Thursday, 8 November 2012

1996: In Search of a Brother

In 1996 José Saramago is still maintaining a correspondence with Yvette Biro, a writer and filmmaker who asked him to let her turn The Stone Raft into a movie. After some hesitations, Saramago sells her the movie rights and is excited about the prospect of the movie, even if he thinks nothing will come out of it. One gets the impression Saramago didn’t sell the rights for money (he refused one million dollars for the film rights of Baltasar and Blimunda after all) but because of Biro’s infectious good disposition and enthusiasm about the film project. (In 2002 it came out. It written by Biro and directed by Georges Sluizer, the celebrated director of Spoorloos. I’ve yet to see the film adaptation).

In Lanzarote, Saramago continues to write about his dogs:

January 11

There’s in Oviedo a boxer dog, named Simba, who, from time to time (I’ve heard it now through a news clipping that arrived from there), writes articles for the newspapers, being later published under his owner’s name. Simba’s owner is the Asturian writer Manuel Herrero, who had the unheard-of fortune of finding a dog with literary skills. To me, who have not one but three dogs, such fortunes do not occur. What mine do, besides eating, barking and sleeping what nature asks of them, is entering all the time in my office to supervise how the work’s doing. Greta, the nosiest one, has the habit of climbing onto my lap, I suppose in order to closely see what I’m doing. Pepe, dignified and discreet, as the oldest one, just sits down, raises his head and puts a paw on my leg, giving me a stare that clearly says, “How’s it going?” As for Camões, the one who could point me the way to immortality, I suspect he has decided to definitely abandon literature after having written The Lusiads. If Manuel Herrero ever pays a visit to Lanzarote, I’ll ask him to bring Simba so that he reads to the house dogs the beautiful article that he wrote about them and about me, justly and precisely titled “Saramago’s friends…”

That’s cute. Still I prefer he were a cat person.

In Portugal interesting things are happening. The author travels to Lisbon to vote in the presidential elections, worried that Cavaco Silva (his chief nemesis) may win. Cavaco Silva was the prime-minister of the government that censored José Saramago in 1991. As such Saramago developed grudge against him that lasted until his death. Although he was beaten by Jorge Sampaio, Cavaco became president in the 2000s. In his final years, Saramago didn’t spare attacks on him. With the victory of Sampaio, a socialist candidate, a Spanish newspaper asks Saramago to write an article about the Portuguese left and Sampaio’s political career. I find it curious that Saramago became a sort of bridge between the two countries, which, in spite of their proximity, often ignore each other’s history and culture.

Portugal’s politicians continue to give him a lot to write about. Manuela Ferreira Leite (economist by education but, bizarrely, Minister of Education in the ‘90s) declares in an interview that she never managed to finish one of his novels. Another politician claims he didn’t manage to finish Baltasar and Blimunda because the punctuation wasn’t in accordance to what he had learned in school. Outstanding criteria, this was exactly the excuse I used in high school. But I was thirteen and in high school, I wasn’t an adult and a politician with responsibilities. I think this says everything about the intellectual calibre of Portugal’s politicians and explains why he’s always making fun of the government. Still advances have been made. Mafra, which in 1993 had blamed Saramago for having ruined the town’s good name, finally recognises that his novel did a lot to promote its name abroad.

The case of Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho is also mentioned. Otelo was one of the officers who organised the Carnation Revolution, and later used his heroic status to run for president, unsuccessfully. Considered one of the most radical of the officers of the revolution, in the 1980s he was charged with having led an extreme left-wing terrorist organization called FP-25. His case was judged for years in court until the government in 1996 decides to grant him amnesty. José Saramago asks if he would have been amnestied if he weren’t the celebrated officer of the revolution.

Regarding the European Union’s project of creating a single currency for all its members, the famous euro, Saramago is one of the many critics who warns that a single currency will only create an economic crisis that will result in austerity, misery and the loss of national sovereignty. In Brazil he shows his solidarity towards the Sem-terra, a political movement fighting for agrarian reforms that will contribute for a better redistribution of land and allow unemployed people to have land to work and live on. Saramago explains his commitment to social activism in this way: “After leaving this world, the writer will be judged according to what he did. While he’s alive, let us reclaim the right to also judge him for what he is.”

In the world of literature, Saramago is also very active. Invited to give a speech to a classroom, he thinks about what he’ll say. “I’ll also tell them that saying ‘passion for literature’ is the same as saying ‘passion for reading.’ No one will be a writer if he wasn’t first a reader. That’s the true passion. In my case, without books at home (I was only able to buy some books – and with money borrowed from a colleague at work – when I was 19), I satisfied my taste for reading, as best I could, in Lisbon’s public libraries, at night.”

From a speech he gave at a conference he takes these reflections about the novel: “Then I talked about the novel as I would like it to be, that is, not a literary genre, but a place capable of sheltering all human experience, an ocean that would receive, and which would unite, the affluent waters of poetry, of drama, of philosophy, of the arts, of the sciences… What I wanted to defend, but I’m not sure if I had the language for it, was something like a sort of homerization of the novel, an ancient idea of mine that from time to time returns and that I’d like one day to develop better, if I didn’t lack the indispensable essayistic skills.”

