Baltasar and Blimunda

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Baltasar and Blimunda

by José Saramago


A novel set in Lisbon and around Mafra, in central Portugal, in the first half of the eighteenth century; published in Portuguese (as Memorial do Convento) in 1982, in English in 1987 and (in a revised translation) in 1998.


Baltasar and Blimunda, an ordinary couple, become involved in the plan of King João V of Portugal to build a great convent and palace at Mafra, and in the construction of a flying machine designed by the eccentric Father Bartolorneu Lourenço de Gusmão. Baltasar’s ultimate fate is determined by the inquisition, probably for reasons connected with his involvement in the project to build the flying machine.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

José Saramago was born in 1922 in Azinhaga, in the Ribatejo province of Portugal, but his family moved to Lisbon when he was still a child. His parents were not wealthy, so he completed his secondary education in a vocational school, where he trained to become a mechanic. He nonetheless found time to read widely, and, after working only briefly as a mechanic, progressed through a variety of newspaper jobs, from clerical worker, to production assistant, proofreader, and newspaper columnist. Ultimately, after the democratic Revolution of 1974 that deposed Portugal’s right-wing dictatorship, Saramago became adjunct editor of the major Lisbon newspaper Diário de Noticias. Meanwhile, his literary career began unspectacularly, including one early novel, two collections of verse, and four volumes of journalistic writing, none of which attracted much attention. It was only after being dismissed from his job at the Diário de Noticias in 1975, in the wake of a counter-revolutionary coup, that Saramago took up his writing career in earnest. He produced a collection of short stories and a second novel, before writing a third, critically acclaimed novel—Levantado do Chão (1980; Raised from the Soil). Similar acclaim and greater commercial success followed for subsequent novels, including Memorial do Convento (1982; Baltasar and Blimunda, 1987 and 1998), the work that launched him on a series of critical and commercial triumphs. Saramago’s well-publicized loyalty to the Portuguese Communist Party and his outspoken views relating to politics and current affairs have led to his being viewed by many as a controversial figure. Works such as his rewriting of the gospel story in O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo (1991; The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, 1993) provoked heated debate, in which government ministers condemned his work, contributing to his subsequent emigration to Spain. Despite the outcry, acclaim for Saramago’s writing continued, culminating in his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. Written in his characteristic multivocal, oral style, Baltasar and Blimunda epitomizes the powerful mix of social conscience and fantasy typical of his fiction. The novel allows the ordinary citizen to take center stage in an age that usually gave such prominence only to royalty, clergy, and nobility.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

All that glittered was not gold

Early-eighteenth-century Portugal was an imperial power at the peak of its prestige but already in decline in terms of influence on the international stage. The discovery of gold and diamonds in Brazil in the late seventeenth century, along with imports of luxury goods from the wide-ranging Portuguese trading posts in Africa and Asia, permitted the court of King João V to display fabulous wealth, rivaling that of the French court of Louis XIV in its opulence and sophistication. Major European cultural figures, such as the Italian composer Domenico Scarlatti and the German architect Johann Friedrich Ludwig (who both appear in fictional form in Baltasar and Blimunda) were invited by the Court to Lisbon from overseas, and they did much to enrich Portuguese cultural life. Portugal also saw the completion of several major projects during this period, including the magnificent baroque University Library at Coimbra, and the convent and palace of Mafra, which is the pretext for the fictional setting of Saramago’s novel. All the glitter and magnificence were deceptive, however.

The splendor and wealth masked Portugal’s rapid decline as a world power. Although the country had recovered from 60 years of Spanish domination (1580–1640) to regain its role as a seat of empire in Africa, Asia, and America, its strength was relative: Britain, Holland, and France were now the major colonial and trading powers in Europe. Also, the 1703 Treaty of Methuen, in which Portugal permitted the import of English woolens in return for a preferential duty by England on Portuguese wines, proved more favorable to the British than to the Portuguese. Throughout the reign of João V, Portugal generally imported goods from Britain worth approximately three times the value of exports to that country. In addition, the dependence of the Portuguese economy on the export of one product—port wine—to the British market made the economic health of the country dangerously dependent on the needs and interests of this dominant trading partner.

Meanwhile the Portuguese came to rely on the wealth of Brazil in a way that did little to aid long-term development of Portugal’s national economy. Colonial gold was used to import luxury goods from overseas rather than to invest in the development of domestic industrial production. As a result, Portugal tended to export raw materials and to depend on foreign markets for manufactured goods, to the detriment of the underlying economic health of the nation.

