"Ricardo Reis lowers the newspaper to look at himself in the mirror, a reflection that is twice deceiving because it shows a deep space then shows that the space is a mere surface where nothing actually happens, only the illusion, external and silent, of persons and things, a tree overhanging a lake, a face seeking itself, a face undisturbed, unaltered, not even touched, by the images of tree and lake and face. The mirror, this one and all others, is independent of man. Before it, we are like a conscript departing for the 1914 war. Admiring his uniform in the mirror, he sees something more than himself, not knowing that he will never see himself again in this mirror. We are vanity and we cannot endure, but the mirror endures, the same, because it rejects us. Ricardo Reis averts his eyes, changes position, leaves, he is the one rejecting, turning his back on the mirror."
If we regard the mirror Saramago refers to in this paragraph as a metaphor for life, then this paragraph probably is the most complete summarisation of the novel itself. This book is set in the rather distant past, precisely 1936. The protagonist, Ricardo Reis, is a Portuguese doctor who has just returned to his native land after spending the past sixteen years practising medicine in Brazil, although he does not travel back to his native town, which is Oporto. Instead he stops at a hotel in Lisbon, and for weeks he does not attempt resuming his profession. In fact, he does not even seriously live in the present. As soon as he settles in the hotel, he starts having an affair with one of the hotel chambermaids, not seriously considering the consequences for his head is too occupied by reminisces triggered by his walks in the rainy Lisbon streets. He becomes haunted by a young woman with a paralyzed left hand, whom he meets at the hotel. On top of it all, he is visited by the ghost of a recently deceased friend, the celebrated poet Fernando Pessoa. The plot concerns how he deals with his extraordinary circumstances, and the discrepancies in the ways his life takes its course.
The thing about this book that impressed me was the way Saramago had written it. The inherent themes of this book were reminiscence and reflection, as well as death or eventual death of all that we regard as essential, even the established essential. These are not at all progressive themes, quite otherwise, they are dispiriting and lethargic. However, the book had (subtle but real) dynamic and momentum. I am not sure how many other writers could pull off a similar feat. As a result, the book had an uncannily disquieting effect on me. The dynamic did not halt at any point in the book, not even at its "ending". I had a heightend sense of the ephemerality of human relationships and faith (the latter, I realised, was a crucial factor in the success of the former), and even the much celebrated phenomenon of death. The only impression I could form amidst all of this was that sense, reason and emotion are the only significant aspects of life, which withstand generations, class struggles, and ghosts grumbling about their present conditions. Sense, reason and emotion were the real dynamic rays in this book, converging together to produce a real image, while everything else diverged and coasted off into space, only virtually dynamic. That was a very muddled impression, rejecting off the convincing confusion of this book.