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4.1 out of 5 stars
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Baltasar & Blimunda (Panther)
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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.
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on 13 May 2014
Have been a massive fan of Saramago for years, and having just re-read this one, I found myself thinking it was his best book, which surprised me because it wasn't an impression I'd had before.

All of the Saramago trademarks are here - a poignant love story, fictional personal tales set in a historical context, a subtle bit of magical realism and a seething anger against the injustices of church and state that is sometimes hidden so well behind deadpan dry sarcasm that it could go completely over your head and you could mistake him for a conservative. (Very much like Halldor Laxness in this regard)

Here though, in comparison to his other books, maybe the love story is even more convincing and moving, the historical backdrop even more fully realised, the magical realism more integral...

I find that Saramago got more accessible as the years went by, and although this is by no means a "difficult" book, I think that later works such as The Double, Death at Intervals or Cain (all brilliant) may offer a simpler introduction to his unique punctuation style and biting sarcasm before moving onto this slightly more complex earlier work.
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on 3 October 2016
I have only read 'Blindness' by Saramago and it is an incredible book. Like all great books and great writers, 'Blindness' seemed like a parable and Saramago to my mind reminded me of Coetzee in the way that he wrote and the story that he told unfolded just like a parable.
This is my second book of his and I believe I made a misjudgement. I have little basis in Portugese culture or history. So these known historical characters and the great convent were not known to me. I just found it hard to really associate with. There is however a wonderful perspective to the writing, given as it is by a third person who appears to have insight into all the characters and the age and to be intimately aware of them and their situations. And those little snippets and asides which occur now and again were quite magical. This feels like historical magical realism.
I think I have been defeated by my own expectations after 'Blindness'.
The characters of Baltasar and Blimunda are wonderfully filled in and their interaction with the wayward priest Bartolomeu and the flying machine captivated me and made the book for me. Once the machine had flow and crashed and Bartolomeu had fled then I lost interest even though the tale of the moving of the balcony stone is a story within a story.
This deserves , for me, a second read at a later date. And I will not give up on Saramago that's for sure with his elegant writing.
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on 10 July 2014
A very strange book which I found fascinating. It is a love story set in the time of the inquisition in Portugal written by an atheist, communist author. It describes the lasting love between 'ordinary' but extraordinary working class people against the background of the terrible things done by the Catholic Church and an autocratic ruler.
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on 3 March 2016
very happy with the service you provide. solid.
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on 1 August 2014
Great book, wonderful story, fabulous caracters.
A Nobel price book.
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on 25 July 2009
One of the "1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die" in the International Edition, in which it has supplanted "The Double" recommended in the original edition of that publication.

In this novel, as with all Saramago's work, the distinctive authorial voice is ever present - long paragraphs, long sentences, little punctuation (so it requires an alert response) - which reflects as it goes, philosophically, on the nature of the world.

There are stunning juxtapositions, between the life of the poor in early 18th century Portugal, and the life of the rich and the building of convents. The irrepressible spirit of humanity is richly present in the central characters. And there's a central "magical" theme: the early invention of flying (compare: the existence of doubles, the re-writing of the history of the siege of Lisbon, the experience of the Iberian peninsula drifting away from mainland Europe - in some of Saramago's other works).

I have by no means read all of Saramago's work. But I have preferred some of Saramago's other novels: The Double has are more intriguing central "magical" theme and narrative, the History of the Siege of Lisbon a delicate love story, and I retain a soft spot for The Year Of the Death Of Ricardo Reis, my first encounter with this unusual author.
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on 20 November 2015
A bit long winded
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on 7 February 2001
This is not so much a love story as a fantastical journey through language. Saramago is often praised for his ideas, but people forget to mention what is most striking and astonishing about him, and this is his command of language and vocabulary. Of course some of this might be lost in the translation into English (most of his books are originally written in Portuguese), but it will still leave the reader short of breath. "The building of the convent" as it could freely be translated from its original title, tells us how the decission to construct a convent by the King of Portugal radically changes the lives of generations of medieval Portuguese people, in the times when moving a single rock meant using animals and even humans in a slow and tremendous process. In the tumult we find love and science taking very surprising and magical turns. A classic from a well deserved Nobel Price winner!
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on 18 February 2014
Although a well-written translation, Saramago’s style of layering descriptions and diverting the flow of the story to focus on obscure historical subjects is troubling.

It sounds crazy for a book that’s over 300 pages long, but you really do read this book for the final paragraph – it suddenly becomes an exceptionally poignant love story.
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