In the political sphere, the resources at the country’s disposal enabled the king to avoid summoning the Cortes (parliament) throughout his reign, so he was able to impose his own will on the country virtually unchallenged. Whereas the new powers emerging in Northern Europe (primarily Britain, Holland, and France) benefited from the dynamism born of a spirit of philosophical inquiry, freedom of speech, and increasing democracy, Portugal remained a country institutionally rooted in the past. Not only did the king enjoy absolute power as monarch, he continued to be viewed as an expression of God’s will on earth, precluding any separation of the powers of church and state. The prevailing view saw the monarchy as the head of a corporatist state, conceived along lines similar to those of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651), with each social element having its individual function within an organic whole. As societal head, the king thus had the uncontestable right to make decisions on behalf of the nation as a whole.

Though the sovereign had ultimate authority, the Church wielded considerable influence on civil society, especially in the era of the Inquisition (1536–1821). The Inquisition, a tribunal to suppress deviation from the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, possessed the powers to condemn ordinary citizens for loosely defined offenses such as heresy, witchcraft, and observance of Judaic practices. H. V. Livermore writes that

Confession and denunciation were required in cases of keeping the Sabbath on Saturday or Friday, fasting for Ramadan, praying shoeless, bathing the whole body, refusal to consume bacon or wine, the denial of hell, paradise, mass, absolution, the virgin birth or the articles of faith, and bigamy, witchcraft or the unauthorized possession of the Bible in Portuguese.

(Livermore, p. 147)

The powers of the Inquisition would be severely curtailed by the Marquês de Pombal in the eighteenth century, but only in the second half of the century, after the novel takes place.

In the novel, Blimunda’s mother, Sebastiana de Jesus, a converted Jewess, is sent into exile in Africa for claiming to have mysterious visions, while Baltasar is eventually executed for unspecified offences, probably linked to his second flight in Bartolomeu’s flying machine. The total number of victims executed by the Holy Office probably was not as high as many might think. Oliveira Marques gives the total number burned at the stake between 1648 and 1747 as 146 (Marques, p. 312). Still, the influence that the Inquisition exerted, directly and indirectly, over life in Portugal was considerable, so that the “twin forces of piety and bigotry” continued to prevail in the country into the latter half of the eighteenth century (Birmingham, p. 78). Its victims included notable figures such as the playwright António José da Silva, whose execution for Judaic tendencies in 1739 is reported alongside Baltasar’s in Saramago’s novel.

The convent of Mafra

This giant building, which comprises a church, a monastery for 300 monks, and a royal palace and gardens, was constructed in fulfillment of a vow made by King João V in 1711 to build a new monastery for the Franciscan order if his Queen, D. Maria Ana of Austria, would bear him an heir. The massive project took nearly 20 years to construct and required the use of forced-labor chain gangs brought in from all over the country. This is presented in the novel as leading to the neglect and even the willful destruction of valuable agricultural land:

They left early, meeting up with other men along the route, whom Baltasar recognised as neighbours also helping to build the convent, which might explain why the surrounding fields have been abandoned, the old folks and the women cannot cultivate the land on their own.

On a small plot of land situated behind the convent walls lying to the east, the friar in charge of the kitchen-garden attached to the hospice had planted fruit trees and laid out beds with a variety of produce and borders of flowers, the mere beginnings of a fully established orchard and kitchen-garden. All of this would be destroyed.

(Saramago, Baltasar and Blimunda, pp. 197, 270)

These quotations illustrate the consequences not only of the building project of Mafra, but also of a general national agricultural policy of the period, which neglected useful developments in favor of short-term profit. Thus, reports Oliveira Marques, the wine industry (which enjoyed an unprecedented boom at the time, due largely to exports to Britain) was allowed to extend its vineyards to clearly unsuitable land, and this led to a decline in staples needed for domestic consumption, such as wheat (Marques, p. 281).

The grandeur and huge scale of the building project were clearly designed to invite favorable comparisons with other major construction projects by other monarchs (such as Philip II’s monastery and palace at El Escorial, built near Madrid between 1563 and 1584, and Louis XIV’s royal palace at Versailles, outside Paris, built between 1660 and 1685). To the modern eye, this seems like economic foolishness at best and cruel negligence of the kingdom’s real interests at worst. Contemporary expectations of kings, however, were that they should spare no expense


On nights when the King visits the Queen, the bedbugs come out at a much later hour because of the heaving of the mattress, for they are insects who enjoy peace and quiet and prefer to discover their victims asleep. In the King’s bed, too, there are yet more bedbugs waiting for their share of blood, for His Majesty’s blood tastes no better or worse than that of the other inhabitants of the city, whether blue or otherwise.

