José Saramago's novel 'The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis' ('O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis') is a classic example of intertextuality, blurring the line between fact and fiction. Ricardo Reis was one of Fernando Pessoa's heteronyms (see also this post). Saramago puts this fictional character in a historical arena and recounts the last year of his life.
Set in Lisbon in 1936, Ricardo Reis returns from Brazil where he has lived in exile for sixteen years. Pessoa has just died, and Reis is visited by his spirit, which is allowed to wander on earth for nine months. At the core of the novel is a series of metaphysical conversations between the two poets, the one dead and the other alive.
Saramago's style takes some getting used to, with its dense, meandering narration, long sentences and no punctuation whatsoever except for periods and commas. Dialogues especially can be hard to follow.
Then Fernando Pessoa opened his eyes, smiled, I dreamed I was alive. An interesting illusion. What is interesting is not that a dead man should dream he is alive, after all he has known life, he has something to dream about, but rather that a man who is alive should dream that he is dead, because he has never known death. Soon you will be telling me that life and death are the same. Precisely, my dear Reis.
Reis, a doctor by profession, preached detachment and tranquility in his classical 'Odes', writing for example: "Wise is the man who contents himself with the spectacle of the world," and "Neither tranquil nor troubled, I wish to lift my being high above this place where men know pleasure and pain..."
By having Reis return to Portugal, Saramago almost sardonically puts this philosophy to the test. Lisbon in 1936, rendered in painstaking historical detail, is a place of political turmoil, with the shadow of fascism looming large on the horizon. Salazar's Estada Novo (New State) is already in place, Spain is on the brink of civil war, and Hitler has just occupied the Rhineland.
But Reis remains aloof, following political events mainly from the newspapers without having any real opinions himself. Even when he gets involved with two different women, Lydia and Marcenda (both names appearing in Reis' poems), they only momentarily upset his tranquility. Ultimately, Reis calmly follows Pessoa to the graveyard to die.
Further layers of intertextuality can be found, for instance, in the book Ricardo Reis is reading throughout the novel: 'The God of the Labyrinth' by Herbert Quain. This is one of the imaginary books discussed in 'A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain', a 'critical essay' by Jorge Luis Borges. And Saramago's novel shares more with Borges, in its theme of mirrors. Practically every element in the novel is mirrored (Reis vs. Pessoa, life vs. death, participation vs. detachment, Lydia vs. Marcenda, fascism vs. communism, etc.), and often what separates them is an opaque wall...
The dead man has the advantage of having been alive, he is familiar with the things of this world and of the other world, too, whereas the living are incapable of learning the one fundamental truth and profiting from it. What truth is that, That one must die. Those of us who are alive know that we will die. You don't know it, no one knows it, just as I didn't when I was alive, what we do know without a shadow of a doubt is that others die. As a philosophy, that strikes me as rather trivial. Of course it's trivial, you have no idea just how trivial everything becomes when seen from this side of death. But I am on the side of life. Then you ought to know what things on that side are significant, To be alive is significant. My dear Reis, choose your words carefully, your Lydia is alive, your Marcenda is alive, yet you know nothing about them, nor could you learn, even if they attempted to tell you, the wall that separates the living from one another is no less opaque than the wall that separates the living from the dead.
See also this article: 'Literature as History: José Saramago's O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis'.