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Saramago - In the Name of Record
The impossible always happens, especially if it's horrible.

(José Saramago)

The North American reaction to the selection of José Saramago as the winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature could perhaps best be described as one of bewilderment. Judging by the media coverage, people were not so much shocked as perplexed by the Royal Swedish Academy's decision to honour the veteran Portuguese writer. Faced with the choice of an author most of them had never heard of, much less read, they responded to the announcement from Stockholm very much like Canadians did to the news of Joe Clark's first election as leader of the Progressive Conservatives: José Who? (Saramago's name is pronounced, Jos-say' Sara-mah'-go.)

Although regrettable, the response in Canada and the United States to Saramago's victory is understandable, for he has surprisingly little profile not only in North America but in the whole of the English-speaking world. The author of some twenty-eight books-poems, plays, diaries, essays, and, most significantly, novels-Saramago has been translated into almost thirty languages-from French and Russian, to Hebrew, Mandarin, and Japanese. In addition to Portugal and Brazil, he is particularly popular in Spain, the Scandinavian countries, Germany, and Italy. In fact, two operas and a cantata based on his works, with music by composer Azio Gorghi, have been commissioned by Milan's La Scala.

Saramago's fate has been radically different in the English-speaking world. It is true that nine of his works have been translated into English and that he has been lauded by such prominent intellectuals as Irving Howe and George Steiner. Still, excluding a few academics and writers, it would not be hyperbolic to say that prior to the Nobel award, he was unknown in the lands where Shakespeare's language rules.

The neglect that Saramago has suffered in English is especially unfortunate since he is one of the magisterial novelists of the second half of the twentieth century. In these postmodern times, when writers have ceased to believe in a reality outside language and thus devote themselves to increasingly hermetic word-games, Saramago has insisted on being a public author. He is not a light writer. Quite the contrary. One of the more puzzling aspects of his career is how such a dense author could become a popular success. With his ornate, neo-Baroque style, in which sentences sometimes appear to go on forever, Saramago is difficult to grasp even by fluent Portuguese speakers. However, he is never writing just about writing, which probably explains his popularity. Although not unaware of the discursive nature of history, Saramago systematically engages himself in a dialogue with the historical past. As a Marxist with a populist streak, he is clearly intent on giving a voice to the masses of people who never had one. Yet even at his most political, he seldom becomes dogmatic, having a tendency to inject into his real world of rulers and ruled strong doses of irony and the fantastic-but a fantastic usually grounded in history.

Born into a peasant family in central Portugal in 1922, Saramago migrated with his parents to Lisbon while he was still a baby. (The author was christened José de Sousa, but when he started elementary school, he learned that a drunken bureaucrat had registered him with his father's nickname. He is thus the first Saramago in his family-as well as the last; his only daughter, Violante, has two children but they bear their father's surname, Matos.) In the Portuguese capital, Saramago studied to be a mechanic in a technical high school, among whose requirements were Literature and French. After graduating, he worked as a mechanic, factory worker, office clerk, and, eventually, as a literary editor, a translator, and a journalist. Meanwhile, living in a fascist country in which the separation of church and state was not readily apparent, Saramago became radicalized in his attitude toward both politics and religion. Indeed, he is not just an atheist and an "inveterate Communist", as the Vatican's newspaper, L'osservatore romano, reminded the world after the Nobel decision, but for over thirty years, he has been a card-carrying member of the Portuguese Communist Party.

As a writer, Saramago is very much a late bloomer. He wrote his first book in 1947, the novel, Terra do pecado (Land of Sin). However, while he soon concluded a second novel, he would not publish another book for nearly twenty years-the 1966 poetry collection, Os poemas possíveis (The Possible Poems). As he has often stated, the turning point in his life and career occurred in 1974, the year that marked the end of almost half a century of Portuguese fascism. In the chaotic euphoria that followed the April 25th Revolution, Saramago was fired as editor of the newspaper, Diário de Notícias, and then he decided to become a full-time writer. It was only subsequently, with the publication of his novel, Memorial do convento (Baltasar and Blimunda) in 1982, when he was sixty years old, that he finally attained his first popular and critical success.