(Baltasar and Blimunda, p. 8)

These bugs recall Saramago’s short story “The Chair,” which features a succession of woodworms that gnaw away at the legs of a chair, eventually leading it to collapse. The story is clearly based on the accident suffered by the Portuguese dictator Salazar in 1968, when a chair collapsed under him, leading to his incapacitation for office and thus to the eventual fall of his regime, the New State, in 1974. The analogy sheds new light on the frequent likening in Baltasar and Blimunda of the workers at Mafra to ants. These “ants” can be seen not merely as unquestioning lackeys of the king, but as potential instruments of far-reaching change. Likewise, the bedbugs gnawing at the bodies of the king and queen under their eiderdown may be seen as signaling the fall of the monarchy and loss of its accompanying privileges.

in increasing their own prestige. Meanwhile, ordinary citizens, such as Baltasar and Blimunda, were essentially pawns of those with greater power in a society that still preserved many of the structures of feudalism: individual progress was dependent on patronage; soldiers were recruited by force from the ranks of the peasantry, and then discarded when no longer required by the Crown, as happens to Baltasar in the novel (Baltasar and Blimunda, pp. 26–27); people were removed from their homes or moved to different locations at the behest of their social superiors; and even the lucky ones (such as Baltasar’s father in the novel) who possessed their own land might find themselves required to give it up for the good of the crown with no guarantee of compensation (Baltasar and Blimunda, p. 100). Ironically the one major construction project clearly undertaken for the public good, the Free Waters Aqueduct in Lisbon, was paid for by the common people themselves, with taxes being levied on staples such as wine, olive oil, and meat in order to finance the scheme (Carvalho in Levenson, p. 40).

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

Baltasar and Blimunda opens at the court of King João V in Lisbon in 1711, presenting the reader with an irreverent portrait of the pomp and circumstance surrounding all royal activities, most notably the sexual coupling of the king with his queen, D. Maria Ana of Austria, who he hopes will bear him an heir to the throne. The bedbugs that afflict the royal couple as they lie beneath the blankets suggest the moral degeneracy of the monarchy.

The opening chapter concludes with the king’s being persuaded by a representative of the Franciscan order to vow to build a convent for the order if his wish to have an heir is fulfilled, although the narrative slyly suggests that the king is a victim of ecclesiastical manipulation in that the queen’s confessor may already be aware of her pregnancy and have informed the Franciscans of that fact in advance. Subsequent chapters set the scene for the major events of the novel by depicting (with some exuberant color) the realities of life for ordinary citizens in Lisbon in the early eighteenth century: the corruption and hypocrisy of the clergy; prostitution, crime, and disease; the popular entertainments provided by bullfights, religious processions, and, more sinisterly, the burning of heretics at the stake; and the miserable lot of average citizens such as Sebastiana Maria de Jesus, publicly humiliated by the Inquisition at an auto-da-fe (an exemplary public punishment). Also miserable is the lot of Baltasar Seven Suns, a soldier returning from fighting for his country in the War of the Spanish Succession, having lost a hand in battle, and now facing an uncertain future with no guarantee of employment.

On his return to Lisbon, Baltasar meets the mysterious Blimunda (Sebastiana’s daughter), who has inexplicable powers to see inside people and things, and Father Bartolomeu Lourenco, an unorthodox priest intent on fulfilling his dream


This scruffy-looking fellow with his rattling sword and ill-assorted clothes, even though barefoot, has the air of a solider, and his name is Baltasar Mateus, otherwise known as Sete-Sóis or Seven Suns. He was dismissed from the army where he was of no further use once his left hand was amputated at the wrist after being shattered by gunfire at Jerez de los Caballeros, in the ambitious campaign we fought last October with eleven thousand men, only to end with the loss of two hundred of our soldiers and the rout of the survivors, who were pursued by the Spanish cavalry dispatched from Badajoz.… Sete-Sóis, maimed and bedraggled, travelled the main highway to Lisbon, deprived of his left hand, part of which had remained in Spain and part in Portugal, and all because of a strategic war to decide who was to occupy the Spanish throne, an Austrian Charles or a French Philip, but no one Portuguese, whether unimpaired or one-handed, intact or mutilated.

