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on 10 April 2018
“Baltasar and Blimunda” is a historical novel set during the reign of King John V of Portugal in the early 18th century. King John has made a vow that if an heir is born he will build a convent for the Dominican Order, and when his wife gives birth to a daughter he orders work to begin on what is to become the Convent of Mafra. (The Salic Law did not apply in Portugal so John’s daughter Maria Barbara was briefly heir to the throne, although the birth of a younger brother meant that she never became Queen of Portugal. She did, however, become Queen Consort of Spain).
Set against the story of the building of the convent is the love-story of the two title characters. (At least they are the title characters in the English translation. The original Portuguese title was “Memorial do Convento”). Baltasar is a young soldier invalided out of the army after losing his left hand in battle. Blimunda, who is said to have the gift of second sight, is a young woman whose mother has fallen foul of the Inquisition and as a result has been exiled to Angola. A third plot strand tells of Bartolomeu Lourenco de Gusmão, a Brazilian-born priest (and a real historical character) who dreams of building a flying machine and of how the lovers become involved with helping him in this strange project. (Another actual historical personage who makes an appearance is the Italian composer Domenico Scarlatti). Saramago’s treatment of religion in the novel is generally a cynical, mocking one- and when one considers the record of the Portuguese Inquisition during this period one can understand his cynicism- but Gusmão, whom the author sees as a free spirit, is treated more sympathetically.
The Convent of Mafra is today regarded as an architectural masterpiece and one of Portugal's chief tourist attractions, but Saramago (who had left-wing political sympathies) reminds us of the suffering involved in its construction. There was no health-and-safety legislation in the 18th century, and numerous workers were killed or injured during the works. As the building grew, King John’s ambitions grew with it and the building eventually erected, which incorporated a new royal palace, was far more grandiose than the relatively modest convent originally planned. Unable to find enough willing volunteers, the King took to conscripting skilled workmen from all over the kingdom, using them as little more than slave labour.
This is, however, not just a social-realist novel with a historical setting. It has been described as “magical realism”. In reality, Gusmão dreamed of building a working flying machine but never succeeded in doing so; human flight had to wait until the Montgolfier brothers’ hot-air balloon several decades later. In the novel, however, he does indeed succeed, although the method he uses for lifting his machine off the ground, based on a mysterious “ether”, is pure fantasy, magic rather than some plausible alternative science. More etherpunk than steampunk. Saramago's language, with long, unpunctuated sentences which can go on for an entire paragraph, and at times for entire pages, seems to reflect his surrealistic theme.
I was attracted to this book because of Saramago’s status as a Nobel laureate, but I cannot really say that it is a favourite of mine. There are some good passages, notably those dealing with the hardships suffered by the King’s workers, but I felt that the various themes were not well integrated into a coherent whole and the principal characters did not really come alive. The rambling sentences helped to provide a sense of unreality and strangeness, but often made the narrative difficult to understand.