The History of the Siege of Lisbon-JOSE SARAMAGO


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.


Candide or optimism-Voltaire.

B1Candide (or optimism) is a novella, and yet in it is packed much of life’s misfortunes and human triumphs. It is claimed to have been written as satire on the all-embracing optimism espoused by some German philosophers of the time.

Candide, whose ‘general look was that of utter simplicity’, is the illegitimate nephew of a German baron (the Baron von thunder-ten-Tronckh). At the baron’s castle, he lived in cusp of luxury, under the mentorship of the scholar, Pangloss, who preaches to him that this world is “the best of all possible worlds.”

It is demonstrable’, Pangloss would say, ‘that thing cannot be other than they are. For, since everything is made for a purpose, everthing must be for the best possible purpose, Noses, you observe, were made so support spectacles: consequently we have spectacles. Legs, it is plain were created to wear breeches, and are supplied with them.

Events in the novel are the antithesis of the Pangloss’s tutelage. Open the book at random, you are likely to find yourself in the midst of a misadventure. Almost every human catastrophe that can happen does happen in Candide. From a young age, Candide seems entangled in the webs of sorrow from which he apparently could not escape. When he falls in love with the baron’s young daughter, Cunégonde, the Baron expels him from his home. Soon after, he is conscripted into the army of the Bulgars. He wanders away from camp for a brief walk and is brutally flogged as a deserter.

Suffering and peril soon become Candide’s constant companions. As he flees from life’s fiendish malice to destinations across the world, misfortune stalks him like an implacable enemy. Much as Pangloss holds firm to his philosophy, Candide’s simplicity is soon replaced by scepticism as he struggles to find justification for all the human anguish he had witnessed

Voltaire also casts a searching light at the hypocrisy and corruption of organized religion through characters who appear in the story. The reader learns about the daughter of a Pope, a vicious Catholic Inquisitor, who has a mistress; and a Franciscan friar who is a thief, despite the vow of poverty he had taken. Voltaire also introduces a Jesuit colonel who is a homosexual.

However, Candide, contrary to the meaning of the title is a very complex book. Juxtaposed to calamity is joy, and next to sorrow and death is a celebration of life. At various points, Candide believes that Cunégonde, Pangloss, and the baron are dead, only to discover later that they had survived. Much as these “resurrections” seem out of step with the general tone of the novel-perhaps, because of them, the reader gets to know the real motive of the writer.

With his bleak canvass of misery, Voltaire may have been exalting the resilience of the human spirit and its triumph over adversity. Perhaps in depicting man’s vices, he was also admiring humanity’s virtues. Perhaps far from mocking optimism, he renounces nihilism. His novel is an eloquent narrative of the vicissitudes of life, and the rise and fall of man’s fortunes. Thus, in the expansive dialogue between its two main characters we learn that Candide is anything but simple, nor is Pangloss completely an old fool. Battered warriors though they were, they had a reverence and yearning for life despite the mental and physical torture it had inflicted on them.

The novel also reveals Voltaire’s romantic side. The love between Candide and Cunegonde, like that between Femina Daza and Florentina Ariza in Marquez’s Love in the time of Cholera, endures, despite the many disappointments and ravages of life. That he continued to love one woman throughout his life despite the rubble in his soul was another sign of his indestructible optimism. Finally, after his life-long travails that at times made him feel like cutting his own throat, Candide finds peace in the simple life of farming. In some way, his final lesson to the reader is that nature, is not a place just to visit, it is our home.

Reading  is an endless pleasure -a rollercoaster ride of both joy and sadness. In it are parts of our lives that we know fully well. The book is a true classic and an amazing celebration of literature.