A translation of Memorial do Convento, written by José Saramago, translated by Giovanni Pontiero, Harcourt Brace & Co, 1987.
I don’t really understand why Saramago’s work is so compelling. And I can’t give a pithy summary as to what this book was about. I could, perhaps, follow the example of countless others and say this book is a love story set in the still-mostly-medieval Portugal of the 18th century, but this would be inaccurate. Yes, there’s the romance between the titular characters, but one that we see as distant outsiders. We know more about the quarrying, transporting, and history of the portico-stone of the Basilica at Mofra or of the peccadillos of the Portuguese royal family than we really do of Balthasar and Blimunda’s love.
If anything, this book is less a romance than a musing on the fundamental inequities of life, a rambling explication of the abuse of power, or a celebration of the lives of simple country folk. Yet these descriptions too do poor service to the book; they leave out the fire, the lyricism, the anger and passion. It’s a powerful monument to the downtrodden and forgotten; a sneer at the Church; an idyll; a history; a tall-tale of music, second-sight, and alchemy.
And, like The Cave (the only other Saramago I’ve read), the language is challenging, funny, brilliant, and the book is hard to stop thinking about.