I hope readers aren’t too anxious about reviews of José Saramago’s novels. I’m devoting this week to his diaries, written between 1993 and 1997. Since they haven’t been translated into English, I think posting some of their passages is more interesting than reviewing his novels (I’ll get to that next week). José Saramago started keeping a diary after his brother-in-law offered him a notebook printed on recycled paper, so that he could write his impressions of Lanzarote, one of the islands of the Canary Islands, where he went to live in protest of the Portuguese government censoring him in 1991. As such the diaries are known as Cadernos de Lanzarote, The Lanzarote Notebooks. But the diaries turned into something far more interesting. Although he sometimes writes his impressions about the island’s mysterious volcanic landscape, the diaries constitute one of the best sources of information about his personal life and friends, his past, his political opinions, his social activism, his thoughts on his work, literature in general and writers, and thoughts about Portugal. It’s also sometimes filled with controversies due to his observations about Portuguese public figures, from politicians to writers, and lots of gossip.
In 1993 we meet a José Saramago who is still very much upset about the religious uproar caused by his novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ and the government’s attack upon it. He receives lots of mail about it, especially hate mail. Foreigners tend to send him letters supporting and praising him. His conservative countrymen, on the other hand, urge him to save his soul by reading religious texts and joyfully declare how they’d like to see him burn in Hell. Poor Saramago at some point writes that he doesn’t seek polemics, they just have a way of finding him. Of course he helps fan the flames when he has thoughts like, “How is it possible to believe in a God creator of the universe, if the same God created the human species? In other words, the existence of man is precisely what proves the non-existence of God.” He’s way past saving his soul from Hell, not that that worries him a lot.
Saramago doesn’t actually spend a lot of time in Lanzarote. He spends most of his time travelling. His quotidian is a long list of trips across the world, on vacations, to conferences, lectures, writers’ meetings, award ceremonies, and universities to receive another honoris causa. In London, guided by his translator Giovanni Pontiero, he receives The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, meets Doris Lessing, who apparently speaks Russian, and the literary critic Gabriel Josipovici. In London he also meets Salman Rushdie, a writer he admires for his courage to speak out against religious fundamentalism.
In Spain he meets his old friend Gonzalo Torrente Ballester. At a dinner with Jorge Amado, the Brazilian novelist jokingly asks him when is he going to win the Nobel Prize (small talk between writers must be such a strange thing). When he’s not meeting writers around the world, he’s talking about them: for Cuban poet Eliseo Diego he has only admiration. Someone faxes him an interview in which Georges Steiner declares that his novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is superior to Eça de Queiroz’ The Maias. Probably pleased with the compliment, Saramago nevertheless defends The Maias as the greatest Portuguese novel ever written. And he’s absolutely right, of course.
Saramago didn’t write a lot about the theory of writing or literature. Some writers love to do it: Jorge Luis Borges, Milan Kundera, Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino. But Saramago didn’t have any interest in that. He writes that he seldom discusses literature because books attract other more interesting discussions, social, political, economic, which is what he likes to talk about. So it’s hard to know his approach to writing, to literature, and his literary tastes. Again the diaries are very useful since they’re sprinkled with curious commentaries about these topics. For instance, his idea of the difference between historians and novelists: “From historians one only expects them to make history, and they, in one way or another, do it, without surprises, they always do it, whereas the novelist, from whom one expects to make nothing but an everyday amount of small fiction, ends up surprising, and apparently a lot, if he guided that fiction by the ways of history the way you take a small hand lantern that goes about illuminating the corners and recesses of time with indulgent sympathy and ironic compassion.” It’s worth remembering that in an early phase of his career, between 1980 and 1991, Saramago was considered mainly a writer of historical novels.
During the trip to London, while talking with his editor, Christopher Maclehose: “At a certain moment of the conversation, I declared that the novel no longer had to continue telling stories, that the stories of our time are told by television and cinema, and that, in that case, for the novel and the novelist there was nothing to do but return to the three or four great human questions, perhaps only two, life and death, trying to know, not even ‘where did we come from and where are we going,’ but simply ‘who are we.’”
Sometimes his thoughts are mere aphorisms. “Art doesn’t evolve, it moves,” he writes somewhere in the diary. Discussing the difference between realism and magical realism at a writer’s conference he states: “The real is the sea. In it there are writers who swim and there are writers who dive. But the water is the same.”
