“Skylight,” by José Saramago, one of his first works, written in 1953 (and rejected) when the author was in his early thirties, was published posthumously last year, and has consequently become something of a curio. One can rush to meet it with expectations that balloon upward because we have read books of his that present vast cityscapes (“Blindness”) or stretches of farmland whose horizons tempt us further and further beyond them like a carrot held before a donkey (“Raised from the Ground.”) But Saramago’s joke is on us. In “Skylight,” he presents a dollhouse-like cutaway slice of life, or more accurately, lives, as they play out in the confines of an urban apartment building in the 1940s, in Lisbon. In short chapters, almost timid in their brevity, spare language opens a stream of light on an array of squelched fortunes, subdivided by walls neighbors can hear through, staircase landings where matchbox-sized dramas unfold, parlors and the smallest of bed chambers where sexual taboos excuse themselves from the scrutiny of a society overtaken by fascist rigidity and collective punishment.
“The music ran about freely in the silence and the silence received it on its dumb lips” is the how the author uses his idiom to give us courage to draw nearer to the fetters and tethers that maroon his characters amid the mundane and the mediocre, even when the every day exigencies push them past lockstep compliance simply so that they can survive.
A pair of spinsters are more than sisters, a fading beauty is kept by a visiting lover, a couple who has lost a child pretends to keep living the life it led before death robbed them of it, a young man would rather appear as a cipher than take on the coloration of the chameleon each neighbor requires him to be. Every story, as it whirls through and curls like smoke around its neighbors’ peculiarities, or stands alone surrounded by concentric rings of rheumatic loneliness, has its raison d’être. The small details, routines, resentments, and follies of each character’s existence, taken together in one building, in one city, in one shameful moment in history, becomes a living reliquary of an era.
While it doesn’t tell its story in the broad strokes that mark the author’s later works, it does reveal the principled resourcefulness that Saramago brought to his storytelling from the outset. His domain is a cliché-free zone, peopled with interested human specimens with particular stories that break along unpredictable fault-lines.
Add it your list, maybe not at the tippy-top, but in some vacant space that will allow a shaft of light from an earlier era to transport you back to its troubling shadows.