(Baltasar and Blimunda, pp. 26–2.7)

This war, which lasted from 1702 to 1713, was caused by the death of King Carlos II of Spain in 1700, who did not leave any heirs to the throne. The principal contenders were Philip, Due d’Anjou, supported by the King of France, and Archduke Charles of Austria, supported by Britain and also by Portugal. Although Philip was the one to eventually become King Philip V of Spain, Britain succeeded in winning important concessions in the war, including sovereignty over Gibraltar and Philip’s renunciation of all claims to the throne of France, which helped avert French hegemony in Europe. It is striking in this passage from the novel that the focus is not on these great matters of historical importance, but rather on the way that participation in this war affected Baltasar, an ordinary man called up to serve the strategic needs of his monarch and abandoned by the Crown when he has ceased to be of use to it Historian Russell-Wood sums up Portugal’s involvement in the war: “The country had been ravaged … and the treasury was depleted,’ realities that lead the reader of Baltasar and Blimunda to credit all of Baltasar’s achievements to the man himself, and not to his royal master (Russell-Wood in Levenson, p. 20).

of building a flying machine (known as the Pas-sarola, or “big bird”). The attraction between Baltasar and Blimunda is immediately obvious; Bartolomeu oversees a ceremonial union of the two lovers, which is very pointedly not a Christian marriage and, in its simplicity and sincerity, contrasts vividly with the rituals and expenditure surrounding an arranged royal marriage later in the novel (Baltasar and Blimunda, pp. 46–47 and 304–05). Subsequently Baltasar and Blimunda help Bartolomeu build his flying machine (powered by the wills of ordinary people, which are captured from their bodies and stored in a glass jar by Blimunda before these people die). The three characters take one exhilarating but uncontrolled flight in the machine before it comes to earth, after which Bartolomeu flees to Spain, never to reappear in the novel. The two other characters lovingly look after his flying machine while Baltasar also works on a number of projects connected with the construction of the convent at Mafra.

The consecration of the convent takes place on the king’s forty-first birthday in 1730, nearly 20 years after the opening of the text. Even as the consecration takes place, however, a more significant event occurs in terms of the novel’s development. Baltasar accidentally sets off the Passarola and is carried away by it to be seen again only in 1739, when Blimunda (who has spent nine years searching for him all over Portugal) finds him, just as he is being executed by the Inquisition for unspecified crimes. At the close of the novel Blimunda summons Baltasar’s will from his dying body to be with her: “The last man to be burned has his left hand missing. Perhaps because of his blackened beard, a miraculous transformation caused by the soot, he looks much younger. And there is a dark cloud in the centre of his body. Then Blimunda said, Come. The will of Baltasar Sete-Sóis broke free from his body, but did not ascend to the stars, for it belonged to the earth and to Blimunda” (Baltasar and Blimunda, p. 343). By this action Blimunda asserts the significance of the popular over the powerful but wealthy king, who is but a shadowy figure beside the more memorable characters of Baltasar and Blimunda.

Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão and his flying machine

My friend João Elvas has just told me that you are known as the Flying Man, tell me, Father, why have they given you such a nickname, Baltasar asked him (Baltasar and Blimunda, p. 2).

They call me the Flying Man because I have flown … you yourself did not invent that hook you are wearing [a reference to the hook placed on the stump of Baltasar’s left arm after the loss of his left hand in battle], someone had to discover the need for such an implement and hit on the idea of combining iron and leather in order to make it practical, and the same is true for those ships on the river, at one time sails had not been invented, and before that there were no oars, and before that no helm, and just as man, who inhabits the earth, found it necessary to become a sailor, so he will find it necessary to become a flier.

(Baltasar and Blimunda, pp. 52–53)

The figure of Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão, who becomes one of the main characters in the novel, is based on a genuine historical personality. Born in Santos, Brazil, in 1685, simply as Bartolomeu Lourenço (the additional surname is believed to have been adopted to honor a protector of the family’s interests), this exceptional scholar first came to Portugal in 1701 and was highly regarded, both as a preacher and as a far-sighted inventor. In 1709 he gave a demonstration at the royal court in Lisbon of a prototype of his projected flying machine (based on a theory he described in a surviving document). There is, however, no strong evidence to suggest that he ever succeeded in building a machine big enough to transport a human being, in spite of later reports of a flight carried out from the castle in Lisbon to the nearby Terreiro do Pago. In 1724, accompanied by his younger brother João Alvares de Santa Maria, Bartolomeu fled Portugal on short notice, traveling under an assumed name to Spain, where he died in Toledo in November 1724. His brother subsequently testified to the Inquisition that Bartolomeu had adopted Judaism in preference to Christianity:

The poor youth declared that his brother had tenaciously instilled in him the belief that he, Bartolomeu, was the Messiah, the Redeemer foretold by the Old Testament, since the redemption promised to the Jews by Holy Scripture had still not been fulfilled. If he did not undertake the work of Redemption, God would call him severely to account.… He was waiting only for the completion of ‘a flying construction which he was building,’ and with the aid of this machine he would control all the kingdoms of the world and, if necessary, he would ‘subjugate and destroy their kingdoms’ in order to establish a single world empire in which the Jews would reign over all others, and he would reign over them as their King

(From testimony given to the Inquisition by João Alvares de Santa Maria in 1724, in Taunay, “Novidades do maior vulto sobre o Padre Voador,” p. 2).

