José Saramago was born in 1922 to a family of farmers in the little village of Azinhaga (Ribatejo) north of Lisbon. For financial reasons he abandoned his high-school studies and trained as a mechanic. After trying different jobs in the civil service, he worked for a publishing company for twelve years and then for newspapers, at one time as assistant editor of Diário de Notícias, a position he was forced to leave after the political events in November 1975. In 1969 he joined the then illegal Communist Party, in which however he has always adopted a critical standpoint. Between 1975 and 1980 Saramago supported himself as a translator but since his literary successes in the 1980s he has devoted himself to his own writing. His international breakthrough came in 1982 with the blasphemous and humorous love story "Baltasar and Blimunda", a novel set in 18th century Portugal. Since 1992 he has been living on Lanzarote, the northeasternmost of the Canaries. Saramago's oeuvre totals 30 works, and comprises not only prose but also poetry, essays and drama. His awards include Prémio Cidade de Lisboa 1980, Prémio PEN Club Português 1983 and 1984, Prémio da Crítica da Associação Portuguesa 1986, Grande Prémio de Romance e Novela 1991, Prémio Vida Literária 1993, Prémio Camões 1995. Saramago won the Nobel Prize in 1998.
Excerpt from "Baltasar and Blimunda".
Translated by Giovanni Pontiero.
Now they are ready to leave. Padre Bartolomeu Lourenço contemplates the clear blue expanse above, cloudless and with a sun as brilliant as a glittering monstrance, then he looks at Baltasar, who is holding the rope with which they will close the sails, and then at Blimunda, and he dearly wishes that she could divine what the future holds for them, Let us commend ourselves to God, if there is a God, he murmured to himself, and then in strangled tones he said, Pull, Baltasar, but Baltasar did not react at once, for his hand was trembling, besides, this was like saying Fiat, no sooner said than done, one pull and we end up who knows where. Blimunda drew near and placed her two hands over that of Baltasar and, with a concerted gesture, as if this were the only way it could be done, both of them pulled the rope. The sail veered to one side, allowing the sun to shine directly on the amber balls, and now what will happen to us. The machine shuddered, then swayed as if trying to regain its balance, there was a loud creaking from the metal plates and the entwined canes, and suddenly, as if it were being sucked in by a luminous vortex, it went up making two complete turns, and no sooner had it risen above the walls of the coach-house than it recovered its balance, raised its head like a seagull, and soared like an arrow straight up into the sky. Shaken by those rapid spins, Baltasar and Blimunda found themselves lying on the wooden deck of the machine, but Padre Bartolomeu Lourenço had grabbed one of the plummets that supported the sails, which allowed him to see the earth shrink at the most incredible speed, the estate was now barely visible, then lost amid the hills, and what's that yonder in the distance, Lisbon, of course, and the river, ah, the sea, that sea which I, Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão, sailed twice from Brazil, that sea which I sailed to Holland, to how many more continents on land and in the air will you transport me, Passarola, the wind roars in my ears, and no bird ever soared so high, if only the King could see me now, if only that Tomás Pinto Brandão who mocked me in verse could see me now, if only the Holy Office of the Inquisition could see me now, they would all recognise that I am the chosen son of God, yes, I, Padre Bartolomeu Lourenço, who am soaring through the skies aided by my genius, aided, too, by Blimunda's eyes, if there are such eyes in heaven, and also assisted by Baltasar's right hand, Here I bring you God, one who also has a left hand missing, Blimunda, Baltasar, come and look, get up from there, don't be afraid.
They were not afraid, they were simply astounded at their own daring. The priest laughed and shouted. He had already abandoned the safety of the handrail and was running back and forth across the deck of the machine in order to catch a glimpse of the land below, north, south, east, and west, the earth looked so vast, now that they were so far away from it, Baltasar and Blimunda finally scrambled to their feet, nervously holding on to the cords, then to the handrail, dazed by the light and the wind, suddenly no longer frightened, Ah, and Baltasar shouted, We've done it, he embraced Blimunda and burst into tears, he was like a lost child, this soldier who had been to war, who had killed a man in Pegões with his spike, and was now weeping for joy as he clung to Blimunda, who kissed his dirty face. The priest came up to them and joined in their embrace, suddenly perturbed by the analogy the Italian had drawn when he had suggested that the priest himself was God, Baltasar his son, and Blimunda the holy ghost, and now all three of them were up there in the skies together, There is only one God, he shouted, but the wind snatched the words from his mouth. Then Blimunda said, Unless we open the sail, we shall go on climbing, and we might even collide with the sun.
