Friday, 9 November 2012

1997: Prima Il Premio Nobel

The final volume of Cadernos de Lanzarote concerns the year of 1997. Beginning with one of his favourite topics, Saramago has a lot to write about, as always. He follows French politics with concern, perplexed with the rise of popularity of the extreme-right wing French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen. Saramago reports that 15% of the electorate has already been seduced by Fascism (incidentally, on the 2012 presidential elections, Le Pen’s party, the National Front, got 17.9% of the votes, a small but worrying increase). Saramago also finds time to write about the war in general, ironically mentioning that he never heard of a weapons factory going on strike. He speaks admiringly of Noam Chomsky and criticises the COINTELPRO. He also devotes some words to the then sensation Dolly, the first cloned sheep. Most likely this inspired him to write his novel The Double.

On the growing unemployment rates in Europe, he writes, after reading Jacques Delors - “The politics of employment and labour market must continue to be, in their essence, a matter of national competence” – the following:

That is, it’s no news for anyone that the globalization of economy and the globalized development of technology have multiplied unemployment and destabilize the labour markets, but, according to those words by Jacques Delors, it is the countries that, in their respective national spaces, will have to find and apply the remedies for the problem. Which would mean, obviously, that if they found those solutions, unemployment, ceasing to exist in countries (that’s an assumption…) would automatically cease to exist in the world… So either the countries have more power than the world (they don’t) or the world is really more powerful than countries (and it is).

He also reserves harsh words for the Basque terrorist organization ETA. And he supports the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, a revolutionary movement that fights the Mexican government’s neoliberal economic policies and defends the rights and land of the indigenous people of Chiapas.

Some of my favourite passages in the diary are about the deaths of Princess Diana and the Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Regarding Mother Teresa: “I suspect that, deep down, Inês Gonxha Bojaxhiu [1] didn’t want to run out of poor people, I doubt indeed that the most important thing for her was the healing of infirmities in the bodies of the wretched she harboured in her ‘hospital’ (the inverted commas are more than justified by the refusal she always placed to the offers of adequately equipped hospitals, which more than once were made to her). The supreme concern of Mother Teresa of Calcutta consisted in saving the souls of the poor, and, when that’s the priority, then the sooner they’re released from the carnal and suffering involucre the better.” Interesting, Saramago wasn’t the first time I heard similar criticism levelled at her. Christopher Hitchens said more or the less the same things about her.

On tolerance: “We’re tolerant and tolerant we’ll continue to be. But only until the day when having been so will seem as alien to mankind as intolerance today seems alien to us. When that day arrives – if it ever does – we will finally start being humans amongst humans.”

On a more personal note, I was delighted to find out that Saramago, although he seldom speaks of the books he loves, revealed that he’s a huge fan of comic strips: Calvin & Hobbes, Snoopy, Garfield, and Quino’s hilarious Argentine strip Mafalda, “wise and subversive , of whom I continue to be a faithful disciple.”

Regarding Azio Corghi’s opera Divara, he asks: “will I ever hear it in my own language? Will this Divara ever climb a Portuguese stage, or is this ascension harder than the Everest’s? What Germans and Italians have applauded isn’t good for Portuguese ears? Are we that fragile of nerves, that delicate of sensibility, and above all that incapable of crying over our own miseries (I mean human ones in general, not the Portuguese ones in general) that we couldn’t stand being put before the demonstration of mankind’s continuous self-mutilation which we call God?”

About his epic poem O Ano de 1993, he explains that he wrote it in under a ‘profound feeling of frustration’ after the failed coup of March 16, 1974. In the book he ‘tried to express the anguish, the fear and also the hope of a people living under occupation, first resigned and submissive, then, little by little, organizing the resistance until the final battle and the restart of life, paid with the price of a thousand deaths. I place in the future this people of an unnamed country – an image of all that lived and live under the dominance and the shame of a more powerful one – thinking by chance that I would be describing the last sufferings of a mankind that would at last begin the slow learning of happiness and joy, knowing however that nothing will remain of us under the shadow we cast on the ground we tread.” I’ll write more about this poem soon.

