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#106 “The History of the Siege of Lisbon” by Jose Saramago (#194 on The List)

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by Michael Niewodowski

The History of the Siege of Lisbon is a novel about a single word.

After more than forty years of impeccable service in his profession, Raimundo Silva, a proofreader, intentionally alters a line in a history book manuscript; he changes “During the siege of Lisbon in the twelfth century, the king of Portugal asked help from the Crusaders, who had stopped to re-supply their ships; the Crusaders said that they would come to help attack the occupying Moors” to “the Crusaders said that they would NOT come to help attack the occupying Moors”.  As the proofreader is the last in line to examine a manuscript before publishing, the book was published with the erroneous information.  Silva’s decision is inexplicable: when asked “why?” he responds that he simply had a “Mr. Hyde” moment.  Rather than fire the proofreader, his superior suggests that he write a fictional history of the siege in which the Crusaders do not help the Portuguese.

History, reality, and even life itself can hinge on a single word. In his novel, Saramago questions the validity of written history and shows us how tenuous our understanding of reality can be.  The proofreader’s fictional account is much more interesting and exciting than the “true” history of the siege.  For Saramago, the truth should never stand in the way of a good story, and his-story trumps history.

Most of us can probably relate to Raimundo Silva’s “Mr. Hyde” moment; we all do things that are unprofessional or just plain wrong at work.  When I was a high school teacher, I often used curse words in front of my students. I was teaching Culinary Arts, and I had come from a professional restaurant kitchen environment, where screaming curses is commonplace- even expected. I brought the intensity of my 3 and 4 star restaurant experiences to the classroom, but I knew that it was unprofessional in the high school environment; ironically, this “Mr. Hyde” intensity made me more effective at my job, and my students more engaged and prepared.

Aptly, it was a single word that brought about my demise at my teaching job.

A student accused me of being a bully; if he said “bully” once, he said it a hundred times to any other parents, teachers, or administrators who would listen to him.  This was a student who had become disenfranchised and retaliatory because he had been cut from a competitive culinary team.  Although I NEVER threatened physical violence, it was pretty easy to construe “bullying” from my using curse words, and I was labeled and shamed.

When I was a child, a bully was someone that threatened physical violence to get something from another person (usually lunch money). Now, the definition of a bully is much broader; apparently, you only have to make someone uncomfortable to be considered a bully.  According to Norwegian researcher Dan Olwen (a supposed expert) a bully is someone who “intentionally inflicts injury or discomfort upon another person, through physical contact, through words, or in other ways.”  By this definition, Mahatma Gandhi was a bully: he bullied the English through non-violent civil disobedience, intentionally inflicting discomfort upon them.  By this definition, Jesus Christ was a physically violent bully: he intentionally inflicted physical injury upon the moneychangers in the temple.  (Suddenly, my company doesn’t look so bad…..)  The word “bully” has become a buzz word, and it is thrown around a lot.  I would prefer a definition that does not encompass nearly every man, woman, child, and animal, as Olwen’s definition does.

The History of the Siege of Lisbon teaches us to choose our words wisely.  A single word may change history.

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