From Hungary, Pál Ferenc, a scholar, writes to him complaining about the dismal state of publishing in his country and the difficulty Saramago’s Hungarian translator, Luckács Laura, has in finding publishers for his novels. “Much to our chagrin, here at this moment there’s only value in what comes from the United States, so I did not find an editor interested in this book [he means The History of the Siege of Lisbon] (the same happens with other writers like Carlos Fuentes, Vargas Llosa, Alfred Jarry, etc., considered ‘lily-coloured’ which in current slang means: too intellectual and thus devoid of interest – and consequently unworthy of being published.” Ferenc adds that Laura decides to offer the translation so they can make a private and rudimentary edition for students of Portuguese literature. Saramago asks of Hungary after the fall of the Soviet Union, “Before it wasn’t paradise. And today, what is it?”

He laments that Jorge de Sena’s complete works haven’t yet been published, ‘eighteen years after the death’ of this writer (it saddens me to say that as of 2012 it still hasn’t been; in fact the situation has deteriorated because many of the incomplete editions aren’t even in print anymore). He expresses his happiness to see his first play, A Noite, about to be staged in Spain. He congratulates Eduardo Lourenço for receiving the Camões Prize in 1996. Saramago also reports a situation involving Angolan writer Pepetela, who refused to attend a conference in Oxford due to the ‘humiliating demands’ he had to go through in order to enter England, as if he were an illegal emigrant trying to sneak into the country. During a trip to Argentina, he meets María Kodama again, and also Ernesto Sábato, to whom he offers a copy of Blindness, and they discuss all the blind men of literature, and theirs included (Sábato wrote the famous “Report on the Blind,” contained in On Heroes and Tombs).

Saramago’s travels also take him to Brazil, to receive the Camões Prize. This is a long section of the diary, but for some reason it’s taken from Pilar del Río’s diary, and it’s boring. I’d rather have preferred to know Saramago’s own impressions about the journey.

Saramago reveals that one of his favourite movies is Herbert Bibberman’s 1954 Salt of the Earth, a movie about a Mexican strike in a zinc mine, famously blacklisted in Hollywood for its pro-Communist themes. In Spain he visits the house Federico García Lorca was born in, and feels like a ridiculous tourist. He mentions the death of French historian and novelist Georges Duby: “I can even say that without Duby and the ‘Nouvelle Histoire’ perhaps Baltasar and Blimunda and The History of the Siege of Lisbon perhaps wouldn’t exist…” He also laments the death of one of Chilean novelist José Donoso, one of the writers of the Latin American Boom. Curiously but tellingly, Vergílio Ferreira also passed away in 1996, but Saramago doesn’t mention him once.

Another death that greatly affects him is the death of Giovanni Pontiero. In Lanzarote he’s informed by his friend, Juan Sager, that Giovanni Pontiero, his English translator, is dying. “For many months now Giovanni, with discreet and British courage, has been fighting his illness, knowing there’s no cure for it. I remember that lunch at his house in Didsbury, when he openly told us of the illness attacking him, and later the photographs we took one another in the garden, all of us thinking, without wishing to say it, that they’d probably be the last ones. ‘I had a good life, I don’t complain,’ he said to me smiling. I’d like to have this simple courage when my time comes.” This was dated February 9. On the 10th he receives a fax informing him of Pontiero’s death. “Dear Pilar, dear José, Giovanni has just died. On his birthday, at noon, when he had reached 64 years of age.” Then on February 13 he receives these final words, “in the final weeks, he was rapidly losing sight. He had to decide between continuing with the medication appropriate to his state, but which would have damaged his visual acuity, or protect his sight as well as possible, using medicine known to be incompatible with the others. Juan’s answer to the doctors, after having talked to his friend, was this: His death is already certain. Let him keep his sight so that he doesn’t die blind.’ Comments? They’re unnecessary. I only want to say that Giovanni was still translating Blindness when he had to choose between light and a few more days of life…”

1996 is also the year José Saramago starts working on the novel for All The Names. The idea for the novel comes from his sudden interest in knowing more about the death of his older brother, Francisco, who died when he was around 2 years old. Once Saramago starts investigating, he discovers that many of the facts he knew are incorrect, and that the hospital archives can’t find his death certificate; so he enlists the aid of a few friends to search in the archives of Lisbon’s hospitals for the fabled death certificate. After many false starts, apparent dead ends and bureaucratic lacunae, he finally discovered what happened to him. Shortly afterwards he got the idea of writing about a functionary of a Civil Registry investigating the life of an unknown woman. He first mentions the novel on September 21. On October 24 he starts writing the first lines. In the next volume he writes more about it.

He closes the diary with a somber observation about growing old: “During childhood and adolescence we believe it [the world] is ours and that it exists to be ours, during adulthood we start suspecting that after all that isn’t so and we fight to make it look so, we start becoming old when we realize that the world is indifferent to our existence. Of course it had always been so, but we didn’t know it.”


  1. Awesome series about Saramago, looking forward to read more!

    1. Thanks, I only have one more volume of diaries to go. Next week we're starting with his literature.