Wednesday, 7 November 2012

1995: Only Mediocre Writers Are Translated

José Saramago begins 1995 with political meditations on super-powers:

As to the North-American dominion, I think it’s an invincible fatality: we know the causes, we don’t ignore the intentions, and neither has been enough to know how to resist the methodical processes of compression and cultural lamination of which we’re being victims, with our historical cultures rapidly losing cohesion and vital density. In a Europe incapable of questioning itself, the most common posture today is one of resignation that has hit rock bottom. Pointless to say that no other state of spirit could so better suit a German imperial project which has stopped bothering to disguise itself: the game had barely started and we had already lost it…

With the loss of sovereignty in Ireland, Portugal, Greece and Italy, and soon Spain and France, due to the European economic crisis, and the imposition of draconian austerity measures, these words now seem prescient. I wish he were alive today to know what he’d write about these events. The European Union winning the Nobel Peace Prize wouldn’t have passed him by without an ironic newspaper article. About his scepticism he says, “I’m a sceptical European who learned everything about scepticism with a teacher called Europe.” He constantly expresses his belief that the ‘European construction’ will only destroy local cultures and tradition in the name of a super-bland culture and identity. He predicts that the European citizens will fight this destruction of the collective memory of national peoples and that this is what will doom the EU.

Although Saramago is obsessed with Germany, in his mind the source of many modern evils, he doesn’t shy away from blaming other countries for their responsibilities. “The problem, today, is that no one who is small and poor wants to accept the evidence of their smallness and poverty. So the backward countries of the South won’t come together nor find each other, each one living in the dream that one day they will be admitted into the house of the richer ones, even if just to open the door to the guests, whom it envies, and to serve the cognac, which then will try to drink in secret.” This perfectly describes the current situation of Southern Europe, with each country pretending he’s in a better situation than his neighbour, all denying the evidence of their impending collapse, pretending they’re fine, blaming the others. Saramago would surely have found this lack of solidarity hilarious. It’s also doubtful he even believes this solidarity is possible at all. “Man, in spite of a lot of AIDS and a lot of cancer, in spite of a lot of earthquakes and droughts, has no other enemy but man.”

Of the war in the Balkans he just writes, “November 22. Peace in Bosnia. Peace in Bosnia?”

Regarding what many consider his obsession with Christianity, Saramago explains that he only writes about religion because, in spite of being an atheist, he lives in a world shaped by religion; since it’s an exclusively human phenomenon, as he puts it, he sees it as his duty as a writer and citizen to address religion.

On the literary front, Miguel Torga passes away. Torga was one of the greatest Portuguese writers of the 20th century, poet, novelist, short-story teller, playwright, and diarist (sixteen volumes comprising the years between 1941 and 1994, admittedly far more than Saramago’s measly five volumes). “Miguel Torga died too soon. I now understand I would have liked to know him. Too late.” He meets Susan Sontag, whose novel The Volcano Lover, he presents in Spain. Saramago expresses his happiness about Jorge Amado having received the Camões Prize in the previous year. Then in November he’s informed he’s the recipient of the 1995 Camões Prize.

Saramago writes of himself as a writer: “I only write about what I didn’t know before I wrote it. That must be why my books don’t repeat themselves. I repeat myself in them, because, even so, of what little I continue to know, what I know best is this person I am.”

Regarding his Voyage to Portugal, he claims he wrote it like the travel books in Europe from the 17th and 18th century, when “Europe started travelling inside Europe.” I had never noticed that, but then I haven’t read travel books of that time, save for William Beckford’s curious trip to Portugal.

He comments a curious passage from one of Vergílio Ferreira’s diaries: “The most translated authors are normally the minor authors, meaning the ones who speak to the mediocrity of the general humanity.” Saramago, who is the most translated Portuguese writer in history, simply asks: “If Vergílio Ferreira had as many translations as Dostoevsky, would he have written what he wrote?” He could more easily have asked, “Who is Vergílio Ferreira outside Portugal?” But that would have been mean. Ferreira, whose books I occasionally like, is, truth be said, no one save in Portugal, which makes a pastime of believing it harbours great but unfairly unknown novelists. Like Saramago once said, it’s not that Portugal lacks great writers, it’s just that the government, the embassies, the publishers and the media do little to nothing to promote them outside the narrow confines of our “patch of earth edged by the sea,” to quote Torga’s lovely description of Portugal. Saramago, it should be noted, is considered great not because the Portuguese media say so – it in fact resisted his consecration as a great writer, envious of anyone who achieves success without their help – but because the world says so, much to the chagrin of our “great” writers who of greatness only have the evidence from their national literary circles, but beyond our borders no one has ever heard about them. Saramago, who had already broken of one the great taboos of Portuguese society – being a communist, atheist writer with an active public voice - will never be forgiven for also being the most popular Portuguese writer of all times.

Letters continue to arrive from abroad. From Italy a theatre producer wants to turn his books of newspaper articles, A Bagagem do Viajante and Deste Mundo e do Outro, into a musical play about memory and childhood, for young audiences. This person is one Francesco Di Maggio. After Azio Corghi turned two of his books into operas, another Italian is interested in adapting his work to music. What is this obsession the Italians have for Saramago? The hate mail is also decreasing.

Other events he mentions: the plight of Turkish writer Yashar Kemal, sued by his own country for allegedly advocating separatism in favour of the Kurds, to which he belongs. He travels to Manchester University to receive an honoris causa, thus becoming the first Portuguese writer to achieve such an honour. “Even though vanity is the sin that will lead me to hell, as some press theologians never tire of telling me, I was satisfied.” During a lunch with Juan Goytisolo, the Spanish writer tells him that a Portuguese poet, after Goytisolo told him he had liked The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, complained: “How is it possible that you like that book when Saramago made Ricardo Reis a heterosexual?” Although Saramago asks, Goytisolo diplomatically refuses to reveal the identity of the poet. I keep thinking informal conversations between writers must be the strangest, funniest conversations imaginable.

He continues to work on Blindness: “This time, the type of pessimism of a writer from Portugal will not manifest itself in the usual venues of a melancholy lyricism that characterises us. It will be cruel, raw, nor will style be there to smoothen the corners. In Blindness we won’t cry the intimate pains of the invented characters, what we will be shouting there is this absurd and interminable pain of the world.” Melancholy lyricism, now that’s an accurate description of 90% of our literature. If he had added “mind-numbingly humourless” (Eça de Queiroz excepted), it would be complete and perfect. Amazing how a writer who wrote so unlike Portuguese writers understood it so well, from the inside out. He finishes Blindness on August 8 and reveals that he’d got the idea on November 6, 1991, when he was having a meal alone in a restaurant. August 18 he sends the finished book to his editor, Zeferino Coelho. He claims the despair and scepticism in the novel is different from his previous ones because it’s aimed at the whole world, without the historical or topical background to dilute its intensity.

In Lanzarote things are calm. He has already adopted three dogs: Pepe is joined by Greta and Camões. His daughter, Violante, and his grandchildren visit him in Lanzarote during Christmas. “It was a good year,” Saramago writes at the end of the diary.


  1. These are lots of interesting observations. I can relate to Saramago's outlook. I am not a believer, yet I am fascinated by Christianity.

    1. Brian, if you want to get a good idea of Saramago's ideas about religion and especially Christianity, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ is a great novel!