By far the best out of the three Saramago novels I’ve read (Ricardo Reis and Gospel of Jesus were the others). Horrifying, depressing, beautiful, gripping. All of the adjectives and superlatives have been used I imagine. I’ll just leave it at this: for the first time in a while I couldn’t put a book down, and that’s saying much more when you consider Saramago’s extremely reader-unfriendly narration with long paragraphs and minimal punctuation.
That leads me into two of the things I didn’t like about the book, which kept me from giving the maximum 5 stars. First is his narrative style. After reading the third of his books, I can see that at least he stays consistent stylistically, but I still don’t like it much better than I did in the first. The dialogue I’m actually okay with, and even like. It can add an understated poetry to an exchange, this sort of abrupt, breathless conversation. You’re not sure how long it takes to transpire, but given the punctuation it seems pretty rapid-fire back-and-forth. I dig it. It’s the voice of the narrator himself that bothers me, with his sly asides and witty one-liners and winking confidences with the reader. It’s annoying and distracting. It takes you out of the story and has even begun to feel gimmicky for me. I just don’t see the point; it doesn’t add anything and takes a fair bit away. (Someone who knows the point and can enlighten me would be entirely welcome to comment or send me a message.)
The other problem I have is less important, just a feeling I get. A lot of the psychological, cultural, metaphysical and philosophical commentary that Saramago makes is beautiful, profound, and deeply moving. But there’s almost an equal amount that reads just like some BS he pulled out of his you-know-where. While reading I’m often left wondering, “What does that even MEAN?” (i.e. I doubt Saramago knows either). It’s pretentious, like he can make a sweeping generalization and have it sound profound, even if it’s really only half-assed and blatantly false. I still recommend this book, and I’ll still (hesitantly) be reading a couple more of his books, Seeing and The Cave.