One of the late nobel laureate’s earlier novels, Raised from the Ground (Levantado do chão) was originally published in Saramago’s native portuguese in 1980 but has only now been posthumously translated into English by Saramago’s long-time translator, Margaret Jull Costa. Set in the Alentejo region of Portugal, the novel follows three generations of the Mau-Tempo family on the Latifundio (a large, mostly agrarian estate) as they toiled away in the wheatfields. Despite enduring rural poverty, financial insecurity, class divisions, punishing labor, and the punitive caprices of overseer, church, and state, the Mau-Tempos sought to lead fulfilling lives only to be thwarted often by any number of seemingly ceaseless hardships.
Saramago’s own grandparents (Jerónimo & Josefa) were illiterate and landless peasants and served obviously as inspiration for both Raised from the Ground’s plot and its lively characters. in his Nobel Prize lecture, Saramago described his grandfather as “the wisest man i ever knew.” during the same speech, in talking about this very novel, he continued,
and it was with such men and women risen from the ground, real people first, figures of fiction later, that I learned how to be patient, to trust and to confide in time, that same time that simultaneously builds and destroys us in order to build and once more to destroy us.
Raised from the Ground is one of Saramago’s most plaintive and personal tales, with strong characters as much at the whim of external forces as any in his other novels. Beginning in the late 1800s and spanning the better part of a century through the coup that deposed Salazar, the story follows the family’s generations as each strives to overcome the past and seek for themselves a life easier than the ones their forebears knew. Forever facing the misfortunes and daily humiliations that marked their years (including the ongoing threat of violence and imprisonment), the Mau-Tempos endeavored, and, quite literally, labored for their lives.
Of all of his novels, it is within Raised from the Ground that Saramago most thinly veils his opinions about politics. as individuals (including one of the Mau-Tempos) attempt to organize on behalf of Latifundio workers throughout the region, they are met with immediate repression and draconian reprisals. When the tenets of communism begin to gain in popularity, both the state and church implement tactics of fear and oppression to stifle the growing opposition. Saramago shades his novel with allusions to actual historical events including, most notably, the Carnation Revolution that ushered in an entirely new era of Portuguese cultural and political life.
Throughout Raised from the Ground, Saramago explores many of the themes that would so singularly characterize and bring great acclaim to his later works. His unique grammatical and prose stylings are present, but are somewhat less masterfully asserted as they would come to be in subsequent novels. In more ways than one, raised from the ground bears similarity to the writings of John Steinbeck, a fellow author for whom the politics of labor were not so easily divorced from everyday life. Raised from the Ground is a beautiful, however sorrowful, novel the likes of which Saramago was so adept at creating. From his humble beginnings to the pinnacle of literary accomplishment, Saramago appeared to approach his life with dignity, compassion, and a yearning for justice—three qualities to be found in abundance within this timeless tale of the human condition.
Although most of his books have been available in English for some time, there still remains a fair amount of as-yet unrendered works well deserving of translation (including poetry, diaries, short stories, a children’s book, and at least two novels). Earlier this year, Claraboia, a “lost” Saramago novel written nearly 60 years ago, was published for the first time (in both Portuguese and Spanish) and is likely slated for an English translation. Fans of his remarkable career that have not yet done so are strongly encouraged to seek out Miguel Gonçalves Mendes’s 2010 documentary José y Pilar, a gorgeous, touching film about Saramago and his wife, Pilar del Rio.
Every day has its story, a single minute would take years to describe, as would the smallest gesture, the careful peeling away of each word, each syllable, each sound, not to mention thoughts, which are things of great substance, thinking about what you think or thought or are thinking, and about what kind of thought it is exactly that thinks about another thought, it’s never-ending.
*beautifully rendered into english by saramago’s long-time translator, margaret jull costa
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