This story is about twisting things around. It is about altering certain known ‘historical facts’ and then asking the reader to consider how much truth there was in these ‘historical facts’ to start with. The book challenges the credence we give to history, which in many instances is penned by those who were not even eyewitnesses to the events they write about. Even ‘miracles’, purportedly witnessed by ancient saints, are accepted without question.
‘What a strange world,’ the author asks, ‘it must have been, that such things should have been believed and written, I’d prefer to say in which such things are not written, but believed even, today, We are positively mad,’
Is part of what we call history the product of some historians’ fertile imagination? How much detail is added or erased due to the historians’ bias? How much meaning is lost in translations and misprints from one language to the other? Are some of the speeches, often written verbatim, attributed to the major historical figures mere embellishment of prose? Are some history books mere narrations of fiction and mutilations of facts?
The story begins with Raimundo Silva, a long-time proof-reader in Lisbon. He is proofing the ‘history of the siege of Lisbon in 1147’ in which Christians defeated the Moors who had ruled the city for three hundred years. The recorded history is that the Portuguese sought the aid of the Crusaders who were on their way to the holy land.
The Crusaders agreed to help the Portuguese, but the proof-reader, Raimundo Silva, inserts a NOT. The Crusaders will NOT help the Portuguese. It is from this ‘NOT’ that main events in the book unfold. Fortunately, the proof reader’s deliberate error is discovered before the book goes to print, and an erratum is inserted warning the readers of the ‘mistake’.
The author plays on this error, and once again asks how much of written history is due to conscious vandalism of the facts. The publishers, in reaction to Raimundo Silva’s error of the “NOT,” hire a new administrator, Maria Sara to be in charge of the proof-readers. Maria Sara far from being outraged by Silva’s deliberate error is fascinated by what had happened and challenges Silva to write his alternative version of the Lisbon siege-and from the point of view of his NOT.
In altering the history of Lisbon, Silva also fundamentally, and even joyfully, alters his life. He had for many years lived a lonely existence, but consequent to his NOT, he finds love. He now no longer just walks past a florist shop, but stops, enters and buys flowers.
The story continues, following his error, on two levels: the present, with Silva and Sara falling in love, and the past-Silva’s version of the siege. In both stories, so much is made of the NOT, as Silva ponders and reconstructs the historical events of the siege. Even the revised version of the proof-reader canNOT be trusted since it teems with speculation. But, at the same time his conjured version may be closer to the truth than the ‘facts’ in modern history books.
Even as the improbable relationship between the proof-reader and his boss blossoms, which Sara aptly describes as war with one trying to lay siege to the other’s heart, the NOT is a constant feature. As one reads the book, one gets the feeling that ours is as comical an existence as the blind asylum inmates from his other famous novel Blindness. Blind but seeing-barely seeing.
The History of the Siege of Lisbon is a wonderfully written novel by a writer who had complete mastery of his craft.
It is a humorous, ambitious, sophisticated and intelligent re-telling of known history, albeit with a slight twist, and a warm love story between two singular characters.