It is interesting that Saramago doesn’t receive a lot of mail from Portuguese people, but from Spaniards, Italians and South Americans. On the other hand, he also seems to read more in Spanish than in Portuguese, and more essays than literature. On account of Toni Morrison receiving the Nobel Prize, he confesses he never read anything about her and claims to not know a lot of Anglo-American literature. And that’s obvious from the writers he tends to rub shoulders with, he’s more familiar with Spanish-language literature, even more than Portuguese one, as one can see from his excellent use of magical realism.
He reveals that he received an offer to turn The Gospel According to Jesus Christ into a film with the promise to get Bernardo Bertolucci to direct it. Saramago, who’s a fan of his movies, explains he’d only agree if they could confirm that; since nothing came out of it, apparently the producers weren’t being very honest, and that’s a pity because it makes me dizzy just to imagine what Bertolucci, one of my favourite filmmakers, could do with such controversial material.
During a meal with other Portuguese writers, he suggests a theory about Eça de Queiroz and Flaubert. He asks if Luísa Gouvarinho, the heroine of Eça’s Cousin Bazilio, isn’t a reference to Emma Bovary. “Gouvarinho would have been, for Eça, the Lisbon and burlesque caricature of Emma Bovary. To me it seems clear like water: Bovary, Gouvarinho – doesn’t it sound just the same to you?” The joke, which is lost English, is that Gouvarinho is a diminutive, presumably of Gouvari; the –nho suffix acts as a diminutive in the Portuguese language; Eça it a lot in his writing for ironic and comedic effects, a small nuance that is untranslatable.
Regarding the Camões Prize (which he’d eventually receive in 1995), he lambasts it for only awarding Portuguese and Brazilian writers and leaving out other Portuguese-speaking countries (this was in 1993; as of 2012 the award has only gone four times to other countries, and one of them was shared between Portugal and Angola.). According to Saramago this smacks of “neo-colonialist paternalism.”
Saramago was also a writer who liked to be socially and politically committed to several causes. While attending a writer’s conference with young writers, he notices a paradox: the younger writers are only committed to their own works, rejecting the allegedly outdated ideal of the socially engaged writer; but at the same time they all confess that they want their works to change the world. Saramago asks how they can fail to see the contradiction in that. For how can a writer’s books change the world if the writer doesn’t engage in it, stays alienated from it, immersed only in his work? Saramago was a strong defender of the writer as a world citizen involved in social activism. For that reason he helped found the International Parliament of Writers, which is a platform of writers seeking to have a more important role in society.
Antonio Tabucchi and José Saramago apparently don’t like each other. Saramago reads in a French interview with Tabucchi apropos of Requiem that the Italian writer doesn’t like to hear him mentioned. Saramago then writes that he had already noticed “a poorly disguised hostility and the obvious coldness Tabucchi manifests every time he has to talk about me or with me.” He suggests a reason for this hostility: “Antonio Tabucchi will never forgive me for having written The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. An heir, as he makes a point of showing, of Pessoa, both physically and mentally, he saw appear in the hands of another that which would have been the crowning achievement of his life, if he had remembered it in time and had had the necessary will: to narrate, in a true novel, the return and death of Ricardo Reis, to be Reis and to be Pessoa, for a while, humbly – and then back out, because the world is too vast for one to be here always telling the same stories. I admit the truth may not coincide, line by line, with these presumptions of mine, but let it be admitted that, at least, it’s a good working hypothesis…”
Besides writers, he devotes some words to the Italian composer Azio Corghi, another dear friend of his. Corghi has turned two of his books into operas that were popular and well-received in several countries in Europe, including Italy, Holland and Germany. Saramago laments, however, that no Portuguese company has shown any interest in them. “Portugal, that one, doesn’t know anything. And Lisbon, the cultural capital of Europe, will have eighteen operas the following year. The organizers of the musical programme haven’t heard of Blimunda and Divara, those trifles…”
His tone is often bittersweet and ironic when he talks about the Portuguese government. From Portugal, for instance, someone informs him that the village of Mafra has refused a proposal to grant him a medal because he ‘ruined the name of Mafra’ with the publication of Baltasar and Blimunda (which, of course, contributed to making it famous worldwide more than any tourist campaign ever did before it) and because the book is ‘reprehensible on all levels.’ This is basically a taste of what he has to put with every day of his life, nothing but spite, envy and petty revenge from a country that never felt comfortable with his greatness and international success. At one point he is invited to write a TV documentary about the Portuguese King D. João II for the state channel, RTP, but due to political reasons the deal falls through. Most of the time the government actually pretends he doesn’t exist, as the author frequently points out by the many times the embassies try to sabotage him abroad. Another case is the Ministry of Culture refusing to subsidize Saramago’s trip to London to receive The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, with Giovanni Pontiero, for The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (the first Portuguese writer to receive it, nothing worthy of attention).