Perhaps better than any of his other works, Memorial encapsulates the most distinctive aspects of Saramago's writing, notably his political irreverence and his orality-what he calls his conscious attempt to inscribe in his work "the flux of the voice". Both elements are quite evident in the novel's opening paragraph:

Dom Joao, the fifth monarch so named on the royal list, will pay a visit this night to the bedchamber of the Queen, Dona Maria Ana Josefa, who arrived more than two years ago from Austria to provide heirs for the Portuguese crown, without so far having shown any signs of becoming pregnant. Already there are rumors at court, both within and without the royal palace, that the Queen is barren, an insinuation that is carefully guarded from hostile ears and tongues and confided only to intimates. That anyone should blame the King is unthinkable, first because infertility is an evil that befalls not men but women, who for that reason are often disowned; and second because there is material evidence, should such a thing be necessary, in the horde of bastards produced by the royal semen.

Memorial also conveys other significant aspects of Saramago's works-from his interest in history, particularly lower-class history, through his skepticism if not antagonism toward organized religion, to his continuous interaction with earlier Portuguese writers. The novel, which translates literally as Convent Memoir, revolves around the construction of the mammoth Mafra Convent in the eighteenth century. Having failed to produce a child with his wife, the Portuguese king at the time, the aforementioned Joao V, is persuaded by a Franciscan friar that "if Your Majesty promises to build a convent in the town of Mafra, God will grant you an heir." The focus, though, is not so much on the travails of the Royal Family and its political and religious acolytes as on those of the hitherto anonymous masses who would pay with their lives and limbs for their monarch's grandiose dreams. To quote the author, after he describes a series of workers who actually build the palace-convent, "We cannot go into the details of the lives of all of them-they are too numerous-but at least we can leave their names on record."

In particular, Saramago focuses on three characters: the peasants, Baltasar and Blimunda, and the unorthodox priest, Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmao. The Mafra-born Baltasar has just returned from one of the frequent wars with Spain, maimed and without prospects, the Army having "no further use for him once they amputated his left hand at the wrist." At an auto-da-fé in Lisbon, he meets Blimunda, a New Christian or converted Jew, whose mother is being sent into exile in Angola for claiming to have "visions and revelations that the Tribunal [Inquisition] has dismissed as fraudulent". Baltasar and Blimunda soon become lovers and, after meeting Father Bartolomeu, are recruited by the priest-inventor to work on his revolutionary flying machine, the "Passarola".

Saramago's sympathies are clearly with his main protagonists, the construction of Father Bartolomeu's futuristic flying machine being juxtaposed to the building of that monument to mysticism and obscurantism at Mafra. Yet the author does not idealize his heroes. He certainly does not succumb to the temptation of having them embrace contemporary values that would be anachronistic in the eighteenth century. For instance, the otherwise clear-headed Blimunda claims that, when fasting, she can "look inside people". As she explains to Baltasar, hers are "normal" powers, since "I only see what is in the world. I cannot see what lies beyond it, whether it be heaven or hell. I practice neither enchantment nor hypnosis. I simply see things." Similarly, the rationalist Father Bartolomeu, an historical figure now considered a pioneer in aviation history, believes that, in order for his flying machine to fly, he needs the assistance of thousands of human wills. Actually, when a pestilence strikes Lisbon, killing scores of people, he has Blimunda collecting wills just as they "break free from their unworthy bodies or souls".

The extent to which Saramago respects the historicity of his heroes is evident in the fact that he does not have them emerge victorious over their oppressive antagonists, including the omnipresent Inquisition. By the end of the novel, Father Bartolomeu has died in exile in Spain, but not before converting to Judaism and then returning to the bosom of the Catholic Church. Blimunda criss-crosses the country for years searching for Baltasar, after he accidentally lifts off in the flying machine. She finally succeeds in locating her mate, but when she does, he is about to be burned at the stake by the Holy Office. That is, of the three, she is the only one who (barely) survives. Moreover, Saramago suggests that the reason people like Baltasar, Blimunda, and Father Bartolomeu are vanquished is that the moral corruption that pervades their time is not restricted to the political and religious elites, but has contaminated the whole of society. As he has one of his narrators comment, for the Portuguese, burning and deporting people have become common, and festive, occasions:

The auto-da-fé is spiritually elevating and constitutes an act of faith, with its stately procession, the solemn declaration of the sentences, the dejected appearance of those who have been condemned, the plaintive voices, and the smells of charred flesh as their bodies are engulfed by the flames and whatever little fat remains after months of imprisonment starts to drip onto the embers.

