Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Why Write Books That Can't Be Published?

Why write a book that can’t be published? That’s the question I asked myself after reading one hundred pages of José Saramgo’s new novel, Clarabóia. Although it was published posthumously in 2011, it was in fact finished in 1953. Saramago sent it to a publisher, who never replied back; Saramago, meanwhile, lost interest or forgot or got busy with other things (he still had a day job at the time), and its fate remained unknown. Then in the 1980s Saramago, by then a famous writer, received a letter from the editor who possessed the manuscript, and he offered to publish it, if the author wanted. Saramago refused, claiming he didn’t want it published in his lifetime. But he didn’t oppose its publication after his death.

But I think it would have been difficult to publish the novel in 1953. Portuguese literature had been, since 1926, in the tight grip of state censorship. This censorship had the mission of restoring Portugal’s mental and moral health. Dictator Salazar believed the country needed to be saved from the doubts and negativism that assailed the century; it was time to stop questioning God, country, family, morals, duty, and authority. Democracy had destroyed society and alienated man from himself, from history, from his fatherland. It was time to restore faith in the great certainties of the previous century. Therefore the arts should serve Man by offering him healthy role models, both physical and mental.

The dictatorship supervised the creation of a reality to deceive public opinion at home and abroad, in our former colonies. It was creating a virtual country, or as writer Hipólito Raposo called it, in 1940, “The Republic of Illusitania,” a pun on Lusitania, an ancient name for Portugal (it’s where words like Lusiad and Lusophone come from). In order to create this virtual country, the State instated an official body that censored everything: newspapers, books, radio, television, cinema, shows, visual arts, music, education. That way it succeeded in pushing forth its political-ideological conditioning and shaping the minds of its citizens. Several words and expressions were not allowed to be printed: human rights; capitalism; exploitation; oppression; proletariat; peace; republic; and after the Portuguese-Angolan war started in 1961, even colonial (in the 60s a newspaper was fined for quoting a governmental document that contained this word; sure, censorship is bad, but at least it provides some absurdist humor).

But writers, being writers, weren’t going to be told what to write. They weren’t going to write that Portugal was a happy, rich, developed country when people were dying from starvation. A counter-reaction started when writers in the 1940s, known as the Neorealists, began writing about Portugal in all its misery. While the state was making it illegal to write about poverty, famine, sex, class struggle, unhappiness, suicide (in Portugal people were only murdered - and the killer was always caught or it wasn’t worth printing the news - or else died by accident), social injustice, civil liberties, and the divide between state and citizens, the pessimistic writers were wallowing in all those depraved, reactionary ideas that could only create social unrest.

José Saramago’s Clarabóia would have been a troublesome book under these circumstances. The action takes place in a tenant building inhabited mostly by working class people, but also by a well-off family that has fallen on hard times. It contains passages that would have attracted the censor’s blue pencil like shit attracts flies. The following excerpt is centred on four women who live together, two young sisters with their mother and aunt. It’s night time, the sisters are listening to music together while their aunt is going over the bills:

  They both laughed. Aunt Amélia was finishing the bills and asked a question:
   “Don’t they talk about raises over there?”
   Adriana shrugged her shoulders again. She didn’t like to be asked that question. It seemed to her others thought she earned little and it offended her. She replied, with bitterness:
   “They say business is slow…”
   “Always the same story. For some, a lot; for others, little; and for others, nothing! When are those people going to learn to pay what we need to live?”

The censor, always on the lookout for such subversive episodes, would have excised this passage. Not only did it question the myth that people were happy with their social condition, it gave voice to their discontent and, more importantly, dared to challenge dictator Salazar’s belief that poverty was a virtue. “I owe Providence,” he famously once said, “the grace of being poor.” Yeah, well, people disagreed. Other ideas, although subtler could have incensed the censor’s ire. The novel shows the poverty of the characters in indirect ways too: there’s Silvestre, an old shoemaker, who has a curtain dividing him room from the corner that serves as his workshop. Although he has a job, he can barely make ends meet so he has to take in a lodger. Until recent decades, most Portuguese could not afford their own houses and lived their entire lives in rented rooms.

But it wasn’t just Saramago’s Marxist tendencies to criticize social and economic ills that would have gotten the novel in trouble with censorship. Clarabóia is also rife with libidinous passages that would have offended moral values:

Maria Cláudia, alone, smiled. Before the mirror she unbuttoned her smock, opened her nightshirt and contemplated her breasts. She trembled. A light crimson tinged her face. She smiled again, a bit nervous, but happy. What she had done had given her a pleasant feeling, with a taste of sin. Then, she buttoned up her smock, looked in the mirror once more and left the room.

Maria Cláudia is nineteen. This scene is briefly preceded by one where her mother is embarrassed to see her lying semi-naked in bed. Later she goes to make a phone call at a neighbour’s apartment, a kept woman, and there’s a sexual tension between the two:

Perhaps the décor, maybe Lídia’s presence, something imponderable and vague, like a gas that passes through all filters and that corrodes and burns. In that bedroom’s atmosphere, she always lost control of herself. She got dizzy as if she had drunk champagne, with an irresistible urge to do something foolish.

If the lesbian undertones seem vague in this passage, there’s a more graphic one later on, involving two sisters, that would have left no doubt in the censor’s mind about its meaning. Also, Lídia, being a kept woman, and previously a prostitute, would have been too risky for the novel. In other apartments, couples despair over their loveless marriages, blemishing one of the fundamental institutions of the regime: the family.

There were two forms of censorship: beforehand and after publication. Censorship beforehand meant the writer, after finishing his novel, or play, or poems, submitted the manuscripts to the censorship office; one day he’d be contacted and told to stop by for a chat; then a paternalist censor (usually a retired army Major) would assure him that the State in now way objected to artistic creation, but there were a few things that had to be removed, or some passages that could be rewritten better (here the censor assumed the role of literary critic). If the writer agreed, he could then rewrite the book and submit it again, and go through the same process over and over until the censor was happy. If he didn’t, he couldn’t publish it (this wasn’t carved in stone; some books with offensive passages could be published, but would suffer a more subtle way of censorship: for instance, the book’s title and the writer’s name couldn’t be printed in the media, harming its sales and impact. This was a way of killing an author still in life.)

Censorship after publication entailed confiscating the book after it had hit bookstores. There were always police spies in bookstores, checking the books on the stands, and the contributions of informants and ordinary citizens who kowtowed to the regime’s line and saw it as their duty to keep Portugal uncorrupted from evil ideas. Now this is where censorship becomes grotesque: a book could be authorised by the censorship office, only to be seized by authorities after it had been published. Sometimes censors missed things: perhaps there was too much to read, or the font size was too small, or they were too tired, or they were too dumb; or sometimes there were different temperaments at work: some were more educated than others and tried to let some things slip through, as long as it didn’t hurt their career. What was neutral to one censor, was dangerous and subversive to another. Censoring was mostly done by instinct and based on a vague list of directives.

Had Clarabóia been published in 1953, it would have likely been seized by agents in bookstores. It’s fortunate José Saramago was spared such ignominy.

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