The novel Baltasar and Blimunda, written in 1984, advanced José Saramago (1922–2010) from national popularity to international recognition. The historical novel was translated from the Portuguese into English by Giovanni Pontiero in 1986. José Saramago was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1998. History, fantasy, romance, and Saramago’s distinctive critique of social inequities converge in this multifaceted literary work. His unique narrative style established the groundwork for his later novels. Saramago experimented with his distinctive blend of dialogue, description, and commentary in densely packed yet fl owing text.
Historicity blends with fantasy and romance in the novel, called a “romance” in the Portuguese. The actual construction of the convent and palace of Mafra near Lisbon was ordered by King João V during the early 18th century. He promised a Franciscan monk that he would build the Memorial of the Convent to God if he and his wife were blessed with a child. When his wish was granted—Queen Maria Ana Josefa conceived an heir to the throne after years of a barren reign—the king proposed an extravagant copy of the Vatican. While constructed on a smaller scale, his memorial pays homage to the nameless peasants who joined Baltasar and Blimunda in its construction. The immense undertaking required an inexhaustible supply of peasant labor. Peasants were dispensable to royalty, a footnote at most in recorded history. In his novel, Saramago parallels their personal history with the official story, that of church and state. The lovers of his book portray the sorrows and joys of the masses of humanity left unwritten in the annals of history.
Saramago unites an unlikely cast of characters who reveal humanity’s saving grace amid the fires of international wars and the Inquisition. The wise female protagonist, Blimunda, possesses a second sight that perceives the interior life sources of others. She sees their wills rather than their souls, which belong to the church. She also chooses her circle of intimates through her acute perception. While witnessing her mother’s execution in an auto-da-fé with more than 100 other Portuguese peasants in the Plaza Rocio, she approaches Baltasar to tell him that he is already known to her. Blimunda’s mother, although a converted Christian, was burned for being one-fourth Jewish. Her last earthly sight was of her daughter united with her soul mate. The indivisible couple bond with an inventor-priest, Fray Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão, who warns them that he may also be condemned for heretical ideas. His insatiable and unorthodox quest for knowledge and truth frees them all. Together they form an earthly trinity. Their union preserves their tenuous humanity as their joint efforts enable them to rise above their lowly condition.
The unlikely friends come together while witnessing an auto-da-fé, or mass execution, in the public square. While she does not reveal that she is witnessing her own mother’s execution, Blimunda communicates silently with the woman at the stake who searches for her daughter in the crowd of onlookers as she burns. Blimunda’s mother manages to convey to her that Baltasar Sete-Sóis (Seven Suns), the man whom she has just chosen, will accompany her throughout her life. The condemned mother then dies knowing that Blimunda is not left alone in the world.
The founding of the Convent of Mafra results from the convergence of various levels of Portuguese society. King João V, who has fathered many illegitimate children, is unable to produce an heir to the throne with Queen Maria. He makes a deal with God through a Franciscan mediator, Fray Bartolomeu, to fund the memorial if God grants them an heir. His prayers, and those of the Franciscan priest deal broker, are answered. His memorial is built upon countless invisible peasant lives.
Blimunda’s pure vision counterbalances the hubris and greed of the ruling classes. She sees clearly through every person and every “body.” When she does not see the body of Christ in the Eucharistic host, she surmises that Christ does not dwell there, nor does He reside in humans. Saramago portrays Blimunda as a pure but not celestial being. Her transparency enables her to perceive the interior of every human being. Blimunda does not find souls there, which belong to a distant, and in Saramago’s novel, absent god. Rather, she collects wills. As she gathers human wills into her mystical yet commonplace basket, Blimunda empowers her friend to create a flying machine and motivates her beloved to travel the world in search of her when they are separated. The “passarola,” a great mechanical bird, releases this earthly trinity from the constraints of their positions.
Domenico Scarlatti, the Italian composer, is also befriended by Fray Bartolomeu. His official post as musical director of the convent’s choirs and music teacher to the royal Portuguese heirs is affected by Blimunda’s purity. Moved by her clarity of vision while grounded firmly in the natural world, Scarlatti is inspired to create sounds as ethereal as her way of perceiving that world. Scarlatti seeks to compose music that will break away from the instruments and ascend like the lovers who take to the sky in the “passarola,” or great bird.
Baltasar’s blind loyalty is guided by his lover’s acute vision. Despite the loss of one hand in battle, he works on the construction site as well as on the fl ying machine, the invention of the visionary monk whom they have befriended.
One allegorical quest is the success of the passarola, Father Bartolomeu’s flying machine. His lifelong obsession allows the lovers to rise above the squalor, suffering, and injustice of their condition. The earthly trinity is temporarily able to leave earthly misery behind and share a private paradise. Autocratic and dogmatic powers of Church and State cannot reach them in their private space on the passarola.
When Blimunda discovers Baltasar years after his final voyage, their freedom is preserved. Upon landing from a solo flight to a distant region of Portugal, he was captured as a heretic. After searching nine years throughout Portugal, she finds Baltasar last in line to be burned at the stake in Lisbon. This auto-da-fé closes the circle opened by her mother’s execution. Upon his death, Baltasar’s own will reunites with Blimunda to rest with her, the constant and all-seeing keeper of wills. Their indomitable love is of earth, not of heaven. Blimunda, the keeper of wills, preserves their earthly paradise in her personal Memorial. Readers may experience this personal paradise and parallel history of Portugal for themselves by entering the earthly kingdom of Baltasar and Blimunda.
Barroso, Conzelina. “José Saramago: The Art of Fiction.” The Paris Review, Vol. 40, No. 149 (Winter 1998): 54–74.
Bloom, Harold, ed. José Saramago (Bloom’s Modern Critical Views). New York: Chelsea House, 2005.
Cole, Kevin L. “José Saramago’s Blindness.” The Explicator vol. 64, no. 2, (Winter 2006): 109–112.
Engdahl, Horace, ed. “José Saramago,” Literature, 1996–2000 (Nobel Lectures: Including presentation Speeches and Laureates’ Biographies). Singapore: World Scientific, 2003. 87–107.
MacLehose, Christopher. Turning the Page: Essays, Memoirs, Fiction, Poetry. London: Harvill, 1993.
Saramago, José. Blindness. Translated by Giovanni Pontiero. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt, 1997.
———. Baltasar and Blimunda. Translated by Giovanni Pontiero. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt, 1987.
———. The Double. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. London: Harvill, 2004.