I started to falter — life distracting me — just as the tone of the book changed. And it helped remind me: the key to reading Saramago is in your breathing. Really. And I breathed lighter and easier, and I found that the book was not just clever and witty, but really, really funny. If you breathe the sentences right.
It was a pleasant, very sunny morning, which shows yet again that the punishments of which the sky was such a prodigal source in the past, have, with the passing of the centuries, lost their force, those were good and just times, when any failure to obey the divine diktat was enough for several biblical cities to be annihilated and razed to the round with all their inhabitants inside. Yet here is a city that cast blank votes against the lord and not a single bolt of lightning has fallen upon it, reducing it to ashes, as happened, in response to far less exemplary vices, to sodom and gomorrah, as well as to admah and to zeboyim, burned down to their very foundations, although the last two cities are mentioned less often than the first, whose names, perhaps because of their irresistible musicality, have remained forever in people's ears. Nowadays, having abandoned their blind obedience to the lord's orders, lightning bolts fall only where they want to, and, as has become manifest, one can clearly not count on them to lead this sinful city and caster of blank votes back to the path of righteousness. In their place, the ministry of the interior has sent three of its archangels, these three policemen, chief and subalterns, who, from now on, we will designate by their corresponding ranks, which are, following the hierarchical scale, superintendent, inspector and sergeant. The first two sit watching the people walking along, none of them innocent, all of them guilty of something, and they wonder if that venerable-looking old gentleman, for example, is not perhaps the grand master of outer darkness, if that girl with her arms about her boyfriend is not the incarnation of the undying serpent of evil, if that man walking along, head down, is not going to some unknown cave where the potions that poisoned the spirit of the city are distilled. The sergeant, whose lowly condition means that he is under no obligation to think elevated thoughts or to harbor suspicions about what lies beneath the surface of things, has rather homelier concerns [. . .]
So the book moves into this near-farcical police investigation, and carried me swiftly along.
He did all this with great concentration in order to keep his thoughts at bay, in order to let them in only one at a time, having first asked them what they contained, because you can't be too careful with thoughts, some present themselves to us with a cloying air of false innocence and then, when it's too late, reveal their true wicked selves.
Very funny book, in fact.
Except for the ending, which punched me in the gut.