José Saramago – An Appreciation

Thursday, 9 September 2010 13:06

One of the many startling things abo
ut José Saramago was that he was an overtly political writer in a literary world in which being political does not pay. Remarkably, at the age of 85 he began a highly controversial blog and these occasional pieces, collected in The Notebook (Verso, 2010) – squibs, memoranda, appreciations of friends, and diatribes against a wide range of targets including the Vatican and the church (‘parasites on civil society’), Bush (‘a liar emeritus’), Berlusconi (‘absolute lord and master of Italy’), Sarkozy (‘the irresponsible’), racism, anti-immigrant policies, Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and the right-wing government of Portugal – are a fascinatingly direct insight into the mind of a literary Nobel prizewinner who no longer cared very much what effect his opinions could have on his own standing, but who wanted passionately to cut through the fake discourse, the lies that he called the ‘other truth’, that allow our modern form of semi-democracy to flourish:


  1. ‘[T]he lie as a weapon, the lie as the advance guard of tanks and cannons, the lie told over the ruins, over the corpses, over humanity’s wretched and perpetually frustrated hopes.’


He had never been a stranger to controversy. In particular, his signature at the end of a letter attacking Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon (along with those of Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali, Eduardo Galeano, Arundhati Roy and Harold Pinter among others) expressly condemned Israel for it’s treatment of the Palestinians. It  made him both loved and hated. Taken together with his many pro-Palestinian statements, the Israeli lobby rightly decided he was hostile to Israel and wrongly, as usual, made accusations of anti-Semitism, although the usual charge of ‘Holocaust denier’ could not be applied because he had edited a book on Adolf Eichmann and his part in the Shoah. However, his own statement in The Notebook makes his position perfectly clear:


  1. ‘Critical as I have always been of the oppression and repression of the Palestinian people by the Israeli state, my main argument in condemning them was and continues to be on a moral plane: the unspeakable sufferings inflicted on the Jews throughout history, and most especially as part of what is called the final solution, ought to afford the Israelis of today (or of the past 60 years, to be precise) the best possible reason not to commit their very own tyrannies on Palestinian land. What Israel needs above all else is a moral revolution. Firm in this conviction, I would never deny the Holocaust. I only wish to extend the concept to the outrage, humiliation, and violation of every kind to which the Palestinian people have been subjected.’


In fact, his condemnation of Israeli politics is no more trenchant than his condemnation of other states and leaders, or his attacks on what, in an attempt to hide its uglier name (Capitalism) is euphemistically called the ‘market economy’ and its own peculiar political expression – neoliberal democracy:


  1. ‘In other, clearer words, then, what I''m saying is that people do not choose a government that will bring the market within their control; instead, the market in every way conditions governments to bring the people within its control. And if I talk about the market in this way it is only because today, and more with each day that passes, it is this that is the instrument par excellence of authentic, unitary, simple power, global economic and financial power, which is not democratic because the people never elected it, and finally which is not democratic because it does not have the people''s happiness as its aim.’ (The Notebook)


Elsewhere he said (in Christopher Rollason’s translation):


  1. ‘We''ve had this shift from the ideal of full employment to job insecurity and junk contracts (or, euphemistically, ''social mobility''), without realising what was going on: all of society has been anaesthetised. Was this some stupid government''s idea? No, it was the idea of the economic powers.’ (http://yatrarollason.info/files/SaramagoandOrwell.pdf)


He was critical of the Left too. He lost faith in Fidel Castro who had been a close friend, and stated in 2003 that ‘he has lost my confidence, damaged my hopes, cheated my dreams’. He condemned the FARC as a murder gang, leading James Petras to accuse him of ‘bizarre historical amnesia’. He was particularly scathing about the European Left of which he said, ‘The Left has no fucking idea of the world it’s living in’. ‘No communist party,’ he wrote, ‘beginning with the one of which I’m a member, emerged from its stockade to refute what I said.’


