José Saramago died on 18th June 2010. Ater several months in hospital, Saramago returned home in February to a hectic schedule. The adaptation of Blindness, by Brazilian film-maker Fernando Meirelles, opened in UK cinemas. Saramago attended a private preview in Lisbon.
For the past 15 years, José Saramago lived with his journalist wife,Pilar del Ríothe in a clifftop house in Lanzarote. They moved after the Portuguese government, under pressure from the Vatican, vetoed nomination of his novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991) for an EU literary prize. He demanded – and later received – a public apology.
In Saramago’s humanist, “heretical gospel”, Jesus, the son of Joseph, has a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene, and challenges the power-hungry God who demands sacrifice of him. When Saramago provoked a storm in Portugal last year by saying the country would inevitably become a province of a united Iberia, some thought his remarks were motivated by a lingering anger. Yet he insists: “I left the country as a protest against the government of the time, not anger at Portugal. I pay my taxes in Portugal. This year alone I’ve spent more than six months here.”
His move to Lanzarote marked a shift in his fiction. His later books, set in unspecified countries, are less tangibly rooted in Portuguese life and history, or the streets and storms of Lisbon. The speculative element has come to the fore. For the novelist Helder Macedo, emeritus professor of Portuguese at King’s College London, Saramago has always been a “writer of allegories with a universal outlook. His starting-point is not ‘once upon a time’, but ‘what if?’.” For Saramago, “my work is about the possibility of the impossible. I ask the reader to accept a pact; even if the idea is absurd, the important thing is to imagine its development. The idea is the point of departure, but the development is always rational and logical.”
Meirelles was drawn to Blindness, to an extent to make a film, by the novel’s vision of “how fragile our civilisation is, and how easily it can collapse”. Yet for Saramago, “I don’t see the veneer of civilisation, but society as it is. With hunger, war, exploitation, we’re already in hell. With the collective catastrophe of total blindness, everything surfaces – positive and negative. It’s a portrait of how we are.” The crux is “who has the power and who doesn’t; who controls the food supply and exploits the rest”.
It is only the second of his books that he has allowed to be filmed – after George Sluizers The Stone Raft in 2002. Reluctant to let “a violent book about social degradation, rape” fall into the wrong hands, he refused many offers. But he deems Meirelles’s movie, which was shot in São Paulo, Uruguay and Canada, and opened this year’s festival at Cannes, a “great film”. Its success in South America, including Brazil, contrasts with a tepid response in the US.
Death at Intervals, was inspired, says Saramago, by the idea of “what would happen if death took a holiday”. When people in a landlocked country stop dying, a clandestine mafia in league with a crisis government takes the moribund across the border to be buried. Death personified as a woman is being kept from her job by a love affair with a cellist. For Saramago, “I don’t see it as a love story. Some people read it as love winning over death, but to me, that’s pure illusion.” In his view, “the church tried to find an explanation for the creation of the world, and they’ve been defending that idea ever since – with violence. It’s a murderous intolerance, like the Inquisition burning people who are seen to be different. The new Pope wants rigid dogma to be respected and not questioned. I’m against that. We can’t accept truth coming from other people. We must always be able to question those truths.”
Saramago was born in 1922 into a peasant family in Azinhaga, a village in Ribatejo, northeast of Lisbon. When he was two, they moved to the capital, where his father José, an artilleryman in the first world war, found a job as a traffic policeman and his mother worked as a domestic cleaner. After the 1926 coup d’etat overthrew the republic, António de Salazar rose to power with his fascist militias and PIDE secret police. Saramago’s describes his family’s sordid living conditions in Lisbon and hints at a coercive submission within the household to the fascist slogan of “God, Fatherland, Family”.
Set against this were his maternal grandparents, Jerónimo and Josefa, with whom he spent school holidays in Azinhaga: “They were poor farmers who couldn’t read or write but were very good people, and made an impression on me for life. My best memories were not of Lisbon but of the village where I was born.” His grandfather, a “swineherd and storyteller” who could “set the universe in motion” with legends and apparitions, died in 1948. Fifty years later, Saramago paid tribute in his Nobel lecture. He was intrigued that Josefa’s father was from Morocco. “To give my great-grandfather a more romantic image, I said he was Berber, but it’s not certain.” According to Carlos Reis, rector of Portugal’s Open University and author of Dialogues with José Saramago (1998), he still derives a “moral superiority and wisdom” from his humble background.
Shortly after the family moved to Lisbon, his elder brother Francisco died, aged four. Saramago’s efforts to track down his grave some 70 years later, while collecting information for his memoir, fed his novel All the Names. Since his family could not afford to keep him at grammar school, he went to technical school to become an apprentice mechanic. Yet he read “at random” in public libraries, and worked at a publishing company in the mid-1950s. He translated Tolstoy, Baudelaire and Hegel among others, before becoming a journalist. Joining the underground Portuguese Communist party in 1969 – the main opposition to the dictatorship – he risked jail and assault. But after the Carnation revolution of 1974 toppled Salazar’s successor, Marcelo Caetano, Saramago became deputy editor of the revolutionary daily newspaper Diário de Nóticias. It was “a very intense period, when the Communist party was finally legalised. There was social unrest”. His reputation as a Stalinist dates from this period, when he was said to have purged non-communists from the paper. “He made a lot of enemies at that time,” Reis says. But after a radical leftwing coup was thwarted in 1975, Saramago was himself sacked. “Portugal became ‘normalised’; land reform and political participation stopped.”