He also tends to be more pessimistic when he talks about politics in general. Jorge Amado sends him a letter complaining about the poverty, political corruption and backwardness in Brazil (Saramago could easily have sent him an identical one about Portugal), and concludes asking what he can do for this fatherland. Saramago writes in the diary: Nothing. “For the fatherland, Brazil, Portugal, any really, only belongs to a few, never to everyone, and the people serve its owners thinking they serve it. In the long and always growing list of alienations this one is probably the biggest one.”
José Saramago, the euro-sceptic, also reveals all his contempt about the European Union:
My scepticism about the communitarian Europe hasn’t changed, however I can’t stop thinking that the Europe of today must already have very little of that other Europe I imagined to have known and of which I have allowed myself to speak of. Certainly there are in it infinitely more grave difficulties than the ones a mere writer (this one) could be capable of naming. How can one, for instance, believe in the good faith of Delors [the then President of the European Union], ]who now, in the Copenhagen summit, spoke of an appeal to solidarity of the European peoples for the resolution of the problem of unemployment? Was it lack of solidarity that created in Europe 18 million unemployed, or are they merely the more visible effect of the crisis of a system for which people are nothing but producers dispensable at any moment and consumers forced to consume more than they need? Europe, stimulated to live in irresponsibility, is a runaway train, without breaks, where a few passengers have fun and the rest dream of having it. Along the line the warning signals are seen, but none of the drivers asks the others and himself: ‘where are we going?’
This could have been written today about the European crisis, verbatim.
1993 was also the year he started working on Blindness. On April 20 he gets the idea for the novel, but the first sketch is a far cry from the finished product. “How many years will it take, in a given moment, for everyone alive to be replaced by someone else? A century, let us say a bit more, but in this book everyone who sees will have to be replaced by blind men, and these ones, all of them, again by people who see… People, all of them, will start by being born blind, they’ll live and die blind, and next others will come who have a healthy sight and they’ll remain like this until they die. How long does this take? ” So his original idea was for people to be gradually born blind until the whole world was blind, and then the inverse would occur. But on June 21 he has a new idea: “Difficulty solved. The people in Blindness don’t have to be being born blind, one after another, until they replace, completely, those with sight: they can go blind at any moment. This way the narrative time is shortened.” (And one day someone will write a doctorate thesis about how much of great literature is merely the product of sheer laziness and the path of least resistance.) On August 16 he jots down a few more thoughts about the novel: “I’ve decided there will be no names in Blindness, no one will be called António or Maria, Laura or Francisco, Joaquim or Joaquina. I’m aware of the enormous difficulty that it will be to guide a narrative without the usual, and to a certain point inevitable, crutch of names, but what I exactly don’t want is to carry by the hand those shadows we call characters, invent lives and prepare destinies for them. I prefer, the book to be, this time, peopled by shadows of shadows, the reader never know whom it’s about, that when someone appears in the narrative he asks if it’s the first time it happens, if the blind man on page one hundred will be or not the same from page fifty, alas, that he enter, in fact, into the world of the others, those we don’t know, all of us.”
Finally, Saramago was a dog lover and he adopts a dog in Lanzarote. “We have a dog at home, come from we know not where. He just showed up like that, as if he had been looking for owners and now he had finally found them. He doesn’t look like a stray one, he’s young and one can tell he was well-trained wherever he used to live before.” They call him Pepe, diminutive of José in Spanish This is the first of several dogs he’ll adopt in Lanzarote. We’ll meet the others in the next diaries.