The evidence available does not make it easy to judge the reliability of these accounts of Bartolomeu’s alleged insanity, heresy, and megalomania, which gives Saramago free rein to exploit the uncertainty regarding certain areas of this character’s biography for creative purposes. The character of Bartolomeu thus becomes the principal representative of the unorthodox in the novel, through his refusal to conform to the expectations of a rigidly hierarchical society, an example followed by Blimunda at the end of the text, when she walks the length and breadth of Portugal, encouraging others to think for themselves and to reject “truths” propagated on the strength of institutional power alone (Baltasar and Blimunda, pp. 339–40).

Saramago’s fictional development of Father Bartolomeu Lourengo de Gusmao and his flying machine bridges the gap that separates court from commoner. The priest’s choice to involve Baltasar and Blimunda in his creative project elevates them to a status of greater inherent nobility than the court upon which he has effectively turned his back. Also the Passarola becomes a symbol of the freedom lacked by ordinary people in the eighteenth century. The notion of flight in the novel points to the infinite capacity of the human mind, will, and spirit to seek new possibilities of thought and self-expression, a capacity that was repressed in the eighteenth century by a combination of the Inquisition (which required absolute Catholic orthodoxy) and the power of the king to treat his kingdom as his own possession, without any consideration for the needs or wishes of ordinary citizens.

Sources and literary context

In spite of the prominent element of fantasy in his novel, Saramago makes extensive use of historically documented sources. Comparisons of the novel with biographical works on the priest Bartolomeu Lourenco de Gusmao reveal a considerable reliance on sources such as eighteenth-century sermons (including those of Gusmão himself, as well as those of the later Brazilian preacher Frei Francisco Xavier de Santa Rita Bastos), on the priest’s own account of his plans for the Passarola, on records of life at the court of King João V, and even on the journal of an eighteenth-century French visitor to Portugal, who recorded the unusual visual faculties of a woman who almost certainly is the model (in this respect) for the figure of Blimunda in the novel.

Saramago’s novel resembles works of the Neorealist movement that dominated Portuguese literature in the 1940s and early 1950s. Like these works, Baltasar and Blimunda focuses on the miserable experiences of the downtrodden poor in an authoritarian society that denies them any voice to express their feelings or alter their living and working conditions. Also like these works, Saramago’s novel includes a detailed depiction of everyday realities and a progressive worldview, whose ideal is the bringing about of a more equal society for all. Such an approach had been adopted more directly by Saramago in his previous novel, Levantado do Chão (1980; Raised from the Soil), which ends in celebration of the 1974 Revolution and of the dawning land reform on the southern large estates, events that inaugurated a new era of democracy in Portugal.

The insertion of Baltasar and Blimunda into this literary context can obscure as much as it clarifies however, for the novel clearly diverges from Neorealist practices: in its exercise of the imagination (illustrated, for example, by the powering of the Passarola by the human wills captured by Blimunda); in its creation of unrealistic situations (the dialogues between the commoner João Elvas and the nobleman who reveals to him the details of a royal procession to the Spanish border, the disrespectful letter written by Baltasar to the king, etc.); and in the depiction of ordinary people, not as mere victims of unjust circumstance but as actors with the potential to effect radical change in their own circumstances if they become aware of the power that lies within their grasp.

Some commentators have placed Saramago in the magical realist tradition of such Latin-American writers as Gabriel García Márquez, a claim not entirely without validity, given plot developments that locate the novel firmly in the realm of the imagination as opposed to that of strict historical fact. What has perhaps been understated, however, is the author’s debt to the concept of New History (as formulated by writers such as the French historian Georges Duby), that is, of history written from the perspective of the ordinary men and women whose experiences are marginalized by traditional accounts. Also understated is Saramago’s debt to the concept of the dialogic novel in the tradition of the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, that is, the novel that seeks to represent not one purportedly authoritative account of events, but a variety of perspectives, all of them being of equal validity and reliability. Both of these traditions emphasize the potential of the human voice and of the multiplicity of perspectives on life that have shaped the course of human history. Thus, instead of centering on the events at the royal court, which form the focus of its opening chapter, Saramago’s novel gradually diverts attention to the ordinary characters, who tell their own versions of history as they go about their daily business, the clearest example of this being the various workers who have been engaged to transport a giant stone from Pêro Pinheiro to Mafra:

