Ricardo Reis’ Trajectory at the Hands of José Saramago

by Cristina Gonçalves

O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis (The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis) is a novel written by Portuguese novelist José Saramago in 1984. As suggested by the title of the book, this story details the life of Ricardo Reis upon his return to Portugal. Reis leaves Brazil in 1935 and returns to Lisbon once the news has reached him of Fernando Pessoa’s death. Once in Lisbon, Reis takes up residence at Hotel Bragança where he becomes familiarized with the manager and other employees as well as Marcenda, a guest and Lídia, a maid. These two women subsequently become the object of a love interest for Reis. What is most disconcerting about Reis is that he does not take up the practice of medicine in Portugal but rather spends several months roaming the streets of Lisbon, reading the newspaper, which informs him of the various political crises occurring. Two of these events are the beginnings of the Spanish Civil War and the mutiny by the sea navies.

The character Ricardo Reis in Saramago’s novel is one of Pessoa’s most well-known heteronyms. A heteronym must be distinguished from a pseudonym. The latter is merely a fictitious name that is used by an author who, for one reason or another, does not want to sign his name. The former encompasses an entity that has a personality, a life and is distinct from the author. Pessoa is known for his many heteronyms and his search for an identity. However, Pessoa passed away and never concluded the story of Ricardo Reis, leaving him in Brazil. Saramago saw himself as responsible for taking Ricardo Reis’ future into his hands and does so by altering his trajectory throughout the novel which ultimately concludes with his death. This paper will examine the various methods used by Saramago to create a dialogue with Pessoa himself and with Ricardo Reis. It will begin by analyzing the intertextuality, more specifically the use of allusion, by Saramago in his construction of Ricardo Reis. This will then be followed by a discussion of the metaliterature employed by Saramago to bring the orthonym and the heteronym into conversation with one another. Finally, this paper will conclude with an examination of the ways in which Saramago reflects himself onto the heteronym.


The term intertextuality originated in the 20th century and had been defined by many theorists. One of the most common definitions is that of Julia Kristeva which states that all written text is like a mosaic of citations, that is built up from previous works that are absorbed and transformed into another new text (“Fernando Pessoa e os Heterônimos”). Intertextuality is a broad topic, which is divided into various types of intertextuality. The one that is most pertinent to Saramago’s novel is an allusion. Allusion refers to mentioning any literary work, whether it is through characters, authors or events (“O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis”). Throughout the novel, Saramago uses various characters that have been written about by Pessoa himself or by Ricardo Reis, and he also references works that have been created by the heteronyms.

The most obvious form of allusion begins when Saramago uses Ricardo Reis as the protagonist in his novel. Interestingly, Saramago alludes to this use of intertextuality when he says that “it never occurs to people that the one who finishes something is never the one who started it, even if both have the same name, for the name is the only thing that remains constant” (37). Through this quote, it is almost as if Saramago himself is telling the reader that Pessoa left some unfinished business that he plans to take care of. Saramago does not necessarily appropriate himself of Ricardo Reis since he is known in the literary world as a heteronym of Pessoa. Thus, this is not plagiarism in any way but rather an ode to Pessoa and his life’s work that was never completed because of his death. Therefore, it is evident that Saramago retrieves Ricardo Reis from Brazil after an absence of 16 years and brings him to Portugal where he belongs and where he would have been had it not been for his political exile years prior.

