Saramago's first major novel is set in eighteenth-century Portugal and is, at its roots, the story of the love between Baltasar, a drifting soldier who lost his left arm in conflict, and
Blimunda, who develops a heightened sense of vision when she fasts. The pair are tasked by the priest Bartolomeu Lourenco de Gusmao (a genuine historical character) to help build La Passarola, a flying machine powered by human will. Interwoven with this narrative is the construction of a colossal convent at Mafra - commissioned by King Joao V after his queen conceives - and the shadow of the Inquisition, whose invisible arm stretches to every corner of Portugal.
The book has a magical realist feel - blending fact, fiction and the unbelievable into one coherent whole, told by an unknown narrator who is prone to asides or reflection on life, love, poverty, despotism and the power of church and state. A wistful tone (perhaps akin to the Portuguese concept of saudade) permeates the tale, alongside a sense of fatalism, an atmosphere of repression, and a fantastic imagination. The narrative style is distinct: occasional sparse sentences are mixed with long, flowing paragraphs that switch between speakers and periods of time without pause; occasionally difficult to follow, the general effect is one of breathlessness.
The ending is one of the best I've read, but there are memorable passages throughout and it's a book that would be just as good on a second reading. Highly recommended.