Or, as the narrator concludes, the public killing of other human beings produces such a "general rejoicing" among the populace that one "shall never know what the inhabitants of Lisbon enjoyed more, autos-da-fé or bullfights, even though only the bullfights have survived."

If anything, the question of historical truth is even more central to Saramago's 1989 História do cerco de Lisboa (History of the Siege of Lisbon). As its title suggests, the novel deals with the 1147 siege of Lisbon by the Moors. However, it is less a fictional recreation of the historical event than it is a meditation on the nature of history and historical truth. The main character is a copy editor named Raimundo Silva, who is correcting the galley proofs of an historical manuscript entitled History of the Siege of Lisbon. While discussing the work with its author, a professional historian, Raimundo realizes that the two men hold rather disparate views on what constitutes history. For the copy editor, "history is not real life, it's literature, nothing else". In contrast, the historian contends that, whatever it may have become now, "history was real life at the time when it could not yet be called history".

A consummate professional, Raimundo has the utter trust of his bosses at the publishing house for which he has worked for years. But as he ruminates on his exchange with the historian, he begins to ponder whether the historical past is as tangible as the writer claims. Then, as he concludes the proofreading, he is struck by a passage in the text which asserts that, while en route to the Promised Land, the Crusaders ponder whether or not to come to the assistance of the first Portuguese king, Afonso Henriques. Unexpectedly, Raimundo "adds a word to the page, a word which the historian did not write, which in the name of historical truth he could never have written, the word Not". That is, contrary to both the author's intention and the historical record, the text now states that "the Crusaders will Not help the Portuguese to conquer Lisbon, it is thus written and, even if different, it therefore became the truth".

The publishing house eventually detects the "correction" and not only severely reprimands Raimundo but also hires an expert to supervise all copy editors. However, the new supervisor is fascinated by Raimundo's reasoning and later persuades him to write a new history of the siege from his perspective, as if the Crusaders had never helped the Portuguese. In other words, with Raimundo's new historical text, also called History of the Siege of Lisbon, it becomes impossible to distinguish between the factual and the fictive. Even if one concurs with the novel's epigraph that the task of the writer is to "correct" the truth, one cannot help but recognize the magnitude of the endeavour. For any truth that may exist has become virtually inaccessible.

Saramago's concern with history is such that it permeates even his portrayals of literary and religious figures. The Catholic-raised author is not only a self-declared atheist, as mentioned above, but he has actually declared that "Christianity wasn't worth it... [I]f there had been no Christianity, if we had continued with the old gods, we wouldn't be very different from what we are." Still, his materialism has not precluded him from devoting a play to a saint, A segunda vida de Francisco de Assis (The Second Life of Francis of Assissi) in 1987; another play to the sixteenth-century "holy war" between Catholics and Protestants in Münster, Germany, In nomine Dei (1993); and, most controversially, O Evangelho segundo Jesus Christ (The Gospel according to Jesus Christ) in 1991.

Similarly, Saramago has engaged in a long dialogue with major Portuguese writers-from the Renaissance epic poet, Luís de Camoes, the so-called "father" of Portuguese letters, to the Modernist poet, Fernando Pessoa. For example, one of the victims of the auto-da-fé at the end of Memorial-which will kill Baltasar-is António José da Silva, a Brazilian-born playwright known as "o Judeu" or "the Jew". In the same novel, there are also several allusions to Camoes's national poem, The Lusiads. Likewise, Saramago's 1980 play, Que farei com este livro? (What Will I Do with This Book?), which like his other dramatic works has not yet been translated into English, is basically an exploration of the religious and political obstacles faced by Camoes as he attempts to publish his epic.