Saramago had married Ilda Reis, a typist turned engraver, in 1944 .They divorced in 1970. His debut novel, The Land of Sin, was published the same year, 1947, that his only child, Violante, was born. After a long gap, he began to publish poetry and plays in the 60s. But, jobless in 1976, he spent time in rural Alentejo, and returned to fiction. The Manual of Painting and Calligraphy is, says Carlos Reis, “very autobiographical. Saramago thinks the revolution failed. Yet it was thanks to that failure, when he was fired, that he had to write to survive. It was his only option.”
With Risen from the Ground, about three generations of an Alentejo peasant family, he began the great novels of the 80s, and invented his distinctive style of “continuous flow” with sparse punctuation. His English translator Margaret Jull Costa says his “seamless narrative voice” is meant to sound like speech. He orchestrates sounds and pauses. She also likens him to the 19th-century realist novelist Eça de Queiroz, “in a tradition of mocking Portugal, making fun of it”. The novel widely seen as his masterpiece, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, gives human form to one of the poet Fernando Pessoa’s pseudonyms, or “heteronyms”, imagining him returning from Brazil in 1936, after Pessoa’s death.
Reis sees his postmodern fiction of the 80s as taking stock, alongside other writers after the 1974 revolution, of “Portugal’s origins and destiny, and its ambiguous relationship with Europe”. For Reis, The Stone Raft posed a question: “Are we really European, or don’t we have responsibilities outside Europe – particularly in South America?” Macedo insists that Saramago, despite his recent comments on Portugal’s future, is “not an Iberista in the traditional 19th-century sense. But unlike many Portuguese, he values Spain – one of his favourite writers is Cervantes. He sees the peninsula as a conglomeration of different cultures under the EU.”
Still a Communist party member, Saramago describes himself as a “hormonal communist – just as there’s a hormone that makes my beard grow every day. I don’t make excuses for what communist regimes have done – the church has done a lot of wrong things, burning people at the stake. But I have the right to keep my ideas. I’ve found nothing better.” Yet he did write in 2003 that, after years of personal friendship with Fidel Castro, the Cuban leader “has lost my confidence, damaged my hopes, cheated my dreams”. In Reis’s view, “Saramago lives his communism mostly as a spiritual condition – philosophical and moral. He doesn’t preach communism in his novels.” His fable of consumerism and control in a globalised culture, The Cave (2001), shows the focus of life shifting from cathedral to shopping mall. But for Jull Costa, its strength is in his “writing so humanely about ordinary people and their predicaments”.
In Seeing (2004), set later on in the same country as Blindness, the majority cast blank ballots in a protest that leads to a state of emergency. For Saramago, democracy was in need of regeneration, since economic power determines political power. “I’m doubtful of democracy,” he says. “Participation in political life is insufficient. People are called in every four years, and in between, the government does what it wants. That’s not specific to Portugal.” Yet even he is heartened by Barack Obama’s election. “It’s a beautiful moment, democracy in action, when millions were mobilised – including people who had never voted before – for a new candidate, and a black candidate at that. It’s a kind of revolution.”
His new novel The Elephant’s Journey, which Meirelles sees as a “brilliant comedy about the stupidity of humankind”, traces the travels of Solomon, an Indian elephant given by King John III to Archduke Maximilian II of Austria. It was “99% pure invention”, Saramago says. “I was fascinated by the elephant’s journey as a metaphor for life. We all know we’ll die, but not the circumstances.” He was 40 pages into the book when he was taken to hospital in Lanzarote. Allowed home, he immediately resumed writing. “What I find surprising and strange is that there’s a lot of humour in the book – it makes people laugh. No one would guess how I was feeling at the time.”
He has described Del Rio as his “home”, and calls her “the most important thing in my life – maybe more than my work. I see our relationship as a love story that has no need of being turned into a book”. They had a second civil marriage ceremony last year in Castril, her hometown in Andalucía, having neglected to register their Lisbon wedding in 1988. The bureaucratic oddity would not be out of place in his fiction.
“Wearing the new dress that she bought yesterday in a shop downtown, death goes to the concert. She is sitting alone in the box, and . . . she is looking at the cellist. Just before the lights went down, when the orchestra was waiting for the conductor to come, he noticed her. He wasn’t the only musician to do so. Firstly, because she was alone in the box, which although not rare, wasn’t that frequent an occurrence either. Secondly, because she was pretty . . . pretty in a very particular, indefinable way that couldn’t be put into words, like a line of poetry whose ultimate meaning . . . continually escapes the translator. And finally, because her lone figure, there in the box, surrounded by emptiness and absence on every side, as if she inhabited a void, seemed to be the expression of the most absolute solitude.”
This passage points to what I believe to be one of the main characteristics of my work: accepting that the impossible is possible and extracting from that slightly risky premise all the consequences that the imagination can bring to it, even if ordinary logic has to suffer. Proust may have seen death, or thought he did, at the foot of his bed, in the guise of a fat woman dressed in black, but death has no substance unless we push against the limits of the possible to gain access to a different level of seeing, to the inner scenario of the imagined where everything makes sense. In this novel, death buys a new dress to wear to a concert. Impossible, you’ll say, and I’ll respond, Yes, but not any more.
In his real life José Saramagotalks of his own death. Rushed to hospital last winter with a respiratory illness, he recalls: “They were reluctant to take me because I was in such a serious condition.” Chuckling, he adds: “they didn’t want to be the hospital where José Saramago died.”His amusement may stem from a mischievous sense of thwarting expectations, as much as delight at his reprieve. “I don’t see it as a miracle,” he makes clear (he is an atheist), “but my chances of recovering were very slim.” Yet it also suggests an ironic stance towards his late fame.He re-started to write only after he reached 60.