Raised from the Ground

Written by José Saramago Margaret Jull Costa (trans.)
Review by Lucille Cormier

Nobel Prize Laureate José Saramago’s (1922-2010) most autobiographical novel opens with the statement “I was born in a family of landless peasants.” That there might have been landless peasants in 20th-century Europe isn’t a thought that crosses the mind of many Americans today. And though the author did not live in the Alentejo district of his characters, he knew their lifestyle, having grown up on his grandparents’ pig farm and then in the barrio pobre of Lisbon. He also experienced firsthand the fascist and communist upheavals that swept through Portugal in the last century and made the already unbearably hard lives of landless farm and cork plantation workers even more tenuous.

Raised from the Ground is the story of three generations of the Mau Tempo family’s struggle to survive in a medieval system where a peasant’s livelihood depended on the good will of the landholding family. It is a story of loves, marriages, children, and life in tiny villages. It is also the story of the workers’ fight to gain a subsistence wage, of their beatings and imprisonments, of the duplicity of religious and civil authorities.

Yet Raised from the Ground is not a sad story. The unique narrative style turns the reader into a conversational companion, sharing the story as it progresses. Even in translation the writing is beautiful, the imagery a delight. There is not a tedious sentence in the book. The only caveat is that it may present a bit of difficulty for readers not familiar with 20th century Portuguese history, as the author leaves out specific dates and names.

Raised from the Ground may well be Portugal’s Grapes of Wrath. You really should read it.