A LETTER TO BETH ADAMS
At The Cassandra Pages last October, dear Beth wrote about José Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, a novel I’d recommended to her. Below is my response to her letter.
I’d brought Ricardo Reis with me to Mexico in December with no intention of finishing it, even though I had only thirty more pages to go. To be clear, there had been no intention of not finishing it either. The book mainly served as a well-worn thing to press my fingers against while I sat in a park watching four men fly, something to thread through while my legs gave themselves a stretch at a bus depot in the middle of the day or the middle of the night, but mostly it was used as comfort in moments of the loudest quiet when our mutual friends entered my thoughts, which was often.
But now I’ve gone and finished it. I finished it here at home during lunch a week ago. Immediately I sent you a note to mark the occasion, and then I spent a week forgetting about it. The book has been lying on my desk at work as a reminder that I am forgetting about it. A colleague spotted it and said he can’t remember a single thing about Ricardo Reis. Perhaps this is the purpose of Ricardo Reis: he’s so opaque, he’s not meant to be remembered; he’s so mannered, he’s not meant to be a character, even though he’s very much flesh and blood (just look at Lydia, just look at what he does, or did, to Lydia); he’s so not there, we forget that he was never meant to be there at all, that he doesn’t exist twice over. He himself acknowledges this passivity:
He finally said aloud, like a message he must not forget, I live here, this is where I live, this is my home, this, I have no other, and suddenly he felt fear, the terror of a man who finds himself in a deep cave and pushes open a door that leads into the darkness of an even deeper cave, or to a voice, an absence, nothingness, the passage to nonbeing.
In this way I see something of myself in him. My porosity to books, as you so aptly phrased it, can be intense, but in the past it was to absorb the style and nuance of the writing to fuel my own—a bit like stealing the books’ souls. Toward the end of Ricardo Reis, however, no longer was there a style for me to absorb, because in place of style—and here I also mean story—were the mundane details of a world creeping toward war and of a man fallen into a sound, soundless depression. What I wound up absorbing here was lowness, absence, the porosity of a ghost.
This partly explains why I’d avoided finishing the book for so long when I was close to the end. To continue through this emptiness—this fatigue, as you put it—would have been to enter into it myself, wholly; and once the final page was reached, despite what little redemption I’d been prepared to find in the storytelling (not in Ricardo Reis, I’d given up on him), I would be faced with a precipice, a point of decision making: what does one do with this emptiness?
Saramago describes Ricardo Reis as “a man who claims to be so detached from the world yet who after all wants the world to trample on him.” Detachment is a choice; waiting for the world to happen to you is a choice. But the interesting thing about passivity as choice is that it can also be considered as hibernation, as a springboard toward action. In Ricardo Reis’s case, only one action is left to him at the end of the book. I don’t agree with his action, but I don’t disagree with it either. If he is to leave our pages at all, then it is fitting that he should do so with his creator, Fernando Pessoa. And when this final page is turned, we are at last left with a blank.
I once dreamed of what it would be like to die: I was hiding behind the counter in a convenience store while a masked man was robbing us, then he found me and pulled the trigger—and all went black. I was still conscious inside the dream—that is, I hadn’t awakened to my bedroom but was staring at a screen of black—and thought: “Well, this isn’t so terrifying.” The dream had sprung from two recurring (though low-register) anxieties: the memory of a robbery when I was a teenager, and the mental preparation for the deaths of loved ones. I stopped dreading death; what I started dreading instead was un-fulfillment, nonperformance, choreographed complacency, flatness, a literal nonbeingness. But now I see that these categories can also belong to death, with the comforting constant being the black screen, the blank page at the end of the book. This doesn’t have to be so terrifying.
So yes, the last two pages of Ricardo Reis seem to answer this question of the choice of continuation, of perseverance. The answer is on the oblique side, to be sure, but sometimes that is the best kind of answer. Anyway it is a relief to have any answer at all, don’t you think, after reading pages of a dried-up life and of a nation entering war?
Here, again, are the lines near the end that had moved me:
Reading is the first faculty one loses, remember. Ricardo Reis opened the book, saw meaningless marks, black scribbles, a page of blotches. The faculty has already left me, he said, but no matter, I’ll take the book with me just the same. But why. I relieve the world of one enigma.
Meaningless marks. Black scribbles. A page of blotches, of “incomprehensible drawings.” With these words, Ricardo Reis no longer gives himself the space to breathe. Is such an ending a miracle? For me it is. I see both real meaning and no meaning in these lines; by the time I reached them, I had no relationship to literary style anymore, because there’s just not much you need to absorb unless you go out and live meaning. Maybe when you’re shadowed by yourself, as Ricardo Reis was shadowed by Fernando Pessoa, the word “meaning” becomes too complicated. In some ways I’m glad my own shadow hasn’t shown up yet, though I’ve caught glimpses of her now and then.
Beth, forgive me for these incomplete thoughts, which are far incompleter than yours—I have a long list of favorite passages I’d hoped to touch on—and also for the tardiness of my response. I’ll close with this: A friend once said she saw herself walking about as an old man, and this had resonated deeply with me. I recognize now that the resonance comes from a desire to mourn what had once been tangible, as well as the passage of time. Time can be so loud, from the ticking of a clock or the falling of miraculous leaves. In the case of this novel that we’ve enjoyed together—from which we’ve taken away such personal readings—there is the year after the death of Fernando Pessoa, which is also the year in the death of Ricardo Reis. Imagine Fernando Pessoa visiting each of his heteronyms during this one year to let them know he’s died. During his time away from our Ricardo Reis, he must have gone to see Alberto Caeiro as well, while also steering Álvaro de Campos through his own existential crisis; and Bernardo Soares, disquieted by the silenced Fernando Pessoa, must have set down his own pen finally.
yours in life,