41. ‘Skylight’ by José Saramago

There’s a very interesting story behind Skylight, one of the first novels Saramago wrote but which wasn’t published until after his death.

Saramago submitted his novel Skylight to a publisher in Lisbon in 1953. He didn’t hear back from them and, according to his wife Pilar del Rio, this led him into “a painful, indelible silence that lasted decades”. He eventually returned to writing fiction in 1977, and in 1989 the same Lisbon publisher informed him that they had rediscovered the manuscript, which had apparently been lost in their offices, and would be honoured to publish it. Saramago refused and went and got the manuscript, which he said would never be published in his lifetime. It was eventually published in 2011.

skylight saramago

Skylight is set in a Lisbon apartment building in the 1940s, and it follows the lives of all the building’s inhabitants. This conceit is set up by an absolutely brilliant opening chapter, which passes the narrative perspective between the characters like a baton – as they pass each other in the corridors or hear each other through the walls, the reader latches onto the next new character and learns a little about them. After that, each chapter focuses on one character or family at a time, but in this opening Saramago makes the tricky task of introducing a large cast of characters seem easy.

I really loved this book, partly because a lot of the chapters feel like short stories, showing small snippets of the characters’ lives, often played out in real time. I also enjoyed how the characters’ lives link together – they each have their own problems and relationships to deal with, but living in such close proximity to the same people day in, day out means that they often see each other, talk to each other, wonder and fantasise about each other, and sometimes hate each other. Each of the characters affect the others, so there is this wonderful kind of ripple effect at work throughout the novel.

Of course, it doesn’t take Saramago long to get philosophical, and the main crux of this comes from Silvestre the cobbler, and his wife Mariana. They decide to take a lodger, and along comes Abel, a young man who likes to move around, staying disconnected from everyone and everything, removing himself from places and people when he feel the first ‘tentacles’ of attachment begin to form. Over the course of the novel Abel and Silvestre develop a sort of bond – they share their ideas about life and relationships over games of backgammon. Towards the end of the novel I thought these conversations became a little too heavy-handed (it was a little too obvious that Saramago was using his fiction to philosophise), but in general I thought they were fascinating and often moving debates.

The relationships in Skylight are often searingly honest. For example, husband and wife Emílio and Carmen play out their poisonous, silent war through quiet jibes and sometimes vicious possessiveness over their son. In the case of another husband and wife pair, Caetano and Justina, the marriage-war is played out a lot more brutally, with overt insults, manipulative games of humiliation, and a very shocking rape scene. In fact, in Skylight bad relationships are more common than good ones, especially when it comes to marriages. In this way Saramago subverts quite traditional stories: marriage and family are often depicted as hellish, and sex as a grotesque form of power play, while one storyline depicts lesbian desire without judgement (it feels natural to the reader, if not to the character).

Skylight is a beautiful snapshot of a collection of strangers living together under the same roof, and the ways in which their lives intertwine as they judge each other and themselves. It deals with sometimes shocking themes, and portrays the small joys and irritations of family life beautifully. I wouldn’t say it is a perfect book, but it is very, very good.

“I have a sense that life, real life, is hidden behind a curtain, roaring with laughter at our efforts to get to know it.”

Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!

Want to read this? You can buy the book here.

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