Tuesday, 6 November 2012

1994: António Lobo Antunes Wins The Nobel Prize

At the beginning of 1994 we find José Saramago worrying about the lack of time to devote himself to all his ongoing literary projects. He’s simultaneously writing Cadernos de Lanzarote, O Livro das Tentações (it later became Small Memories, his autobiography), and Blindness, which he keeps procrastinating. He decides he has to focus on Blindness. But he laments, with his usual irony, that he can’t concentrate because he keeps getting interrupted by interviews, trips abroad, book fairs and writers’ conferences. Saramago also asks himself if he should continue writing his diaries, since he’s always been a shy person used to keep his personal life to himself and doesn’t have the habit of revealing much of his intimate life. But at the same time he thinks the diaries will help to leave something of himself behind after he’s gone. “Don’t go so fast, leave a sign of you,” he says to himself. The first reviews of the diary come out, accusing him of narcissism, which is a strange criticism against a diary: what should a diary be about but the person writing it? Of course it’s narcissistic.

Once again he’s full of critical observations about the Portuguese people, provincially Catholic and nationalistic, and about the Portuguese government and institutions, which continue to try to sabotage him. One example is a letter that an Argentine foundation sent to the minister of culture but addressed to Saramago, inviting him to attend a book fair in March, 1994. The letter was sent in September 1993. Saramago only receives in January. Either the government was just its usual incompetent itself or it deliberately delayed resending the letter to him. I’m betting it’s a mixture of both. On a different note, the news of the continuous success of Azio Corghi’s opera Divara in Münster, make Saramago, “melancholy satisfied,” once again regret that Portugal hasn’t shown any interest in staging it.

He continues to receive mail, especially essays and theses about his work, mostly from foreign countries, very few from Portugal. From Portugal he continues to receive letters 1) damning him to hell and 2) instructing him on how he can still save him soul from eternal damnation.

Saramago is still getting adjusted to living in Lanzarote. After watching the film El Sol del Menbrillo , he plants two trees in his backyard and names them Victor Erice and Antonio López, the names of the filmmakers He’s also still receiving boxes full of books from his house in Lisbon. “Home is returning home.”

The year of 1994 also sees him writing about several topics: the stabbing of Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz (“Allah continues his divine task”), celebrating his birthday in London, with Giovanni Pontiero, the war in Bosnia, Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’, and of course Europe. Apropos of the “European construction,” Saramago, the eternal euro-sceptic, sarcastically comments the words of Claudio Magris: “Asked about the Balkans situation, my friend Magris, after expressing his bewilderment at what he calls ‘the feverish and delirious demand of identity in which we live, of the search of roots, of the establishment of frontiers,’ concludes: ‘We all thought it was very easy to quickly surpass history, but the crisis will be long. We need more humility, we need to know the weight of history is far more intense than we thought.’ I read and it’s hard for me to believe what I’m reading. So much intelligence, so much studying, so much knowledge, so much erudition, for this? Will I have to answer Claudio Magris that not everyone thought it would be easy to surpass history? And that some, naturally humble, but with their feet firmly grounded on the concrete ground of reality, on the contrary, thought and think that history is unsurpassable, that man cannot exist outside the history he creates and the history he is. Do we need, after all, to know far less to understand a lot more?”

I’d love to know Magris’ reply.

Of Germany Saramago writes: “In my weak opinion, Germany is a wound that will never heal. Germany: wound of Europe and of itself.” He doesn’t try to hide the fact that he doesn’t think very highly of Germany, especially politically and economically. During a visit by Bill Clinton to Germany, he writes: “Clinton officially visits Germany. According to the newspapers, the president of the United States has stated in Bonn:  ‘Germany is our most significant partner for the construction of a safe and democratic Europe.’ If I’m capable of understanding what I’m reading, I deduce from these words that the North-American administration has a very clear idea of what they want Europe to be: a whole led by a single country, a Union whose real headquarters will be, in due time, in Berlin, leaving Brussels for the bureaucracy and Strasbourg for the verbal entertainment. Incapable of direct and balanced relationships with all and each one of the countries that constitute Europe, the United States will prefer to do business with two parties, between power and power.”

Regarding Portugal’s dependence on the European Union’s subsidies and the threat of losing its sovereignty in the future (as it has indeed lost), he writes: “The awakening will be horrible. Or maybe not. We get used to everything, even to not existing.” If Saramago was so loathed by Portuguese politicians, writers, thinkers and citizens alike it’s because not since Eça de Queiroz a Portuguese writer had had such a piercing perception of the Portuguese soul, with all its warts, and thrown it back at the face of his people.