He remarks about the death of Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal: “Bohumil Hrabal fell from the fifth floor on which he lived, when, according to informations revealed in newspapers, he was feeding the pigeons. He died. Because of the white and winged creatures (were they white?) I bet someone will have the singular idea of saying that the author of Closely Watched Trains had a ‘poetic’ death, when not likely he committed suicide, plain and simple…” He also mentions in passing the death of Pilar Donoso, the wife of José Donoso, shortly after her husband’s death. He speaks warmly of Rosel Albero, a Buenos Aires bookseller. “Rosel Albero is a bookseller in Buenos Aires, owner of a bookstore to which he gave the fortunate name of Joyce, Proust & Co. I met him in 1988, on occasion of my second trip to Argentina. He’s a cordial man, affectionate, whose reason to sell books is his loving literature. I suspect he would be capable of offering them if he had as certain some other livelihood…”

On a trip to China he learns a fascinating story: “An exemplary story told in few words so that it won’t be said that any of them was unnecessary. Here in Beijing there still lives a man called Chen Yong, who, for many years, devoted himself to translating The Lusiads into Chinese. During the Cultural Revolution, the ‘red guards’ started threatening him for wanting to divulge a foreign literary work. Fearing the punishment, he gathered his family so that, together, they decided what to do. The hundreds of leaves that reproduced in Chinese ideograms the verses of Camões no longer exist. They were burned.” A friend also invents a Chinese name for him: “San Ku, which means Three Bitternesses: bitterness (he explained) for having to live in a world of cruelty, bitterness for being unable to change it, bitterness for not being the (complete) man I would like to be…” He also fears for the Portuguese communities once Macao is returned to China, predicting that they’ll disappear as Macao becomes more and more Chinese (Macao, the last European colony in Asia, was a Portuguese colony up until 1999, the year it was returned to China). On a lighter note, he liked Chinese food, and this makes happy because I’m a huge fan myself.

A Brazilian reader sends him an incredibly vicious and spiteful letter, running several pages longs. I’ll quote from the end. After complaining that his novel about Jesus Christ wasn’t as beautiful as the ones by Nikos Kazantzakis and Taylor Caldwell, the pious lady writes: “It’s a pity the Inquisition doesn’t exist nowadays anymore, for then you’d no longer exist, for you’d have been burned in a public square and I’d watch from a balcony, you’d have the same fate as your book.”

In Lisbon he attends the release of Brazilian singer and novelist Chico Buarque’s novel Benjamim. Speaking about re-reading his own work, he remarks: “The writer, if he reads himself, doesn’t re-read himself, finds himself again.” On an interview for a German newspaper, he claims he didn’t like the German title of the novel: Die Stadt den Blinden (The City of the Blind) for being ‘deceiving and reductive’ (anyone following these posts must think Saramago is a Germanophobe by now. Every time he mentions Germany is only to say something negative about it. If I have Germany readers, I ask some indulgence).

His Portuguese publisher, Caminho, finally convinces him to allow it to reprint his first novel, Terra do Pecado (it was originally meant to be called A Viúva, or The Widow). Saramago agrees but he writes a sarcastic introduction making fun of himself, ending with the words, “Really, judging by the sample, the future won’t have a lot to offer to the author of A Viúva.” Carlos Fuentes visits him in Lanzarote, and they speak admiringly of Spanish poet Rafael Alberti. Saramago also mentions his friendship with Manuel Alegre, a Portuguese poet who started writing in the 1960s, legendary for his positions against dictator Salazar and the Estado Novo, and whose poetry focuses on social and political themes. Alegre twice ran for president and I twice voted for him (I think it’d be fun to have a president poet; if the Czechs can have Václav Havel…), but he lost both times to Cavaco Silva, Saramago’s arch-enemy.

Saramago makes a short visit to Stockholm in September, fully aware that it’s a strategy to see if the Swedes will finally grant a Nobel Prize to a Portuguese writer. Saramago, however, isn’t very convinced this will yield any results and doesn’t even seem very interested in receiving the Nobel Prize.

