The story behind José Saramago's Skylight (Claraboia) could grace the pages of one of his novels: a Nobel Prize winning author is reunited with a manuscript written in 1952 which had lain dormant in a publisher's draw after 36 years. As Saramago's wife Pilar del Rio explains in a touching prologue to this new English translation (released by Harvill Secker on 3 July 2014), the Portuguese Nobel Laureate was somewhat weary of this "lost novel" at the time, and refused for it to published until after his death. Although Saramago went on to have a glittering literary career in later life, hearing nothing back from the publisher about Claraboia deeply wounded his pride and it would take nearly two decades before he dared to write another novel. As a result, it was only following Saramago's death in June 2010 that Claraboia was published, and in that way became, as Pilar affirms, a gift from beyond the grave.
In her introduction, Pilar delights that so many germs of Saramago's later writing are already present in Skylight. As this is the first time I've read anything by him, I can't comment, but on the strength of this utterly absorbing character study, I certainly want to read a lot more. Skylight is a portrait of the six families who occupy an apartment block in Lisbon, their loves, loneliness, fierce domestic battles and everyday struggles, all overheard and gossiped about by the neighbours.
While the novel's setting is identifiably the 1950s, and the shadow of Salazar looms large, this ensemble cast are strikingly modern. Saramago does not shy away from the thoroughly taboo topics of his day, from lesbian love to domestic abuse. Given the glorification of the family as the cornerstone of the nation under Salazar, Saramago's unsentimental portrayal of many unhappy marriages (and one beautifully happy one) is particularly brave. His refusal to pander to the morals of his day is striking. Lucía may be a kept woman, but Saramago portrays her with great respect, as her behaviour puts that of those who call her a whore to shame. The bullying brute Caetano is put in his place by his long-suffering wife. It is this type of thinking, totally at odds with the conservative dictatorship of the time, which Pilar assumes intimidated the publishers at the time of submission and doomed this brilliant novel to the draw.
The autodidact Saramago's prose is a joy to read. He effortlessly peppers the day to day speech of the working class with erudite references to Beethoven, Shakespeare and Diderot, with a glimmer of pride at the knowledge of these great figures he acquired for himself. As many readers have already noted since the Portuguese version was published in 2011, this novel feels as alive and fresh as those he published just before his death. Thankfully, Harvill Secker have done justice to the original by entrusting the translation to the multi-award winning Margaret Jull Costa who always demonstrates that remarkable skill of making readers forget that they are reading a translation.
Readers familiar with Saramago's work will no doubt enjoy playing detective, hunting through Skylight for hints of later works. For those, like me, with no previous experience of this fantastic author, as both his first and last novel, Skylight seems the perfect initiation.