We never ask ourselves whether there might not be some wisdom in madness, even while recognising that we are all a little mad. These are ways of keeping firmly on this side of madness, and just imagine, what would happen if madmen demanded to be treated as if they were equals with the sane, who are only a little mad, on the pretext that they themselves still possess a little wisdom, so as to safeguard, for example, their own existence like Padre Bartolomeu Lourenço, If we were to open the sail abruptly, we should fall to the ground like a stone, and it is he who is manoeuvring the rope and adjusting the slack so that the sail opens gradually, casting its shadow on the balls of amber and causing the machine to slow down, who would ever have thought that it would be so easy to fly, now we can go in search of new Indies. The machine has stopped climbing and hovers in the sky, its wings extended, its beak pointing northward, and it has every appearance of being motionless. The priest opens the sail a little more, three-quarters of the amber balls are already covered in shadow, and the machine starts to descend gently, it is like sailing across a tranquil lake in a small boat, a tiny adjustment to the rudder, a stroke with one oar, those little touches that only mankind is capable of inventing. Slowly, land begins to appear, Lisbon looms into sight, the uneven rectangle of the Palace Square, the labyrinth of streets and alleyways, the frieze of the veranda where the priest lives and where even now the officers of the Holy Office of the Inquisition are forcing an entry to arrest him, they have come too late, officers who are so scrupulous in the affairs of heaven, yet who forget to look up at the blue sky, where they would see the machine, a tiny dot in the remote distance, but how could they raise their eyes when they are confronted, to their horror, with a Bible whose pages have been torn out at the Pentateuch, when they are confronted by the Koran reduced to indecipherable fragments, they leave at once and head for the Rossio and the headquarters of the Holy Office of the Inquisition to report that the priest they had gone to arrest has already escaped, and it never occurs to them that he has taken refuge in the great celestial dome, which they will never know, because it is quite true that God has a weakness for madmen, the disabled, and eccentrics, but most certainly not for officers of the Holy Office of the Inquisition. The Passarola descends a little further, until the estate of the Duke of Aveiro comes into sight, and these three fliers are clearly beginners, they lack the experience that would enable them to distinguish important landmarks at a glance, rivers and streams, lakes, villages sprinkled like stars on earth, dense forests, they can see the four walls of the coach-house, the airport from which they launched their flight, Padre Bartolomeu Lourenço suddenly remembers that he has a spyglass in the chest, he fetches it at once and trains it downwards, ah, how wonderful to be able to live and invent things, he can now distinguish the pallet in the corner, and the forge, but the harpsichord has disappeared, what has become of the harpsichord, we know, and are able to reveal, that Domenico Scarlatti called at the estate just in time to see the machine rising into the sky with a great shuddering of wings, and just think what would happen if those wings could flap, and once inside the coach-house, the musician found the debris of their departure, broken tiles scattered all over the floor, battens and joists sawn off or broken away, there is nothing sadder than an empty space, the machine is already on its way and gaining altitude, only to leave behind the most acute melancholy, and this sends Domenico Scarlatti to the harpsichord where he starts to play a bagatelle, barely skimming his fingers over the keys, as if stroking someone on the face when all words have been spoken or when words fail, he knows full well that it is dangerous to leave the harpsichord there, so he drags it outside, over the rough ground, awkwardly bumping it as he goes, it emits jarring chords, and this time the jacks really will be dislodged beyond repair, Scarlatti eases the harpsichord to the mouth of the well, which fortunately is set low, and, heaving it off the ground with one mighty push, he drops it down, the frame knocks against the inside walls twice and it emits woeful chords as it finally sinks into the water, who can tell what destiny awaits it, a harpsichord that played so beautifully and now sinks like a drowning man gurgling ominously until it settles in the mud. The musician above has disappeared from sight, already he is beating a hasty retreat along narrow lanes away from the main road, perhaps if he were to raise his eyes he would see the Passarola once more, he waves with his hat, just once, better to dissemble and pretend that he knows nothing, this explains why they did not spot him from the airship, and who knows if they will ever meet him again.
There is a southerly wind, a breeze that scarcely ruffles Blimunda's hair, with this wind they will not be going anywhere, it would be like trying to swim across the ocean, so Baltasar asks, Shall I use the bellows, every coin has two sides, first the priest proclaimed, There is only one God, now Baltasar wants to know, Shall I use the bellows, from the sublime to the ridiculous, when God refuses to blow, man has to make an effort. But Padre Bartolomeu Lourenço seems to have been struck dumb, he neither speaks nor moves, simply stares at the vast circumference of the earth, part river and sea, part mountain and plain, If that is not spray he perceives in the distance, it could be the white sails of a ship, unless it is a trail of mist, it could be smoke from some chimney, yet one cannot help feeling that the world has come to an end, and mankind as well, the silence is distressing, the wind has fallen, not a single hair on Blimunda's head is disturbed, Use the bellows, Baltasar, the priest commands.