Staff Review: Anne Kennedy: Up From the Ground by Jose Saramago

Saramago uses capitals and periods very sparingly to indicate the beginning and end of sentences, resulting in an almost stream-of-consciousness feeling that may cause you to read quickly. But slow down. Breathe. Let yourself flow with the words and be willing to re-read if you lose the thread. Trust me – Saramago is worth it. This particular work, his first major novel, is probably his most autobiographical and is lyrically rich with symbolism and metaphor. The narrative follows the fortunes and mis-fortunes of a Portuguese peasant family through four generations, from just after World War I until the 1960s. Domingos Mau-Tempo (the name means “bad weather”) is a cobbler whose drinking and frequent re-locations to avoid his creditors quickly reduce his family to the most abject poverty. Domingos himself periodically abandons his desperate wife Sara da Conceição and raisedfromgroundtheir growing family, ultimately leaving them without the skill-set of even a marginal craftsman and thus entirely dependent upon the latifundio, a vast region of feudal estates whose owners maintain their detached superiority and entitlement from monarchy to republic to dictatorship. Joao Mau-Tempo, Domingos’ blue-eyed oldest son, goes to school for only a year before taking up a man’s work in the fields at the age of ten while the younger children go begging to sustain a meager level of subsistence. The months and years of grinding labor stimulate unrest among the workers who begin to meet and to circulate pamphlets, to ask for a higher wage and a shorter workday. The landlords – Aliberto, Dagoberto, Norberto, Lamberto and the rest – react with lockouts supported by the priest, Fr Agamedes, who constantly reminds those few who attend Mass that this world is meant for suffering that will be rewarded in the next life. Once Antonio Salazar’s repressive, anti-communist regime utilizes a secret police force known as the PIDE to uphold the landlords’ privileges through detentions, tortures, and mass murders. Yet the Mau-Tempo family and their neighbors keep alive their hopes of being “raised from the ground” into decent and respected lives where they will no longer live like “ants, especially those that raise their heads like dogs.” Saturated with historical references, for which Costa thankfully provides explanatory footnotes, and intensely political, Saramago’s tale is eloquently cloaked in a poetry that draws the reader beyond the facts into the hearts and souls of the Portuguese people.

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