Skylight by Jose Saramago

‘Even if you lived for a thousand years and experienced everything that everyone had experienced, you would never know life.’

‘Skylight’ is a novel returned from publishing limbo. It was submitted to a publisher by Jose Saramago in 1953: they neither accepted it nor rejected it. He did not hear from the publisher again until 1989 when, after rediscovering the manuscript, they wrote to Saramago saying it would be an honour to publish it. Saramago refused, and, according to his wife, vowed that it would not be published in his lifetime. Jose Saramago died in 2010, and ‘Skylight’ was published in 2011.

I read ‘Skylight’ in 2015. By then, I’d read ‘Blindness’ and ‘The Elephant’s Journey’ and was keen to read other Saramago novels (in English translation).

‘Skylight’ is a very different novel from the other two I’ve read. It is more conventional in presentation, more focussed on what might seem to be on the ‘normal’ lives of six families living in apartments in an old Lisbon house during the 1940s. There are two apartments on each of the three floors, and we are introduced to each of the families during the first chapter. On the ground floor there’s an elderly cobbler and his wife. They take in a lodger. Opposite them is a Spanish woman, unhappily married to a Portuguese man. They have a ten-year-old son. On the next floor is another couple, a woman with a brutish husband. Opposite, a woman is kept as a mistress by a businessman who visits her three times a week. On the top floor is a couple with their 19-year-old daughter. The second apartment on the top floor is occupied by four women: two unmarried sisters in their thirties, their mother and their aunt. Each of the families struggles to make ends meet, while the woman kept as a mistress is imprisoned by a form of ownership and expectation.

As the narrative moves between the apartments, we learn about the lives and loves, the jealousy and gossip of those who live inside. After learning about the occupants of each apartment, we start to see their interactions with each other: the joys and griefs of ordinary people.

While I’m glad I read this novel, it did not move me in the same way as ‘Blindness’ or challenge me as did ‘The Elephant’s Journey’. Instead, it gave me a sense of a writer exploring structure, of considering ways in which to present his narratives. I wondered whether not hearing from the publisher for over 30 years influenced the way in which Saramago wrote his later fiction.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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