The second form of intertextuality is the presence of Lídia as Ricardo Reis’ lover. Saramago, in the novel, points out that Lídia, has the same name as the Lídia that Ricardo Reis had written about in one of his poems. Ricardo Reis recognizes the name and smiles upon hearing that the chambermaid had the same name as the character of his poem entitled Vem Sentar-te Comigo, Lídia, à Beira do Rio. Though there was no other resemblance between the two, the name is enough to spark his attention and to ignite the relationship between the two. In addition to referencing works of Ricardo Reis, Saramago also brings the poetry of Àlvaro de Campos into his novel on two occasions. The first reference occurs when Ricardo Reis says “It is I, without any irony, without any sorrow, content to feel not even resentment, as a man who desires nothing more or knows that he can possess nothing more” (35). This is a verse directly taken from Àlvaro De Campos’ poem Tabacaria and serves the purpose of describing his current situation in Lisbon whereby he is in limbo. He does not know what he is doing in the city, does not know other people and does not even have a home that he can call his own. In essence, Ricardo Reis does not possess anything: no property, no relationships, and no future. Though this does not seem to bother him in the least, he does not even make a full-hearted attempt to change his circumstances but rather accepts them for what they are. It appears that Ricardo Reis does not want to commit to any permanence in his life; he prefers temporary things such as the position as a substitute doctor (Bueno). The second occasion whereby Saramago evokes Àlvaro de Campos is through the use of his lines from Todas as cartas de amor são, “All love letters are ridiculous, even more ridiculous, it suddenly becomes clear, never to have received one” (229). This line is used by Ricardo Reis to express his frustration in regards to not receiving any love letters from Marcenda despite having sent her a few. Àlvaro de Campos is Pessoa’s heteronym that gives in to his emotional impulses when he writes which may be why Saramago uses his verses as a method to convey Ricardo Reis’ emotions towards both his current conditions and his love for Marcenda. 

Also, the use of intertextuality comes in the form of Saramago criticizing Pessoa himself. Pessoa wrote Mensagemwhich is a collection of poems about famous Portuguese historical figures and was also the only book that was published while he was alive (“Fernando Pessoa e os Heterônimos”). In the novel, Saramago uses the character of Pessoa himself and says “Fernando Pessoa got up, half-opened the shutters, and looked out. An unpardonable oversight, he said, not to have included Adamastor in my Mensagem” (194). The Adamastor was used in Luís de Camões’ poem Os Lusíadasas a symbol of the barriers faced by Portuguese navigators during their times of sea exploration (Figueiredo). This line in Saramago’s novel is a criticism towards Pessoa for not having included such an important part of history in his work, especially since the Portuguese were well known for their naval explorations. Even more straight to the point is the fact that Saramago puts these words of regret for having forgotten such a contribution to Portuguese culture in the mouth of Pessoa. 

Metaliterature – A Conversation between the orthonym and the heteronym         

Pessoa, as a writer, was interested in the topic of identity, which is a complex topic (Jones). This was his quest throughout his life, which led to the creation of both his orthonym and his heteronyms. These terms must be distinguished and defined to obtain a full understanding of how Saramago uses the two to create dialogue through his use of metaliterature. An orthonym is the internal self of the author being exposed and used to explore the notion of identity (Jones). A heteronym has a biographical and a physical description with a career and temperament (Jones). It is through the dialogue of the orthonym and the heteronym that Saramago succeeds in creating a metaliterature approach. Metaliterature can be defined as a type of literature that seeks to shed light and explain itself more thoroughly (O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis). This simply stated means that Saramago uses metaliterature as an attempt to explain what Pessoa meant by ‘identity’. Additionally, there are two conversations in particular whereby Saramago uses Pessoa and Ricardo Reis to question, and perhaps even distinguish a heteronym from its creator in the mind of the reader.

Metaliterature, as used by Saramago, shows the reader that Pessoa, throughout his whole life and after having tried to define identity, was unsuccessful. He says, “innumerable people live within us. If I think and I feel, I know not who is thinking and feeling, I am only the place where there is thinking and feeling” (13). This quote could not conceivably be harder to comprehend and make sense of. This is precisely the feeling that Saramago is attempting to portray since Pessoa was never able to unveil that mystery. Ricardo Reis in this passage cannot identify who he is, all that he truly knows about himself is that he is a person of living flesh but does not know where these thoughts and feelings come from. He does not know if they are his own or if they are someone else’s, or perhaps even a mix of the two. Furthermore, there are two conversations between Pessoa and Ricardo Reis, which both confuse and enlighten the reader simultaneously about the distinguishing factor between an orthonym and a heteronym. This first conversation is as follows: “But I see you, Because I want you to see me, besides, if you think about it, who are you” (Saramago 66). Pessoa is questioning Ricardo Reis, and it seems as if he is implying that Ricardo Reis is Pessoa. Pessoa is trying to evoke a response out of Ricardo Reis to oppose what is being implied and to defend himself as an entirely separate being from Pessoa. Additionally, Pessoa is trying to get Ricardo Reis to give him the answer to his search for identity which he did not complete during his life, but that could be completed now. The second conversation follows a similar approach whereby Pessoa and Ricardo Reis have the following conversation: “As you can see, we know everything about each other, or at least I about you, Is there anything that belongs only to me, Probably not” (313). This leads the reader to believe that despite the difference between the orthonym and the heteronym, there is still a strong link that binds the two and that they are not wholly indistinguishable from one another.

