Some say that that magic of a good work is diminished when that work is translated into another language. Others are quick to suggest that good works transcend language, that theme and rendering are enough to carry those stories through the ages, regardless of what tongue is used to tell them.
In Skylight, readers are introduced to the tenants of an apartment building in Lisbon during the 1950s. Each chapter in the book deals with a different family or different protagonist, and each protagonist feels personally and historically authentic. Silvestre, the cobbler, is an older gentleman, contentedly married for many years. His presence in the overarching narrative serves a philosophical purpose as well as a wistful one. He is the building’s embodiment of contented, nostalgic remorse. Abel, his tenant, is everyman. While he’s led an eventful life of his choosing, he is the closest thing to a tabula rasa as readers are likely to get. His is the search with which we can all identify: the struggle to begin becoming oneself and the struggle to figure out who that self is to be. Other characters in the story struggle with issues of sexuality, age, fidelity, infidelity, each in his or her own way asking the same questions. In fact, everyone in the story seems on the brink of becoming whom he or she is truly supposed to be.
The title Skylight is indicative of the fact that as readers, we are simply getting snapshots of the characters’ lives and struggles. We are seeing more, perhaps, than those who live and work around them, but we are still kept at a distance. Oddly enough, the experience of reading Skylight does seem somewhat like interacting with the characters through plate glass: we can see them, we hear their words, we are privy to their thoughts, but we never actually know who they are. However, readers will more than likely find someone with whom to identify or sympathize in these collected tales of daily living.
Jose Saramago’s Skylight was originally published as Clarabóia in Spain circa 2011. It was translated into English by Margaret Jill Costa in 2014. While it may be true that some of the flavor or essence of the writing is lost or removed by the process or translation, readers will still find that flavor and that essence present in the characters’ searches for their true selves and the lives they are supposed to lead.