My name is Julião Mau-Tempo, I’m a native of Alentejo, and I came to work here in Mafra because of the famine that scourges my province, 1 don’t know how anyone has survived there, for if we hadn’t grown accustomed to eating grass and acorns, I’ll bet everyone would be dead by now.… I came to Mafra because my parish priest assured us from the pulpit that anyone who came here would soon be a servant of the King … he also assured us that no one in the King’s service goes hungry … well, I soon discovered that I had been misinformed … and if I haven’t died from hunger, it’s because I spend everything I earn on food, I’m as shabbily dressed as I ever was, as for becoming one of the King’s servants, I live in hope of seeing my sovereign’s face before I finally pine away after all these years of separation from my family.

(Baltasar and Blimunda, pp. 220–221)

Gathering round the campfire at night, in a quasi-Brechtian dramatic format, each worker presents himself to the reader before telling his own story, thus validating his life and experience and elevating him to a status of equality with the


Saramago’s novels are almost always marked by an intrusive narrative style that inserts interjections, seemingly casual reflections on events, humorous incongruities, and other apparently incidental remarks. Frequently these remarks place the events described in a broader historical context, leading the reader to reflect on periods other than those in which the novel takes place. For example,

News reached Mafra sporadically that Lisbon was suffering the tremors of an earthquake.… Had the previous earthquake been more severe and the number of dead greater, the same measures would have been taken to bury the dead, and take care of the living, a sound piece of advice should any such calamity ever happen again, but spare us, oh Lord.

(Baltasar and Blimunda, pp. 206–07)

The earthquake alluded to here is not the great Lisbon earthquake of November 1, 1755, whose shock waves (both literal and metaphorical) were felt all over Europe, leading thinkers such as the French philosopher Voltaire to question the notion of a beneficent Cod as the unquestioned moral foundation for the universe. The reference here is to an earlier, smaller earthquake that occurred in October 1724. At the end of the passage there is an allusion to the notion of God’s saving us from further catastrophes of this kind; it satirizes the passivity of the nation’s successive governments, which have chosen to leave important matters to chance rather than attempting to foresee difficulties and face challenges before they become emergencies, It was widely believed after the 1755 earthquake that better city planning, improved sanitation, and more solid construction could have averted a large number of the deaths suffered in Lisbon. The sense that this reference to the 1724 earthquake is intended as satirical criticism is reinforced by Saramago’s adaptation here of the pragmatic speech attributed to the Marquês de Pombal after the 1755 earthquake, in which he encouraged his fellow citizens to bury the dead and take care of the living. Pombal is generally credited with the revolutionary safer redesign of the central part of Lisbon in the aftermath of the disaster, and the clear implication of Saramago’s repetition of his words in relation to the 1724 quake is that the later, greater quake need not have been as disastrous as it was. Pombal was dismissed on the succession to the throne of Queen Maria I and King Pedro III in 1777. No longer preoccupied with modernization, but rather with the entrenchment of power and privilege, Portugal returned to unenlightened absolutist rule. This brief allusion contains an implicit warning to Saramago’s readers to be on guard against complacency in the protection of democratic freedoms.

aristocratic figures who are more commonly the focus of historical discourse. The extract printed above is one of seven successive narratives of the same type presented at this point in the novel, each one reinforcing the image of a poor, exploited workforce, which has been hoodwinked into serving the interests of its real enemies, the twin forces of Church and State. (The fictional Julião Mau-Tempo in the excerpt above is clearly an ancestor of the twentieth-century Mau-Tempo family, whose struggle for emancipation is depicted in Saramago’s earlier novel Levantado do Chão of 1980.)

Not only does this strategy achieve equalization of commoner and royal, by foregrounding the commoner for a change, it also invites readers to reconsider their understanding of history in general and to see it not as an immutable, objective reality but as a collation of narratives shaped according to the needs and interests of its narrators at different periods. Saramago is thereby taking part in a broader tendency towards experimentation with the art of storytelling and preoccupation with recollections of the past, reflected in the works of other Portuguese writers such as Lídia Jorge and António Lobo Antunes (see The Murmuring Coast and South of Nowhere , also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times) and internationally by figures such as Britain’s Salman Rushdie and Spain’s Juan Goytisolo (see Marks of Identity , also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times).

