Monday, 30 January 2012

Useful People

“The day when it’ll be possible to build on love hasn’t arrived yet…” claims the sceptical Abel, the new lodger living in Silvestre’s apartment. At the heart of Clarabóia lies a conflict between the idealistic Silvestre, an aging “philosopher shoemaker,” and Abel, a poor man’s flâneur, a pessimist who strolls through life accumulating experiences as if he were stockpiling canned food for a nuclear winter; a conflict which, in the course of several conversations, tries to answer whether or not a utopia of men is possible.

It’s not hard to trace the genealogy of Abel. An intellectual vagabond, he’s found in the novel reading a French translation of The Brothers Karamazov, which brings to mind the ‘superfluous men’ of 19th century literature: intelligent, sensitive men who, due to a weakness in their personalities, fail to actively participate in life and remain bystanders of the injustice, evil and ignorance around them. It also brings to mind Carlos da Maia, the protagonist of Eça de Queiroz’ The Maias (which is also mentioned in the novel), who was a Portuguese variation of the superfluous man. His grandfather, the stoic Afonso da Maia, brings him up with an “English education” so he won’t be a suicidal emotional wreck like his father. Carlos da Maia is rich, handsome, intelligent, and full of great projects and ideas to change and help society. And yet he dissipates all his energy in drinking, parties and women, daydreaming through all his failures. As the poet and literary critic Jorge de Sena once wrote of him, this education “did no good to nice Carlos, because his social environment had no application for it.” Abel diverges in one important point from Carlos and the superfluous men: he has no urge to help people; for him the search of experience is an end in itself. “I have a feeling life is behind a curtain, laughing out loud at our efforts to know it. I want to know it,” he declares.

Silvestre disagrees. “There’s so much to do on this side of the curtain, my friend… Even if you’d live a thousand years and have the experiences of all men, you couldn’t know life!” Silvestre believes experience is only useful when applied to something. He illustrates this when Abel watches him mending a pair of shoes:

   “I’m bothering you during your work,” Abel said.
   “You’re not. This is something I could already do with my eyes closed.”
   He put the shoe aside, grabbed three threads and began waxing them. He did it in wide and harmonious movements. Little by little, on each dip through the wax, the white thread took a brighter colour of yellow.
   “If I do it with my eyes open, it’s out of habit,” he continued. “And also because, if I closed them, the task would take longer.”
   “Not to mention it’d come out imperfect,” Abel added.
   “Of course. That proves that even when we can close our eyes, we should always keep them open…”
   “What you just said has all the looks of a charade.”
   “Not as much as you think. Isn’t it true that, with my work experience, I could do this with my eyes closed?”
   “Up to a point. You agreed that, in those conditions, the work wouldn’t be perfect.”
   “That’s why I open them. Isn’t it also true that, with my age, I could close my eyes?”
   “Die?! What an idea? I’m in no hurry.”
   “Closing the eyes just means not seeing.”
   “But, not seeing what?”
   The shoemaker made a wide gesture, as if he wanted to encompass everything that was on his mind:
   “This… Life… People…”

In his youth, Silvestre was a Republican by conviction. I should clarify that being a republican here means he opposed the monarchy. It means he joined anti-monarchist groups, got involved in fights with monarchists, and celebrated the instauration of democracy in 1910. But his joy was short-lived, since the republic was no better. “It seems to me that monarchy and republic are, at the end of the day, words.” Later he fought in World War I and came back even more disillusioned, not to mention wary of the changes in society that already foreshadowed a turn to totalitarianism. He only had his ideals to cling to and an unshakeable belief in men, which he tries to pass on to Abel.

Abel is less dogmatic. A good student, he left home and school at sixteen to taste the fruit of freedom. He’s held several jobs, slept in doss houses and been homeless. He has no convictions or human relationships to tie him down. “Life the way others understand it has no value to me. I don’t like being tied up and life is an octopus of many tentacles,” he says. “One alone is enough to grab a man. When I feel held down, I cut off the tentacle. Sometimes it hurts, but there’s no other way. Do you understand?”

