Likely Stories: Skylight by José Saramago

Nov 9, 2017

Gothic-like tale of a shabby apartment building and the residents struggling to survive.


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

José Saramago won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010.  A seven-inch-square notice in a local paper was my only introduction to this fantastic Portuguese writer.  I have read too many of his books since then to list them now.  However, my first read was All the Names a peculiar story of a man who works as a lowly clerk in the Central Registry of an unnamed city.  His daily routine involved issuing certificates of birth, marriage, and death.  Senhor José, the clerk, methodically picks out six—and only six--cards which require updating.  One day, he accidentally pulls seven cards, and this sends him on an interesting and suspenseful journey.  The story is mesmerizing and so full of marvelous detail, I found it difficult to put down.

My latest excursion into the mind of Saramago is a novel titled Skylight.  The jacket informed me that it was his first novel, which he had sent to a publisher in the early 50s.  The publisher did not think much of it, so he threw it on a shelf and forgot about it.  Forty some years later, the publisher was moving an office, found the manuscript, and immediately contacted Saramago with an offer of publication.  “Thank you, but no,” he said as he gathered the leaves and left the building. 

Skylight is set in 1940s Lisbon.  The tenants in a shabby apartment building are struggling to survive.  Among the interesting characters is Silvestre, a cobbler, and his wife Mariana.  They needed extra money, so they decided to take in a lodger, Dona Lidia, a former “Lady of the Night.”

The language of this novel is languid and resembles a saraband, a slow-moving Spanish dance.  Saramago writes, “Time slipped slowly by.  The tick-tock of the clock kept nudging the silence, trying to shoo it away, but the silence resisted with its dense, heavy mass, in which all sounds drowned.  Both fought unremittingly on, the ticking clock with the obstinacy of despair and the certain knowledge of death, while the silence had on its side disdainful eternity” (24).  […]  The dialogue between the clock and the silence was again interrupted.  From outside came the rumble of tires over the uneven surface of the street” (25).  […]  The doorbell rings, and Dona Lidia wakens.  José continues, “Slowly, painfully, as if her body were refusing to move, she got up and turned on the light.  The dining room, where she was sitting, was quite large, and the bulb that lit it was so feeble that it could only just manage to keep the darkness at bay, leaving shadows lurking in the corners.  The bare walls, the hard, unwelcoming stiff-backed chairs, the table unpolished and unadorned by flowers, the stark, drab furniture—and alone in the midst of all that coldness sat tall, thin Justina, in her black dress and with her deep, dark, silent eyes” (25).

This novel has a solid connection to Gothic tales.  The hard-working, good people of the apartment live a seemingly drab existence, but they are interesting people, and they deserve more readers.  Skylight by José Saramago is a long-neglected novel, which, I believe, would make a fine introduction to this inventive and absorbing writer.  5 Stars.

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!