Ricardo Reis as a Reflection of Saramago

Saramago was the object of various interviews with Carlos Reis who made a compilation of the interviews into a book titled Dialogos com Jose Saramago. Chapter six of this book, Sobre a Narrativa e o Romance, sheds light on some of the many traits that characterize Saramago as a writer which he then passes onto his characters. He does this in several ways by attributing some of his qualities onto Ricardo Reis and transforming his personality. The first notable response that Saramago gives is that he feels the necessity, as a person, to try to explain everything (Saramago and Reis). This reaction can be interpreted as Saramago’s need to explain what happens in Ricardo Reis’ life since it is left unclear by Pessoa. He feels that his literary duty to relieve Ricardo Reis from his life in limbo and give him a purpose, or at least give him an end. Saramago ends the novel with Ricardo Reis’ death, which has the most conclusive end that any heteronym could have been subjected to. Once Ricardo Reis is dead, there remains nothing else to be explained, and so Saramago can put his need for explanation to rest once and for all, knowing that there cannot be anything added to the story.

Another interesting response given by Saramago during the interview is that he uses his memory in the creation of characters (Saramago and Reis). This does not necessarily mean that his characters are based on real people, but rather that there are specific characteristics in that he inserts into his characters that are real. Saramago, states that he has always been fascinated by physical defects and that one day during a dinner at a restaurant he saw a girl whose left arm was paralyzed (Saramago and Reis). If this sounds familiar, that is because Saramago applied this paralysis to Marcenda, one of Ricardo Reis’ love interests. Even more compelling is the fact that Ricardo Reis, throughout the entire novel, always mentions the limp arm whenever he encounters Marcenda. This disability becomes almost like a defining feature of Marcenda as a person and in the novel is the very reason why Ricardo Reis meets her. Every month Marcenda and her father Doctor Sampaio return to Lisbon in hopes that she will be cured of her paralyzed arm. In this example, it is evident that Saramago’s obsession with a disability and physical defects is passed onto Ricardo Reis and becomes one of his obsessions.Additionally, Saramago admits in his interview that writing is not something that he takes pleasure in and that it is, in fact, something that he has to force himself to do (Saramago and Reis). This is one of his characteristics that he makes as part of Ricardo Reis. Ricardo Reis is said to compose “poetry line by line with much effort, agonizing over rhyme and meter” (Saramago 55). Though he is not practicing medicine and views himself as a poet, composing becomes a struggle for him and is something that he does not do as self-fulfilling or pleasurable but more as a job. He aspires to be like Alberto Caeiro and Pessoa in that he wants to be remembered as a poet as opposed to a doctor. Therefore, he does not only write what he wants the way he wants but rather is meticulous in the way that he writes. He is a perfectionist who needs the rhymes and meters of his verses to follow the rules prescribed. In this aspect, it must be noted that he is the complete opposite of Saramago. Saramago is an author who fails to meet the literary conventions of his writing style. He opposes the rules in this novel by using only two types of punctuation: the comma and the period. This is different from all other authors because to signify speech, and he simply uses a comma and a capital letter to indicate when a speaker begins instead of using quotation marks. 


In conclusion, this paper has examined the various methods used by Saramago in his novel to dialogue with Pessoa and with Ricardo Reis. The analysis began with a look at intertextuality, and allusion more specifically, and the importance it had in the construction of Ricardo Reis as the protagonist of the novel. Subsequently, there was a detailed explanation of the different examples of meta literature utilized by Saramago, which brought Pessoa, the orthonym, and Ricardo Reis, the heteronym, into conversation with one another to portray the Pessoan themes of identity and heteronyms. Finally, the paper examined the different ways in which Saramago applied his own character traits as a write-in the character of Ricardo Reis. Saramago’s novel was both enlightening and innovative in the way that it used an already well-known heteronym in Portuguese literature and created a new destiny for him which ended in him joining Pessoa in the Rua dos Prazeres in the cemetery.

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