The atrocities in Ruanda force him to conclude that “The catalogue of horrors in this concentration camp called World is inexhaustible.” If this sounds pessimistic, then: “Seen from afar Mankind is a very beautiful thing, with a large and succulent history, lots of literature, lots of art, philosophies and religions in great quantity, for all appetites, a science which is a treat, development that has no idea where it’s headed; in short, the Creator has every reason to be satisfied and proud of the imagination he gave himself. Any impartial observer would recognise that no god from another galaxy would have done better. However, if we look at it closely, mankind (you, he, we, you, they, me) is, with apologies for the rudeness of the word, shit.”

God is obviously never far from his thoughts. On April 23 he jots down a few aphorisms:

“Good doesn’t need man for anything, except to be God.”

“Every man who dies is a death of God. And when the last man dies, God will not be resurrected.”

“Men forgive God everything, and the less they understand him the more they forgive him.”

“God is the silence of the universe, and man is the scream that gives a meaning to that silence.”

Besides politics and religion, Saramago devotes a good part of this volume to literature. Fernando Pessoa and Ricardo Reis are constant presences in the diaries. The Gospel According to Jesus Christ and The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis are, by the far, the novels he most discusses, the former because of its controversy, the latter because it’s his most praised one. Regarding Ricardo Reis he reminisces about his childhood: “We physically inhabit a space, but sentimentally we inhabit a memory. When I needed to describe the last year of Ricardo Reis’ life, I had to go back fifty years of my life to imagine, from my recollections of that time, the Lisbon that would have been Fernando Pessoa’s, knowing beforehand that two very different ideas of cities could coincide in very little; the one of the teenager I was, locked up in his social condition and his shyness, and the one of the lucid and genial poet who patronized, as it was his natural right, the highest regions of spirit. My Lisbon was always a Lisbon of poor neighbourhoods, or that at best made ends meet, and if circumstances have taken me, later on, to live in other environments, the most grateful and tenaciously defended memory was always of the Lisbon of my early years, the Lisbon of people with little means but lots of feeling, still rural in habits and in the idea they made of the world.”

Because of the 1990 Portuguese-Brazilian orthographic agreement, a stupid and controversial decision that seeks to unify the two countries’ ortographies (mostly in favour of the Brazilian variant), Saramago sarcastically attacks Brazilian writer Autran Dourado, who claims not to understand certain sentences in Portuguese books. “It is already alarming that Autran Dourado says (let’s, however, praise his honesty) that there are sentences by Portuguese writers whose meaning he can’t reach… Have we come to that? Does Autran Dourado understand English better, for instance? And if he doesn’t understand it, what does he do? Come to the newspapers protesting that he didn’t understand, or does he humbly study what he needs? ”

Saramago, in one of the rare moments when he discusses his own books, defines his work as a “meditation on error.” “The current formula – a meditation on truth – is, no doubt, philosophically nobler, but being the error the constant companion of men, I think we have to reflect upon it, much more than upon truth.” An interesting key to use next time you read one of his novels.

On the subject of reading: “I ask myself if what moves the reader to reading isn’t the secret hope or the simple possibility of discovering, inside the book, more than the told story, the invisible, but omnipresent, person, which is the author. The novel is a mask that hides and at the same time reveals the traces of the novelist. If the person that is the novelist is not interesting, the novel can’t be interesting. The reader doesn’t read the novel, he reads the novelist.” As you can see, Saramago didn’t agree with Roland Barthes.

Now on the oral nature of his novels: “I return to a recurring theme. All the characteristics of my current narrative technique (I’d prefer to say: of my style) come from a basic principle according to which everything said is destined to be heard. I mean by this that it is as an oral narrator that I see myself when I write and that words are written by me as much to be read as to be heard. Why, the oral narrator doesn’t use punctuation, he speaks as if he were composing music and uses the same elements the musician does: sounds and pauses, majors and minors, some long, others short. Certain tendencies, which I recognize and confirm (baroque structures, circular oration, symmetry of elements), I suppose come from a certain idea of an oral speech taken as music.”

During a walk in Lanzarote’s volcanic landscape he remarks: “I know understand why there’s almost no landscape in my books: having to choose between the rock on the side and the mountain covering the horizon, I prefer the rock.”

And Saramago on the future of the novel: “The novel should open itself, in a way, to its own negation, allowing to flow into its immense and fatigued body, like revitalizing tributaries revitalized in turn by the consequent miscegenation, the essay, philosophy, drama, science itself. I know it well that in our times, of frantic and micrometric specializations, it will sound like a ridiculous utopia this neo-Renaissance ideal of an encompassing and complete text, a summa, if you will. However, since there is no shortage of voices announcing the imminent entry of Europe in a new Middle Ages, what I’m doing is nothing more than anticipating the Renaissance which will (fatally) come after it.”

