prepared for many of the circumstances, at least one aspect (the most significant, perhaps, and one for which the book is named) seemed forced. Perhaps it’s my ignorance, perhaps it’s due to the shallowness of my understanding of Plato, but the impact of the critical event didn’t make sense to me.