The work in which Saramago's homage to both Camoes and Pessoa is most pronounced, however, is O ano da morte de Ricardo Reis (The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis), published in 1984. On the surface, Ricardo Reis is a typical historical novel. Set in Lisbon in 1935-36, it is a seemingly lifelike depiction of the Portuguese capital at the time of the Spanish Civil War. The author is able to capture beautifully Lisbon's ambiance by having the eponymous protagonist not only take endless walks around the city but also read numerous newspaper accounts of the political situation in both Portugal and Spain. Yet, it soon becomes apparent that the novel is neither historical nor exactly realistic. For Ricardo Reis is not a "real" person but the creation of Pessoa, one of the famous heteronyms or alter egos in whose name the poet wrote.

Pessoa himself appears throughout the novel. Yet, he is not less fantastic a character than Reis. As is stressed in the text, Pessoa had died recently. But then, in Saramago's literary universe, after people die, they are usually allowed to circulate in the world for another nine months, the same length of time they spent in their mother's womb. Like Pessoa, Camoes is also ubiquitous in Ricardo Reis. The protagonist feels the presence of the author of The Lusiads in two distinct ways. First, as if pulled by some magnetic force, he keeps walking by the Renaissance poet's statue or that of Adamastor, the natural giant immortalized in his epic. More significantly, Reis seems unable to psychologically escape Camoes because, more than anyone else, the bard has shaped his culture, his way of seeing both the world and himself. As Reis responds when a woman friend suggests that a Pessoa poem is so simple that it could have been written by anyone:

Yet it [the poem] needed this man to write it, it's like all things, both good and bad, someone has to do them, take the Lusíadas for instance, do you realize that we'd never have had the Lusíadas were it not for Camoes, have you ever thought what our Portugal would be without [it].

Or, as the author confides through his narrator, "all roads in Portugal lead to Camoes, ever-changing Camoes according to the beholder".

Saramago's unconditional celebration of his literary predecessors arguably constitutes the most intriguing aspect of his work. This is particularly true from a Canadian perspective. After all, such continuity seems not just unlikely but downright unnatural in a country where, culturally speaking, we are compelled to reinvent the wheel with every generation. That being said, the author's actions may not be as disinterested as they first appear. The impression one often gets from reading Saramago is that he is not just eulogizing Portugal's literary giants, but also constructing a genealogy for himself. Even though the Portuguese government may at times not consider him quite mainstream-vetoeing as it did the nomination of The Gospel according to Jesus Christ for the European Literary Prize, presumably because of its politico-religious unorthodoxy-he has deliberately striven to inscribe himself in the nation's dominant literary tradition. Indeed, as portrayed in his books, the Portuguese literary pantheon appears to consist chiefly of Camoes, Pessoa-and Saramago.

José Saramago is clearly a deserving winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is a witty and erudite writer who is simultaneously popular and iconoclastic. In an age of globalism, he continues to stress the vitality of the local. At a time when literature has become increasingly self-referential, he insists on addressing major social and political issues. Saramago has recently asserted that his style is becoming simpler, reflecting his desire to write with "more clarity". Yet, while he may be attempting to avoid the circumlocations inherent in the "literary Baroque", he shows no indication of eschewing the wider world. In 1986, Saramago responds to the prospects of European unification with the novel, A Jangada de pedra (The Stone Raft), a politico-geographic fantasy about the Iberian Peninsula breaking off from the continent and then sailing to its logical location in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, between Africa and Latin America. Then, with the world being ravaged by AIDS and other scourges, he produces the novel, Ensaio sobre a cegueira (translated as On Blindness, but literally Essay on Blindness) in 1995, a secular parable about society easily reverting to barbarism as it is struck by an epidemic of blindness. That is, while Saramago's work may be becoming more allegorical, the author does not seem about to evade what he terms the "great questions". Needless to say, this is probably one of the main reasons for his appeal. 

Albert Braz is a SSHRCC postdoctoral fellow in English at Queen's University. He would like to thank Ricardo Sternberg and Manuela Marujo, both of the University of Toronto, for providing him with crucial information about Saramago.


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