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The Good Earth of Portugal

Raised From the Ground, by Jose Saramago

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All writers - the ones who keep plugging away at their craft, that is - will eventually develop a style and voice uniquely theirs. I’m told that Raised From the Ground was the book that did it for Saramago, Portugal’s preeminent writer until his death in 2010. In a sense, it’s a throwback to the nineteenth century novels - the narrator dominates, even turns to address his “dear reader” occasionally, But Saramago’s style is more fluid than those of a couple of centuries past; his mimics a caffeinated elder, one who knows Portugal’s history, who knows its people, both landed and poor, and who is still a bit angry, with an axe to grind at the treatment of his people. And this is just such a sprawling tale, one with a reach back in history and into the psyche of the Portuguese people.

But how does one tell such a story? After all, there must be a focus; there must be characters common to both beginning and end. Saramago accomplishes this by telling of the Mau Tempo family over several generations. There’s nothing particularly unique about the Mau Tempos, except as the family name translated (Bad Times) implies, they’re not the stuff of Horatio Alger and his rags-to-riches stories. They’re peasant workers living in the  rather isolated town of Monte Lavre on a latifundio (plantation). The plantation owners aren’t particularly cruel, but they are grossly indifferent to the plight of their modern-day serfs, who make a coffee-like beverage from thistle, who will likely split a piece of bread four ways in order to make it though another day. The Mau Tempo boys will begin doing the work of men at an age at which they have little capacity for such work. When they’re abused by their supervisors, its more of a mischievous sort, born of idleness and an awareness of class and privilege. And in Saramago’s eyes, they’re little different from animals to their overlords. Little, then, has changed for families such as the Mau Tempos for centuries - and thus little has changed on the latifundio.

But then things do change. The workers want to be treated fairly, want a living wage, want, in their own way, a chance at a better life. This is the story of twentieth century Portugal, the rumble of two world wars heard faintly in the background, but hardly felt on the latifundio. Communism becomes a threat to the ruling class of António de Oliveira Salazar, who ruled Portugal in the twentieth century’s first half, as if he were a feudal lord. People such as the Mau Tempos, when seeking better lives, thus become a perceived threat, are indiscriminately hunted down, threatened, banished, jailed, as Portugal goes through the social growing pains much of Europe has already suffered.

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It’s a fine book (its first printing in English), powerfully written, and much of it reminds me of Steinbeck and his Joad family. What holds me back from lavishing this brilliantly written book with praise is that Saramago allows his anger to cloud his story, to distort his characters, and to thus weaken his narrative by preaching instead of simply depicting.

My rating 16 of 20 stars