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

From sovereignty to dictatorship—pertinent parallels

By 1982 Portugal was a parliamentary democracy beginning to develop the full-scale integration into Western European patterns of life that are readily visible today. At the same time, however, it was still adapting to life after the fall in 1974 of the long-term right-wing dictatorship of António Salazar and Marcello Caetano. This dictatorship had defined twentieth-century Portuguese history, invoking an introverted, economically austere, and socially conservative model of a pious society dedicated to following the will of its father figure (Salazar), with a certain degree of connivance from the Roman Catholic hierarchy (even if, at a popular level, the social and political attitudes of the Church were more mixed than this broad generalization might suggest). As a result, the country entering a new era of democracy in 1974 had one of the highest illiteracy records in Europe, and rights and benefits that are today taken for granted in the West had still to be secured: women were regarded almost as the property of their husbands or fathers; material standards of living were the lowest in Western Europe; and there was no freedom of political or trade-union association. These unpleasant realities were further reinforced by strict censorship of the press and the media in general, which reproduced only officially sanctioned opinions.

One of the major reasons for the eventual fall of the dictatorship was Portugal’s colonial rule in Africa. Portugal was the first and the last of the major European colonial powers in the continent, and, even after other imperial rulers such as France and Britain had relinquished these roles, Portugal continued to adopt a self-appointed and ultimately unsustainable role as importer of European civilization to Africa. This led to a long war of attrition against pro-independence guerrilla movements in Africa, a campaign sometimes referred to as “Portugal’s Vietnam,” from 1961 until 1974, when it was the difficulty in maintaining discipline and morale in the armed forces that played a major part in bringing down the dictatorship at home. The hierarchical model of Portuguese society before 1974 was not totally dissimilar to the one of the absolute monarch depicted in Baltasar and Blimunda: the self-importance of the eighteenth-century monarchy resembles Salazar’s self-appointed role as the Father of the Nation in the twentieth century, and both of these stances provide a stark contrast to the underlying loss of Portugal’s real position of influence in the world. The king’s excessive reliance on Brazil in the novel forms a parallel with Portugal’s increasingly desperate attempts to cling to power in Africa 200 years later.

In addition, the moral hypocrisy of a corrupt Church allied to a fanatical Inquisition and a government intent on imposing its will by decree rather than consent inevitably reminds one of the brutal methods and severe repression exercised by the notorious PIDE secret police under Portugal’s twentieth-century dictatorship. Similarly, a parallel can be drawn between the dependence of the figure of D. João V on income from overseas in the novel and Portugal’s economic reliance on its African colonies in the twentieth century.

From dictatorship to capitalist democracy

At the time the novel was written, some eight years after the Revolution, Portugal was seeking a new role for itself as a post-imperialist state. After a period in which it seemed likely that Portuguese society might be remodeled along explicitly socialist lines (banks were nationalized and many large agricultural estates were taken into collective ownership in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution), the country moved towards a more conventional Western European pattern of market capitalism combined with elements of social democracy. Property that had been appropriated after the Revolution was largely returned to private hands, and the country sought membership in the European Economic Community (now the European Union), a goal finally achieved in 1986. While this state of affairs, with its concomitant social liberties and Portugal’s subsequent economic and social development, are indisputably preferable to the circumstances pertaining before the Revolution, for many commentators, including Saramago, the country missed an opportunity to create a new model of participatory democracy. Instead, Saramago


The chest is no longer there, they have loaded it into the Passarola, what else do we need, the knapsacks, some food, and the harpsichord, what is to be done with the harpsichord, let it stay here, these are selfish thoughts, which one must try to comprehend and forgive, such is their anxiety that all three of them fail to reflect that if the harpsichord is left behind, the ecclesiastical and secular authorities are likely to become even more suspicious, why and for what purpose is a harpsichord in a coach-house, … an instrument so delicate that even being transported on the shoulders of porters was enough to put the keys out of tune.…

(Baltasar and Blimunda, p. 182)

This passage describes the hurried preparations made for flight in the Passarola by Baltasar, Blimunda, and Bartolorneu, after the priest announces that the Inquisition is in hot pursuit of him. The harpsichord was brought to the coach-house at São Sebastião da Pedreira, just outside Lisbon, by Scarlatti so that he may play for the would-be aviators as they construct their craft in secret Shortly after this incident the composer himself disposes of the instrument down a well (Baltasar and Blimunda, p. 185).

