It’s not just crops which are raised from the ground, but men who work the fields too are raised from the very lands they tend to. It is about these men that José Saramago writes about in ‘Raised from the Ground’.
The story begins on a dark evening lashed by heavy rains. The aptly named Domingos Mau-Tempo (Mau Tempo means bad weather) is on his way to yet another village to reside and try to make something of his life, with his wife and new born son, Joāo. Joāo has bright blue eyes, a feature that shows up once in a while in the family, and owes its origins to an ancestor who was raped by a visiting foreigner. Mention of these eyes crops up every now and then in the story, emphasising and reminding us of the torment and injustice meted out to these people. The book takes us on a journey encompassing generations – from Domingos, who wastes his life, choosing drink over work, to his son, Joāo, and Joāo’s own children – his son Antonio, daughter Gracinda, and son-in-law Manuel Estada. There are others in the story too, such as Joao’s sisters and another of his daughters, but the story doesn’t concern them much, not because they are women, but because they move away from the land, and work in the city as maids. Thus, the story is not as much about the Mau-Tempo family, as it is about the land. This family is simply an example, characters who are needed for the story to unfold.
The one word recurring through the story is ‘latifundio’- a large, landed estate. And this latifundio is the backbone, as well as the background of the story – huge tracts of land owned by the rich – their names, Norberto, Lamberto, Clariberto... come and go, with the underlying implication that the name really does not matter. Parcels of land change hands over the years, but the estate remains just as large as ever, the owners remain just as rich and lazy as ever, and the poor peasants remain just as hungry and overworked as ever.
Saramago takes us through a land which has seen wars in abundance. Much blood has been spilled over the centuries. In Saramago’s own words....
“of Romans, Lusitanians.,....... the Visigoths, the Moors.....the Burgundians,.... a few crusaders,...... then Arabs......and the only reason we haven’t mentioned Portuguese blood is because all the blood spilled was Portuguese, or came to be, once enough time had passed for it to be naturalised...”
However, over the same centuries, little has changed or affected the land. The peasants have been tilling and hoeing, sowing and harvesting just the same, generation after generation, suffering in silence, remotely aware of the changes happening in the world, but not too concerned, and very little affected by the changes, since little changes for them. And so it goes, with the more modern wars, even the changing of guard at the helm of the country.
However, it is only with the advent of communism, that the change is reflected on the land. Nothing much changes at first... they are just as hungry, just as oppressed, but this new wave slowly makes inroads into the psyche of the peasants. They demand more wages, and begin to strike. Joāo, now a mature householder, is at first arrested for striking. He is soon released, but is arrested once more, a few years later, and this time, is a serious suspect. He is tortured and tested for 6 months before being released at last. He returns home to his wife and family, but the jailed term has changed him. The story now passes on to his children, especially his son and his son-in-law.
The two boys are friends, they have common traits and get along well, but there are differences too. Antonio has the genes of his grandfather – he is a wanderer at heart, who cannot stay in one place for long. He is also a skilled worker, who learns fast, but chooses to remain single, unburdened by family. His friend Manuel Estada, as a young man, rebels against the overwork and injustice. He is marked as a striker, and arrested with his future father in law. He is a man of principles, refusing the offer of a lift from the estate owner when he is released, because he does not want to be grateful to the owner for this small favour. He works hard to be able to ask for Gracinda’s hand in marriage, and both scrimp and save for their union. The result of their union is the next generation of the family – Maria Adelaide Espada – who is born with the blue eyes of her grandfather.
And so the story goes forward, with their lives just as tough as ever, but changes hovering in the air, of fewer working hours, better conditions, and above all, better pay. And in the background are the ghosts of the days and people gone by.
The story is a rather depressing one.... one we are all familiar with. The situation has not been so very different in India either, and there are places where it is still as bad. The book could have been unbearably depressing, but it is Saramago’s unique style of writing and sense of humour which saves it from becoming so. The sudden bursts of humour – such as the story where Antonio Mau Tempo talks of catching hares by using newspapers and pepper as bait, or the one where the estate owner descends with his guards on a poor shepherd, only to be told that the sheep are his own – provide a much needed relief to the depressing saga. Also, the way Saramago narrates events... he tells us of the tortures of Joao Mau-Tempo through the eyes of an ant, and of Joao’s death through his own words, and these are what make the book un-put-down-able.
So far, I have read three of Jose Saramago’s works – TheElephant’s journey, Cain, and this one. Among the three, this was the hardest to read, (and also the longest), but not because of the length or the words, but simply because the story was such a familiar one, and so poignant, that I found myself lost in my own thoughts every now and then, pondering either over the truth of his words, the underlying sadness, and the ray of hope in the horizon.
P.S. This book was sent to me for review by Random House India