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Posted: August 16, 2020

Perhaps the most moving love story I have read

Book Review

By Derryll White

Saramago, José (2001).  Baltasar & Blimunda.

Where better to read one of Portugal’s best than in Portugal. The country is so proud of Saramago that they carry his novels in the post office in Tavira, where I purchased this.

I am not a Catholic or a religious person per se, and until this trip I understood little of the powers of the Church. But as I prowled through the seven Convents and fantastic religious collections in the City of Portalegre,I began to understand some of the perilous past relationship between Church and State in 18th century Portugal and to see the incredible wealth of religious objects bestowed on the Church by the moneyed citizens of Lisboa.  This background truly brought Baltasar and Blimunda to life for me.

Then in the first paragraph Saramago refers to the proliferation of King’s bastards.  I had just finished viewing the wealth of ivory, ebony and silver encapsulated in religious objects donated to the Convent of San Bernardo in Portalegre, Portugal.  One accounting for some of these 18th century relics was that some were gifts from the King to the Convent, his recognition of the housing and tutoring of his many bastard progeny.  I was irrevocably hooked into the story.

Saramago maintains the reverence for land and home that one still finds today in Portugal.  Walking the streets of Portalegre and seeing the women direct the work of laying petals and leaves on the pavement in celebration of God’s body, Saramago’s statement that women keep the world in orbit rings true.  He makes the country very real in this novel which is in part a simple dialogue between a disabled man and a clairvoyant woman.

It is easy, reading this novel, to understand why the Church has condemned Saramago’s work, even though he was awarded the Nobel Prize of Literature in 1998.  A life-long communist, he is hard on both church and state. If one goes to Mafra ‘Baltasar & Blimunda’ becomes much clearer as a work of art.  The Franciscan Convent that Don Joao V promised, and which Saramago writes about in this novel, covers a phenomenal four square kilometres and consists of 1,200 rooms. The two bell towers shelter 92 bells, the world’s largest assemblage.

On reflection, such are the egos of man – larger than their capabilities and exceeding even their lifespan. Think for a moment how many lifetimes the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome or the convent at Mafra consumed, similar perhaps to the Canadian Pacific Railway stretching forward into the Canadian wilderness. Large egos for large projects Saramago intimates.

Heavy with Portuguese politics, religion and history, ‘Baltasar & Blimunda’ is still perhaps the most moving love story I have read.

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Excerpts from the novel:

PROFLIGACY – Already there are rumors at court, both within and without the royal palace, that the Queen is barren, an insinuation that is carefully guarded from hostile ears and tongues and confided only to intimates.  That anyone should blame the King is unthinkable, first because infertility is an evil that befalls not men but women, who for that very reason are often disowned and second, because there is material evidence, should such a thing be necessary, in the horde of bastards produced by the royal semen, who populate the kingdom….

ARTEFACT – …on Maundy Thursday she will have to go to the Church of the Mother of God, where the nuns will unveil the Holy Shroud in her presence before showing it to the faithful, a shroud that bears the clear impression of the Body of Christ, the one true Holy Shroud that exists in the Christian world, ladies and gentlemen, just as all the others are the one true Holy Shroud, or they would not all be shown at the same hour in so many different churches throughout the world, but because this one happens to be in Portugal it is the truest Holy Shroud of all and altogether unique.

BLIMUNDA – All I will tell you is that it’s something of a mystery, flying is simple when compared with Blimunda.

NUNS – These women are often condemned against their will to perpetual seclusion in some convent in order to protect the family fortune in favour of the male heir, where they are trapped for life so that even the simple pleasure of holding hands through the grills, or having some amorous encounter or sweet embrace is bliss, even if it should lead to hell and damnation.

DREAMS – They all slept as best they could, each with his own secret dreams, for dreams are like human beings, bearing some resemblance to one another but never quite identical, it would be as inaccurate to say I saw a man, as to say, Today I dreamed about flowing water, for this is not enough to tell us who the man was or which water was flowing.  The water that flowed in the dream belongs only to the dreamer, we shall never know what the flowing easter signals if we know nothing about the dream, and so we move to and fro, from the dreamer to the dreamt, in search of an answer.

MOON — … perhaps the scent of the moon, for everyone knows that the night assumes a different smell when there is moonlight, and even a blind man, who is incapable of distinguishing night from day, will say, The moon is shining, St. Lucy is believed to have worked this miracle, so it is really only a question of inhaling.  Yes, my friends, what a splendid moon this evening.

BELIEF –  … but anyone who claims to belong to Jesus, in conviction or name, is nothing but a hypocrite.

WOMAN – And Eve continues to be no one other than Eve, for I’m of the firm opinion that woman is but one in this world and multiple only in appearance, so she can dispense with any other name….

– Derryll White once wrote books but now chooses to read and write about them.  When not reading he writes history for the web at www.basininstitute.org.


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