The significance of the odd presence of this harpsichord lies in the clever verbal association that it permits Saramago to make, linking the Passarola with the 1974 Revolution of the Carnations (cravos) through Scarlatti’s instrument (which is also known as a cravo in Portuguese), Repeatedly in the text the composer’s music is said to have a liberating influence on others, just as the flying machine permits the three protagonists to escape from the clutches of the inquisition at this moment Even if Scarlatti feels obliged to conceal his harpsichord for the present, it remains underground, and significantly his music recurs again later in the text (Baltasar and Blimunda, p. 305). The point is thus made that institutions such as the Inquisition may postpone the achievement of liberation, but they cannot prevent it: the freedom of thought sought by Bartolorneu and denied him by the Inquisition and the freedom of action denied to ordinary people by poverty and oppressive government are ideals that must be lovingly cherished, just as Baltasar and Blimunda look after the Passarola even after Bartolomeu’s death.

perceives the danger of a new authoritarianism in which the citizen willingly cedes his or her right to determine the circumstances surrounding individual life to a new power: that of corporate capitalism, as satirized in Saramago’s most recent novel, A Caverna (2000, The Cave). One needs to keep in mind when reading Baltasar and Blimunda its author’s belief that the conscientious citizen should be constantly aiming for an increase in personal empowerment, consistent with a responsible awareness of the needs of others. This is perhaps the real significance of the thwarted flight of the Passarola in the novel.


Baltasar and Blimunda was generally received with enthusiasm, both in Portugal and in English-speaking countries. There were some dissonant voices, but it is perhaps significant that in both linguistic environments, these were marked by misapprehensions as to the author’s aims in writing the novel. Paul Stuewe, who describes the novel as “a mildly diverting curiosity rather than deeply compelling fiction” appears to have read the novel in the expectation of a work directly comparable to those of Garcia Marquez (Stuewe, p. 30). He might also have taken a kinder view of the novel if the translation (as originally drafted by Giovanni Pontiero) had not been substantially altered at the insistence of the publishers, whose attempts to make the novel more palatable to an English-speaking audience removed the very element of multivocal discourse within the text that contributes so strongly to its appeal. The resulting text is a very bland read in comparison to the original Portuguese or to the 1998 English edition, which restored Pontiero’s original version. On the other hand, even with the flawed 1987 translation, Irving Howe recognized the work as a “full-bodied novel,” in which “harsh realism” is interwoven with pages of “lyric fantasy” (Howe, p. 7). Clare Ferros (who had clearly read the work in both languages) perceived that it was the novel’s “very unorthodoxy” that made it difficult to categorize but also declared it to be “impressive in its scope, innovative in style, and powerful in its implications” (Ferros, p. 244).

In Portugal itself, Álvaro Pina effectively dismissed the novel as a failed attempt to embellish the Neorealist tradition with what he saw as gratuitous effects (Pina, pp. 83–84). But the vast majority of critics quickly recognized the important development in contemporary Portuguese prose-fiction represented by Baltasar and Blimunda, with various writers hailing the work as being genuinely innovative and inventive, qualities that would subsequently be confirmed by the author’s later works.

—David Frier

This article was written during a period of research leave funded by the British Arts and Humanities Research Board, whose support for his work the writer gratefully acknowledges.

For More Information

Birmingham, David. A Concise History of Portugal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Ferros, Clare. Review of Baltasar and Blimunda, by José Saramago. Portuguese Studies 4 (1988): 204–07.

Frier, David G. “Padre Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão: Inspiration for Memorial do Convento? (forthcoming). Romance Quarterly 49 (2002).

Howe, Irving, “Fueling the Passarola.” New York Times, 1 November 1987, Sec. 7, 7.

Levenson, Jay A., ed. The Age of the Baroque in Portugal. New Haven: Yale University Press, and Washington D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1993.

Livermore, H. V. A New History of Portugal. 2d ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Marques, A. H. de Oliveira. História de Portugal. 3 vols. Vol. 2: Do Renascimento as Revoluções Liberais. 10th ed. Lisbon: Palas Editores, 1984.

Pina, Álvaro. Review of Memorial do Convento. Colóquio: Letras 76 (November 1983): 83–84.

Saramago, José. Baltasar and Blimunda. Trans. Giovanni Pontiero. London: The Harvill Press, 1998.

_____. “The Chair.” Trans. Giovanni Pontiero. Eds. Mike Gerrard and Thomas McCarthy. Passport to Portugal. Huntingdon: Passport and Serpent’s Tail, 1994.

Stuewe, Paul. Review of Baltasar and Blimunda by José Saramago. Quill and Quire 53, no. 10 (October 1987): 30.

Taunay, Affonso de E. “Novidades do maior vulto sobre o Padre Voador.” Jornal do Commêrcio (Rio de Janeiro), 25 April 1948, 2.