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RICHARD EDER

An Aftertaste of Iberian Unreality : THE YEAR OF THE DEATH OF RICARDO REIS By Jose Saramago translated from Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $21.95; 335 pp.)

December 30, 1990|RICHARD EDER

The circumstantial fog that surrounds so many modern facts, the literary fog with which some modern authors choose to write about them, the actual fog that blurs and softens the Baroque architecture of Lisbon: How well, on the whole, these come together in "The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis."

The Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago, author of the enchanting historical fantasy "Baltasar and Blimunda," has created an utterly indeterminate protagonist. He is a middle-aged doctor and poet who returns to Lisbon in the mid-1930s after living for 16 years in Brazil. He dies a year after his arrival. On the other hand, he may have been dead from the start. Or he may be a literary invention of the real and historical Portuguese poet, Fernando de Pessoa.

Indeterminacy is in literary fashion right now, with its deconstructionist rupture between words and the reality they ostensibly represent. But it has long roots, particularly in the literature of the Iberian Peninsula. There was the Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno; but chiefly, of course, there was Calderon's "Life Is a Dream." Iberian unreality has ancestors and family photographs; it has veins, warmth and melancholy.

Existent or not--he argues for the possibility and does not always win--Dr. Ricardo Reis displays a great deal of life in the aimless interval that he spends between his arrival on the first page and his "death" on the last. Indecisive, languid and pedantic, he haunts us, nonetheless; just as throughout the book, he is himself haunted by the sardonic and talkative ghost of Pessoa, who comes regularly to visit.

A little narrative is in order. Reis lands in Lisbon, where it is raining, and where it continues to rain virtually nonstop. He has no friends or connections; he puts up in a comfortable hotel, works for a while as a substitute for another doctor, makes vague plans to open a practice of his own and, with much procrastination, moves to a somber and massively furnished apartment overlooking the harbor.

History tosses and turns like an insomniac in the next room, without ever quite breaking in on his daze. Reis' hotel is full of right-wing Spaniards plotting the uprising that will become the Civil War. He himself is an object of suspicion to the Portuguese government, led by the professorial dictator, Salazar, and sympathetic to the Spanish Right. He is interrogated by the police, inconclusively; a ghostly policeman shadows him, his presence invariably announced by the odor of onions.

Reis' own past is no more definite than his existence. As a youth, he was part of a liberal intellectual circle that included Pessoa; his departure for Brazil followed an abortive coup. His return follows an abortive leftist coup in Brazil: hence, the police surveillance. In the rambling musings that form a considerable part of the book, he appears aimlessly indecisive: unhappy with the Spanish Republic, and unhappy with Franco. Among all our doubts as to who he is, it is clear that he is Saramago's image of the futile artist and intellectual.

The futility is played out with comic allure that deepens into sadness in two love affairs that Reis bonelessly carries along. One is with Marcenda, whom he spots dining at the hotel with her father. She is slender and virginal, and has a crippled left hand. Father and daughter come down from Coimbra once a month, ostensibly so that specialists can examine her, and also so that her bourgeois father can visit his mistress.

Marcenda and Reis exchange glances, and she contrives a decorous meeting in the hotel lounge so that he can examine her hand. The hand is incurable, he tells her, but she should continue the monthly visits. It will give her father an alibi for his escapades, and it will give her an alibi for hope.

It will also allow her to visit him in his apartment. All that happens is a passionate monthly kiss, which Saramago makes more arousing than any 10 bedroom scenes. Finally Marcenda refuses an offer of marriage, and breaks off. Reis is too immaterial to hold her.

Marcenda is a splendid character, outspoken, inhibited and as much a fantasist as Reis. Lydia, the chambermaid with whom Reis conducts a much more fleshly affair, is even more memorable. She belongs to the oppressed classes--the hotel, with its hierarchies, stands for society--but her passion flames through her timidity.

Reis holds her hand for a moment one morning when she brings him breakfast and tells her she's pretty. She flees, but when he returns to his room in the evening, he sees that she has put out two pillows instead of one, and has turned down both sides of the bed sheets. Saramago's comedy is delicately and intimately entwined with his bleak puzzles; these, in turn, are tangled in something close to tenderness.

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