Raised from the Ground, by Nobel Prize winning author José Saramago is a mid-career novel (1980) that has only just been translated into English. It’s a beautiful, life-affirming book that gives voice to a segment of society that very rarely is heard.
The novel is said to be the most autobiographical of Saramago’s fiction, because it’s an affectionate but at times brutally realistic recreation of the lives of his grandparents who were landless peasants in rural Portugal. Like the other books I have read by this author - Blindness, (see my review) and The Double (see my review) – it has a political agenda, but those novels are subversive allegories, while this one is a chronological narrative of the Mau-Tempo (Badweather) family in Alentejo, an agricultural province of Portugal. It traces the family’s fortunes from the formation of the Portuguese Republic in the early 20th century to the demise of the dictator Salazar in the mid 1970s.
As Ursula Le Guin says in her review for The Guardian, it is rare for the poor and oppressed to write their own story, most obviously because they tend to be poorly educated. I have just recently acquired a copy of Life Under Russian Serfdom: The Memoirs of Savva Dmitrievich Purlevskii, 1800-68, and in his introduction the translator and editor Boris B. Gorshkov mentions that it wasn’t possible to retain the memoir in its original form because the author’s writing skills reflected his limited education. The achievement of Raised from the Ground is that Saramago’s intimate knowledge of the peasant life his grandparents led, brings it alive. His unique style - very long sentences which segue from one speaker to another – gives the impression of family and village conversations murmuring their way through tumultuous events in Portugal.
I’ve only been to Lisbon, and that only for a couple of days which I spent mostly in museums and art galleries. Perhaps I went to the wrong ones, but there was nothing there to indicate anything of Portugal’s recent history. So it was from Saramago’s novel that I learned that they offloaded their monarchy not long before World War I, and that they were carefully neutral in World War II. These events didn’t have much impact on the Mau-Tempo family: theirs was a life of unrelenting labour, hunger and privation and the years pass with births, marriages and deaths not with world events.
The characterisation is brilliant. The story starts with the journey of Domingos Mau-Tempo, a feckless cobbler and a drunkard, his stoic wife Sara de Conceição and her babe-in-arms João whose beautiful blue eyes are a throw-back to the rape of a peasant girl by a German five centuries ago. Domingos is no saint: he drinks away what money he has and he beats his wife, but between the lines we gather that although Saramago’s sympathies lie with Sara, he understands that Domingo’s restlessness derives from the hopelessness of his life. In Alentejo the latifundio is as it has always been and there is no escape from grinding poverty. All João ever gets is a year of schooling and he begins work as a labourer for a brutal overseer when he is still a child.
It is not until after the war that the rumblings of discontent begin to find voice. Saramago was a communist and the villain of this story is the dictator Salazar and the landowners who repressed any attempts by peasants to improve their lot. To put this in context, these events were taking place between 1950 and 1975, half a century after Australians had in 1907 won the right to a basic wage ‘that guaranteed them a standard of living which was reasonable for “a human being in a civilised community.“‘ These barely literate peasants were struggling to read inflammatory pamphlets exhorting them to stoic solidarity many decades after we in Australia achieved education that was compulsory, secular and free. (In Victoria, way back in 1870). I was astonished to read that peasants were still enduring twelve-hour days of back-breaking work under a punitive labour system in my lifetime. In Europe!
The struggle to achieve what we in Australia call a ‘fair go’ – an eight-hour-day and a wage that at least allowed for subsistence – could make for some grim reading. The agitators were rounded up and imprisoned, and the ringleaders were interrogated under torture. And yet the book is suffused with humour and a gentle irony. The narrators ramble through events, muttering under their breath, gossiping, remarking on the obvious, interrupting each other, expressing a philosophical sympathy about events. We learn about their suffering but Saramago does not linger over it.
It’s very hard to choose an excerpt to give a sense of his style, for every page is a treat to read. This one is chosen at random: António Mau-Tempo has become a guest-worker in France because he is denied work at home since his arrest (without conviction) as an agitator.
The Carriça estate is in France, that’s not what it says on the map, but it’s true, if not in Normandy then in Provence, it really doesn’t matter, António Mau-Tempo no longer has Miguel Hernández by his side, but Manuel Espada, his brother-in-law and his friend, even though they are very different in character, they are scything, doing piece-work, as we shall see. Gracinda Mau-Tempo is here too, pregnant at last, when it seemed that she would never have children, and the three of them are living, for as long as the harvest lasts, in an abandoned labourer’s hut, which Manual Espada has cleaned up to make comfortable for his wife. No one had lived there for five or six years, and it was a real ruin, full of snakes and lizards and all kinds of creepy-crawlies, and when it was ready, Manual Espada, having first sprinkled the floor with water, went to fetch a bundle of rushes to lie down on, and it was so cool inside that he almost fell asleep, it was just an adobe wall with a covering of gorse and straw to serve as a roof, then, suddenly, a snake slithered over him, as thick as my wrist, which is not of the slenderest. He never told Gracinda mau-Tempo, and who can say what she would have done had she known, perhaps it wouldn’t even have bothered her, the women in these parts are made of stern stuff, and when she arrived at the hut, she found it all neat and ready, with a truckle bed for the couple, another for António Mau-Tempo, and a large sack to share as blanket, that is how intimately people live on the latifundio. Oh, don’t get all hot under the collar, Father Agamedes, where have you been, by the way, these men are not really going to sleep here, if they do lie down on the bed, they will do so simply in order not to die, and now is perhaps the moment to speak about pay and conditions, they’re paid so much a day for a week, plus five hundred escudos for the rest of the field, which must all be harvested by Saturday. This may seem complicated, but it couldn’t be simpler. For a whole week, Manuel Espada and António Mau-Tempo will scythe all day and all night, and you need to understand exactly what this means, when they are utterly exhausted after a whole day of work, they will go back to the hut for something to eat and then return to the field and spend all night scything, not picking poppies, and when the sun rises, they will go back to the hut to eat something, lie down for perhaps ten minutes, snoring like bellows, then get up, work all day, eat whatever there is to eat, and then again work all night, we know no one is going to believe us, these can’t be men, but they are, if they were animals they would have dropped down dead, only three days have passed, and the men are like ghosts standing alone in the moonlight in the half-harvested field, Do you think we’ll make it, We have to, and meanwhile Gracinda mau-Tempo, heavily pregnant, is weeding in the rice field, and when she can’t weed, she goes to fetch water, and when she can’t fetch water, she cooks food for the men, and when she can’t cook, she goes back to the weeding, her belly on a level with the water, her son will be born a frog. (p. 305)
Surrendering to enter the world of these characters is an unforgettable experience… Raised from the Ground is sublime.
Author: Jose Saramago
Title: Raised from the Ground
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Publisher: Harvill & Secker/Random House, 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of Random House Australia