Silvestre doesn’t understand. The shoemaker was born poor; if he starved, it was because he had no alternative. The bookish Abel is a vagrant out of intellectual curiosity. He quotes Álvaro de Campos to justify his life: “Did you want me married, futile and taxable?” [the verse comes from “Lisbon Revisited (1923)” and is actually: “Did you want me married, futile, quotidian and taxable?”]. Álvaro de Campos, one of Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms, is a decadent poet, characterised by pessimism and lethargy, but also a scrutinizing self-awareness of the unstoppable waste of his own energy and life. He’s a poet who wants everything, but can’t achieve anything, and masochistically, obsessively records every instance of his failure to be something.

Three decades later, another heteronym would play a significant role in Saramago’s work: Ricardo Reis. In his Nobel Lecture, Saramago, writing about himself in the third person, explains the genesis of the novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis:

He learnt many of Ricardo Reis' poems by heart ("To be great, be one/Put yourself into the little things you do"); but in spite of being so young and ignorant, he could not accept that a superior mind could really have conceived, without remorse, the cruel line "Wise is he who is satisfied with the spectacle of the world". Later, much later, the apprentice, already with grey hairs and a little wiser in his own wisdom, dared to write a novel to show this poet of the Odes something about the spectacle of the world of 1936, where he had placed him to live out his last few days: the occupation of the Rhineland by the Nazi army, Franco's war against the Spanish Republic, the creation by Salazar of the Portuguese Fascist militias. It was his way of telling him: "Here is the spectacle of the world, my poet of serene bitterness and elegant scepticism. Enjoy, behold, since to be sitting is your wisdom ..."

Ricardo Reis’ philosophy has also been adopted by another one of my favorite writers, the Egyptian-born French novelist Albert Cossery, whose novels follow the lives of nihilistic skeptics who take delight in watching the world fall apart around them (if you haven't yet read A Splendid Conspiracy or The Jokers, you're missing out on one of the most corrosive voices in 20th century letters).  But Saramago has always promoted civism, the involvement of people in social life, the so-called direct democracy. Better than any other character, Silvestre symbolizes the belief in activism as a tool to improve life.

But before one can set out to improve life, one has to decide whether or not life makes sense at all. And Abel isn’t sure it does:

The occult meaning of life… “But the occult meaning of life is that life has no occult meaning.” Abel knew the poetry of Fernando Pessoa. He had turned his verses into another Bible.

And Pessoa’s poetry is one of inactivity, of tedium about life, to use one of Bernardo Soares’ most often repeated words. If one doesn't care too much about life, one can’t be involved in it, seems to be one of the possible inferences we can draw from the novel. Silvestre and Abel’s views are perhaps irreconcilable. Even so he leaves Silvestre’s apartment reflecting about whether or not his experience can ever be used for something useful:

“Perhaps my learning has to be slower, maybe I have to receive many more scars until I become a real man… For now I’m that person they call useless and who closed his mouth because he knew that to be true. But I won’t be that person forever…”

Or maybe not; maybe he just gives Silvestre hope, the aging socialist, that his words have had an effect on him in order to end their argument. Although driven by humanism, Saramago didn’t naïvely think, like some idealistic left-wing thinkers, that all people are just passive drones stumbling through life, with their eyes closed, until the truth is uploaded into their brains. Some people have their eyes wide open and, for better or for worse, just want to watch the spectacle of the world. Saramago often had to contend, in his work, with the possibility that Mankind, even when it can, will refuse to save itself.

José Saramago didn’t publish another novel until 1977. He explained his ‘silence’ of decades on the grounds that he had nothing to say. Like Abel he closed his mouth and accumulated experiences. He took several manual jobs; then worked for magazines and newspapers as a journalist, article writer, book reviewer and editor. Finally somewhere around 1980, his own voice finally sprang up fully formed. But that’s a story that continues in Raised From The Ground, a novel I hope everyone reads when the translation comes out this year.

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