On a trip to Buenos Aires, he declares his love for Jorge Luis Borges. He visits Borges’ widow, María Kodama, and also Adolfo Bioy Casares, disclosing part of what must have been a hilarious conversation. “At one point we talked of Octavio Paz and we found ourselves agreeing that we didn’t like the fellow. Bioy smiled as he said that it was the first time he had lunch with a person who didn’t declare himself a fanatic admirer of Paz… In order not to be left behind in irony, I advanced the suspicion, perhaps with more truth than it seems, that Octavio Paz, in spite of being so praised and quoted, must be the least read writer of the 20th century.”

He also writes some words of admiration about Miguel Torga, Portuguese poet and novelist, thoughts about Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, and of all the writers he meets in conferences and literary events: Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo, Cuban poet Eliseo Diego, Brazilian novelist Lya Luft (I’ve lost count of how many writers I’ve added to me TBR list because of him). In Chile he meets José Donoso, the celebrated author of The Obscene Bird of Night. He feels proud when Italian writer Vincenzo Consolo tells him that Leonardo Sciascia was a fan of his novels.

He also shares a lovely story about his Danish translator, Mone Hvass. Once upon a time she was in fact a biologist, working in Guinea-Bissau. One day she had to move to a hut that had two books: Luís de Camões’ The Lusiads and Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. She didn’t then have control over the Portuguese language, but bravely tried to read them. “The Lusiads made her suffer a lot, Ricardo Reis I presume a little less, and this was maybe the reason why, upon returning to Denmark, she started, after a time of applied studying, to translate Reis. Just like that. For being so simple and pretty, the story seems made up, and yet I feel like saying that there was never a purer truth.”

Probably the best part of this diary was Saramago’s ongoing adventure with the Nobel Prize. Jorge Amado sends him a letter saying that Brazilian journalist has heard from a credible source that the Nobel Prize is going to António Lobo Antunes. Now if the feud with Tabucchi was good, well, this one turns the volume up to eleven: “We know that in Stockholm everything can happen, as the prize’s history demonstrates since Sully Prudhomme won it with Tolstoy and Zola still alive. A good friend, Jorge insists that his favourite is someone else. It won’t take long to know. As for me, of Lobo Antunes I can only say this: it’s true that I don’t like him as a writer, but worst of all is not being able to respect him as a person. Since every cloud has a silver lining, I’ll have the relief, if the journalist’s prediction is confirmed, of never having to think about the Nobel again until the end of my life.” But damn it!, why can’t you respect Lobo Antunes as a man? What has he done to you? Explain, develop! Sadly he doesn’t and so far I still haven’t discovered why these two have a long-standing animosity against each other.

On October 12 he continues, “It’s said in Lisbon that António Lobo Antunes’ Nobel is in the bag. Apparently, the Brazilian journalist, known to Jorge Amado, knew what he was saying. I’m also told that Lobo Antunes is already in Sweden.” October 13: “The Nobel went to a Japanese writer, Kenzaburo Oe. The Brazilian journalist was wrong after all.” And then he jokingly adds: As for me, I have to start apologising to my friends for not winning the Nobel…” The next day he gives an interview and the Nobel Prize matter is inevitably brought up. “Since my name had been involved in this other type of bingo, I used the occasion to, once and for all, set the matter straight, the way I see it: first of all, the money belongs to the Swedes and they give it to whoever they want; secondly, we have to put an end to this habit of going about with our hand stretched begging an alms from the Nobel; thirdly, it is absurd to make the prestige of Portuguese literature depend on whether or not it has a Nobel; fourthly, if the check were, for instance, ten thousand dollars, the world of writers would hardly care about it; in the fifth place, and in conclusion, let us quit hypocrisies and have the honesty of admitting that in this comedy it’s the money that really matters.”

(One day I’ll have to quote from António Lobo Antunes’ book of interviews, for comparison’s sake. He’s the completely opposite. Saramago makes it very clear he doesn’t care about the Nobel Prize; if he’s lying, he’s smart enough to hide it with a semblance of modesty. But Lobo Antunes is almost pathetically obsessed with winning and visibly hurt for not getting it.)


  1. I wonder what Saramago would think of the European Union winning the Nobel Prize for Peace this year.

    1. I think he would have found it bitterly amusing, another sign of the madness of our post-modern, neo-liberal, globalized world :)