To balance these oppositional stances The Notebook contains affectionate tributes to beloved friends and respected public or artistic figures - Fernando Pessoa, Jorge Amado, Antonio Machado, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Eduardo Galeano, Mahmoud Darwish, Borges, Judge Baltasar Garzón, Roberto Saviano, Javier Ortiz, Dario Fo and Pedro Almodóvar. Writing about the incident where Hugo Chavez presented the newly elected Barack Obama with a copy of Galeano''s The Open Veins of Latin America, for example, Saramago says ‘whoever wants to be informed about what has happened in America, that whole Transcontinental stretch of America from the 15th century onward, can only stand to gain from reading Eduardo Galeano’. (The subtext to the incident, by the way, which perhaps may have occurred to Saramago though he doesn’t mention it, is that no one in their right mind could ever imagine anyone presenting anything other than a health and safety guide to eating pretzels to the previous incumbent.) There are warm pieces on Sub-Comandante Marcos, the Disappeared of Argentina, as well as more light-hearted glances at subjects like poetry, Portuguese water-dogs, journeys, flowers, and places, especially the beautiful city of Lisbon.

So who was José Saramago? Born in 1922, his family were landless peasants in the province of Ribatejo: ‘A Berber grandfather from North Africa, another grandfather a swineherd, a wonderfully beautiful grandmother; serious and handsome parents, a flower in a picture - what other genealogy would I care for? and what better tree would I lean against?’ (from his Nobel Lecture). When he was two years old his parents moved to Lisbon and his father found work as a policeman. He went to a technical school and qualified as a mechanic. Later he would work as a translator, a journalist and a newspaper editor (controversial, of course) before becoming a full-time writer. He joined the Portuguese Communist Party in 1969 when Salazar was dictator and membership of the party was illegal, and he remained a challenging, awkward, polemical but committed member until his death. ‘We are correct,’ he wrote, ‘and being correct helps those who propose a better world before it is too late.’ In the USA his communism damaged his reputation somewhat* – and the sales of his books – and it was divisive in Portugal where it sat awkwardly with Portuguese pride in his Nobel Prize, but in other parts of the world it was understood and welcomed, among readers of the European Left, and more particularly in South America where it was especially appreciated by the vast Lusophone population of Brazil.

This child of almost illiterate peasants would win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1998. In his speech he described his grandfather Jeronimo as ‘the wisest man I ever knew’ who, lying under one of the fig trees in his garden, could ‘could set the universe in motion just with a couple of words’. ‘Jerónimo, my grandfather, swineherd and story-teller, feeling death about to arrive and take him, went and said goodbye to the trees in the yard, one by one, embracing them and crying because he knew he wouldn''t see them again.’ The prize – by now we expect it – caused huge controversy because of his politics. ‘Nobel Writer, A Communist, Defends Work’ wrote the New York Times in surprise and possibly horror.

His novels are realist fables in which ordinary people – farmers, clerks, a doctor’s wife – play important and even heroic parts. In All The Names a clerk in the public records office (a positively Derridean archive!) heroically attempts to correct an error and in doing so falls in love; in Blindness, a doctor’s wife provides the victims of a plague of sightlessness with their only hope of salvation (to each according to his needs…). The Gospel According to Jesus Christ enraged the Vatican (‘a substantially anti-religious vision’) by imagining a randy, neurotic Jesus and because it contained an enormous list of the ‘best’ ways of getting to heaven – bloody martyrdom. The Portuguese government removed his name from a list of novels eligible for a European Literary prize because of it. His plots are always surprising. Blindness, fictionalising Debord’s The Society of The Spectacle, centres on an outbreak of ‘white blindness’ which passes like a swine ‘flu from person to person, but which is really intended ‘to remind those who might read it that we pervert reason when we humiliate life, that human dignity is insulted every day by the powerful of our world, that the universal lie has replaced the plural truths’. In The Stone Raft the Iberian peninsula mysteriously breaks free from the continent of Europe and floats off into the Atlantic. In Seeing a majority of voters in an unnamed country return blank voting papers precipitating a political crisis. By 2005, Saramago was 83 and Death With Interruptions imagines what would happen if, for no known reason, it became impossible to die.

Alas, death called for José Saramago shortly after his breakfast on the morning of the 18th June, 2010.


This piece was previously published on Irish Left Review and Three Monkeys Online.




* Thanks to Christopher Rollason who took the trouble to correct me in my assertion that Saramago''s communism damaged his reputation in the USA. He writes: ''I am not sure if the remark about the USA is fair, since Saramago has certainly had a higher profile (and higher sales) there than most recent non-Anglophone writers''. Christopher''s  blog is here. It contains some personal photos of Saramago (and also, by the way, some evocative photos of the remaining Parisian arcades that formed the focus of Walter Benjamin''s wonderful The Arcades Project)



The cartoon is by William Medeiros

(http://www.toonpool.com/cartoons/Jose%20Saramago_2355)