Nobel Prize–winning author Saramago explores art and the meaning of life in a posthumous release of his first novel.
This is an “adult” novel in the best sense, for Saramago examines serious philosophical questions about aesthetics, sexuality and politics through a portrait painter (and alter ego?) known only as “H.” While H. is introspective and speculative, he’s also self-critically aware of his limitations as an artist. At the moment he’s working on a portrait of “S.,” a successful industrialist. With the important exception of sitting for the portrait, S. has delegated the mundane tasks of communication to his secretary, Olga, with whom the artist begins a short-lived but tempestuous affair. Dissatisfied with his original portrait, H. works on a second portrait and, still dissatisfied, tries to capture a “portrait” of S. in words, for the visual artist is also an auteur manqué. Away from personal and political turmoil, H. makes a brief but serene visit to Italy, where he embarks on a pilgrimage to see the works of truly great artists like Cimabue and Piero della Francesca, but he’s quickly pulled back to life in Portugal, where his friend Antonio has been arrested by the secret police in Salazar’s regime. H. tries to find out what has happened to Antonio but is turned away at the prison where Antonio is incarcerated. Meanwhile Antonio’s sister, cryptically named “M.” and also concerned about her brother’s status as an enemy of the state, arranges a meeting with the artist, and they embark on yet another tumultuous affair.
Saramago writes beautifully, and his style is ruminative—not for every taste, but definitely for those who appreciate finely wrought, meditative prose.