Crítica a “Claraboia” (“Skylight”) no San Francisco Gate

Crítica a “Claraboia” (“Skylight”) no San Francisco Gate

After the Portuguese writer José Saramago published his first novel, “Land of Sin,” in 1947, he spent the next several years working on a new book, “Skylight.” But when he delivered his only copy of the manuscript in 1953, his publisher failed to get back to him. Dispirited by this seeming rejection, Saramago dedicated most of his 30s and early 40s to journalism and didn’t write another novel until the 1970s. He brought out a book every year or two thereafter, breaking through with the international best-seller “Baltasar and Blimunda.”
In 1989, the publisher that had held on to “Skylight” for decades contacted the now-famous writer, saying they had unearthed the manuscript after losing it in a move and wanted to publish it. Still not over the slight, Saramago retrieved the novel but refused the offer. He won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998 and died in 2010, and only now has his widow, Pilar del Río, decided to publish “the book lost and found in time.”
“Skylight” is a masterwork of characterization, place and point of view. As del Río notes in her preface, it anticipates the complex female characters and many of the prototypes that would appear in Saramago’s later work, “that whole tribe of silent men, free, solitary beings who need to find love in order, however briefly, to break out of their focused, introverted way of being in the world.” The place is an apartment block in a middle-class Lisbon neighborhood soon after World War II during the Salazar dictatorship. The book falls into the small but vibrant category of fiction set in urban buildings whose inhabitants form a cross section of society, a category that includes Emile Zola’s “Pot Luck,” Gloria Naylor’s “The Women of Brewster Place,” Manil Suri’s “The Death of Vishnu” and Alaa Al Aswani’s “The Yacoubian Building.”
At first, the point of view moves like a camera, beginning in the ground-floor apartment of the cobbler Silvestre and his wife, Mariana, on a day they realize they’ll need to take in a boarder to make ends meet. We drift up to the second floor to the seamstress Isaura, who, along with her sister Adriana, barely manages to pay rent on the flat they share with their mother and aunt. Another downstairs neighbor, Justina, appears at their door to complain about the clacking of the sewing machine because it’s interrupting the sleep of her husband, Caetano, an irascible second-shift Linotype operator. On the way back to her apartment, Justina overhears other neighbors, Anselmo and Rosália.
We move to Rosália’s flat, where she’s arguing with her 19-year-old daughter, Claudhina, who has decided to stay home from work on account of a headache. We follow Claudhina downstairs to borrow the phone of the one well-off resident of the block, Dona Lídia, a kept woman who spends her days reading novels and awaiting the thrice-weekly arrival of Paulino Morais. “She knew that the only thing that bound him to her was her body, and so she took every opportunity to show it off, especially now, when her body was still young and shapely.”
Having established each character’s situation, Saramago limits the point of view of the rest of the chapters to individual apartments and the private crises taking place within them. As the focus tightens, the drama intensifies: Silvestre and Mariana’s boarder, Abel, has misled them about his past and turns out to be a mysterious drifter. One insomniac night, repressed, love-starved Isaura finds herself making an advance on her own sister. Caetano’s wandering eye leads Justina to confront him about the women whose photos he carries in his wallet, igniting a series of increasingly unsettling events. And Dona Lídia will live to regret introducing younger, prettier Claudhina to her lover, the man who pays her rent.
The events that fill “Skylight” — adultery, incest, physical, sexual and emotional abuse — are shocking on reflection but within the pages emerge so clearly out of the characters’ loneliness, frustration, longing and misery as to seem inevitable. Perhaps Saramago’s early publisher shelved the manuscript out of fear that Portugal under fascism wasn’t ready for it. But just as he writes toward the end, “At last the day had come when all secrets would be revealed,” it was only a matter of time before a work of such extraordinary honesty and perception would make its way into the world.

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