Skylight by Jose Saramago illustrates the inner-workings of the mind through a patchwork of characters living in a run-down apartment complex in Lisbon during the 1940s. The epigraph, a quote from Portuguese writer Raul Brandão, reads, “In all souls, as in all houses, beyond the façade lies a hidden interior.” Saramago removes the apartment curtains to show his characters for who they really are, even if what we see inside isn’t always beautiful. This “book lost and found in time” also offers a view into Jose Saramago’s early career as a writer, in the midst of solidifying his style. Saramago originally submitted the novel for publication in 1953 when he was 31-years-old, but the publishers never contacted him. Now released more than 60 years after its creation, the book seems as relevant and gripping as if it had been written yesterday, mostly due to the feeling of intimacy the reader experiences with the characters. Even if this book isn’t technically brand new, it is still fresh to the eyes of Saramago’s faithful readers. British translator Margaret Joll Costa produces a very fluid translation of Saramago’s original Portuguese text, which reminds readers that Saramago’s words can continue to make his readers question and ponder life even after his death.
The Lisbon apartment dwellers range from an old cobbler who debates the meaning of life with his temporary lodger, a young drifter, to a diabetic wife who can’t come to terms with her sexual lust for her husband when she feels no love for him. The apartment walls also contain a well-established mistress and a 16-year old on the verge of becoming a mistress herself; two daughters who share a sexual moment with each other and an aunt trying to find out their secret; and a couple longing for the freedom of divorce. Saramago masterfully mixes the characters’ lives together through eavesdropping, gossip, or even anonymous, rumor-starting letters. At times, the reader feels like a fly on the wall, witnessing scenes only meant for the characters themselves. The characters are voyeurs themselves, watching each other through apartment windows, or from balconies. The reader feels a bit lost at the beginning of the novel because there isn’t a clear protagonist to stand behind. Not one character or side plot is more important than another. This can be challenging to those accustomed to the conventional hero versus villain story arc, but soon the apartment itself begins to resemble a protagonist, made up of all the desires and struggles of its inhabitants melded together to create a common human conscious. In the end, the conflict lays within the apartment’s walls, or more specifically, within the minds of its troubled residents.
Saramago emphasizes physical appearance through meticulous character description, which contrasts with the deep inner thoughts and philosophical discussions in the novel. Characters often construct reputations for each other based on exterior knowledge and outward appearances. These illusions can be lasting, but the reader’s omniscient, birds-eye view through the “skylight” the author provides helps to differentiate between the real and the illusory. But even this perspective isn’t enough to truly know a character because often they act in unpredictable, or rather, human ways. Isaura ponders on illusions and imprecision: “The landscape never varied, but she only ever found it monotonous on stubbornly bright, blue summer days when everything was too obvious somehow, too well defined. A misty morning like this — a thin mist that did not entirely conceal the view — endowed the city with a dream-like imprecision.” Like this description, the reader enjoys the dream-like imprecision that Saramago injects into his writing. Everything is not always obvious or defined; a metaphor is always tucked behind the next phrase, and therefore Saramago’s style never becomes monotonous. The way he describes his characters with such subtlety and precision is made all the more impressive by how young and inexperienced Saramago was when he completed Skylight. He had never been to university, and he came from two generations of illiterate men. One could argue that a bit of Saramago is reflected in Silvestre, the cobbler. Abel, the drifter, asks, “Are you a professor in disguise?” And Silvestre responds, “No, I’m just a man who thinks.”
Desire is a frequently used word in Skylight. Saramago writes, “She was tormented by an objectless desire, by a desire for desire and by an equal fear of it too.” This description of Isaura, who struggles with sexual feelings for her sister Adriana, reflects this paralyzing, drifting “desire” that so many of the characters experience. Desire is a relatable human emotion that drives us all, but toward what? The idea of having an objective or being useful also arises in Skylight, most noticeably in conversations between Silvestre and Abel. The cobbler keeps telling Abel to be “useful,” but Abel doesn’t know how to find his calling. In one of the most memorable scenes in the novel, Abel tells Silvestre, “I don’t want to be trapped, and life is an octopus with many tentacles. It just takes one to trap a man. Whenever I start to feel trapped, I cut off the tentacle. Sometimes that’s painful, but there’s no other way.” Silvestre calmly answers, “However often you cut them off, there’s always one that resists, and that’s the one that ends up getting a hold of you.” At the end of the novel, Abel must leave Silvestre’s house to find his own a path. Even if it isn’t explicitly stated, Abel’s stay with Mariana and Silvestre has left at least the imprint of a tentacle, one that will motivate Abel to not always be “useless.”
Like Abel, the reader must leave the apartment building at the end of the novel, at least until the next read. However, Saramago’s words and ideas, his philosophies regarding happiness, desire, and illusions will become tentacles, holding on to the reader’s mind long after the book has closed.
By Jose Saramago
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
320 pages. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26.00.