Raised from the Ground, by José Saramago

This being a José Saramago novel, you knew there would be a dog. Indeed, several dogs appear in Raised from the Ground, a 1980 novel that has only now been translated into English. Every Saramago novel has at least one dog in it, either as one of the main characters (Blindness) or in a supporting role (All the Names). In this tale of farm laborers in 20th century Portugal, an elderly worker named Sigismundo Canastro tells his mates a story about the day he went out hunting with his dog, Constante. When Sigismundo saw a partridge, he aimed his rifle at it and fired. The partridge wasn’t killed, but it still fell amidst the gorse on the opposite side of a pile of stones. Constante ran after the bird but never came back. No matter how many times Sigismundo whistled after him, the dog never returned. Sigismundo assumed he had lost the dog and went home without him.

saramagoTwo years later, he happened to be hunting again in the same area. This time, he walked beyond the stone wall, through the undergrowth, and discovered Constante’s skeleton guarding the skeleton of the partridge. “[T]hey had been like that for two years,” Sigismundo said, “both equally determined.” Sigismundo sat down after telling this story, still, after all those years, stunned not only by the unexpected sight but also by the stubbornness of these two creatures, neither one willing to cede to the other, preferring to die than allow the other to gain an advantage.

This anecdote is a nice encapsulation of the story Saramago tells in this novel. Raised from the Ground is the tale of several generations of the Mau-Tempo family, poor laborers who work in small villages and on a latifundio (large estate) in the Portuguese countryside. From the patriarch, Domingos Mau-Tempo, a shoemaker who is also a drunkard with a habit of wandering away from his family, to his grandson António, who works the land before and after his years of military service, the Mau-Tempos struggle to earn every escudo and suffer at the hands of landowners and foremen intent on keeping them in their place. When Salazar’s men quash rebellions among the laborers, and soldiers incarcerate or torture those they suspect of having fomented unrest, the combatants are like that dog and the partridge, locked in a battle of wills, determined to prevail at all costs.

For some reason, Raised from the Ground is getting little attention among American critics, and those who have written about it seem to think that the novel is nothing more than a curiosity, of interest only to diehard Saramago fans. It’s true that this isn’t Saramago’s best book—my vote would go to The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis—but this is still a vivid and indelible portrait of overlooked figures in European history. It’s well worth reading.

My full review appears on Bookreporter.com.

 

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