Back in Lisbon, he gets the idea for his novel The Cave after he sees an outdoor ad for the Centro Comercial Colombo, a gigantic shopping mall that was being inaugurated at the time. When it opened it was the largest shopping mall in the Iberian Peninsula, another sign of the Portuguese’s delusions of grander and need to have everything big in order to quell their inferiority complex. Saramago was thinking of calling it The Center. So now you know, if you read Baltasar and Blimunda, visit the Convent of Mafra. If you read The Cave, visit the CCC, the Portuguese Ministry of Tourism will be much obliged with your preference.

Juan Sager, one of José Saramago’s friends in England, asks him to write some lines about Giovanni Pontiero, his English translator, for a book in his memory:

   I remember as if it were yesterday the day we met, in Lisbon, in a restaurant near the Tejo, with seagulls flying over our heads, when he proposed to becoming my translator in the English language. No other motive moved him other than literature, and by this I want to emphasise that he wasn’t moved by a material interest, the same way he wasn’t moved (may he be praised…) by any consideration for my material interests: between us there was, simply, a book that I had written and that he had loved. It was in this manner that started, for me, with the translation of Baltasar and Blimunda, an unusual humane and literary adventure, richer and richer with lessons and mutual learning as each book was being published. The long lists of questions and doubts that arrived, always written by hand, in Pontiero’s miniscule calligraphy, in which each word showed up drawn letter by letter, were like doors which opened to me a more exact understanding of my own idiom. Clarifying the translator, the author clarified himself in the act of re-examining a text that until then had seemed clear to him, but which had been rendered opaque by a reading made from a different point of view, from the horizon of a different culture.
   This was our relationship until Blindness, translated (heroically, yes, heroically, the word is not excessive) when the final darkness was already approaching Giovanni Pontiero.

One of the things I loved in these diaries is how Saramago always had friendly and admiring words to say about his translators. At the same time it’s a pity he finished his diaries before Margaret Jull Costa started translating him. I’d like to know what he thought of her.

Meanwhile, back in Lanzarote he continues to work arduously on All The Names. “A novel that will be called All The Names and where there won’t be names… To have said all the names would be a good reason not to write any.” He writes many notes about the novel in this diary, but they’re too extensive to put here. Then on July 2 he finishes it:

Full stop on All The Names. I can’t imagine what will be said about this book, unexpected, I believe, for the readers, in a way even more than Blindness. Or perhaps, yes, perhaps I can imagine: they’ll say it’s another sad story, pessimistic, that there’s no hope in this novel. As far as I’m concerned, I see things with a lot of clarity: I simply think that when I wrote The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, I was too young to be able to write Blindness, and when I finished Blindness, I’d have to see and live a lot before I dared tackle all the names… At night, while walking in the garden to calm my nerves, I had an idea that will better explain what I want to say: it was as if, up until Gospel, I had been describing a statue, and afterwards I had jumped into the stone’s interior. Pilar thinks it’s my best novel, and she’s always right.

Well, his best is perhaps an overstatement, but, yes, it’s one of his best and most beautiful novels.

The Spanish Writers Association, writes Saramago, asks the government of the Canary Islands to take the initiative to formally send Saramago’s Nobel Prize nomination to the Swedish Academy. He is also made adoptive son of Castril de la Peña, in Granada. “We all know, without it being necessary to explain why, that the proposal of a small Spanish settlement hidden between hills won’t produce the smallest effect on the spirit of the Swedish academics. We all know that. But only I can know the effect it had on my spirit…”

On October 9 he hears the news on the radio that Dario Fo received the Nobel Prize. “There. We can go back to our peaceful life,” says Saramago to Pilar. Shortly afterwards he travels to Germany.  There he gets a lovely surprise: Dario Fo has called him on the telephone: “I’m a thief, I stole your prize away. One day it’ll be your turn. Hugs.” Of course Saramago and Dario Fo had to be friends. I couldn’t imagine it any other way.

And he was right, too. In 1998 Saramago got the Nobel Prize, perhaps thanks to the help of a small Spanish settlement. It’s always good when a story has a happy ending.

Next Monday we’ll finally move into his literary works.

1 Saramago made a factual mistake. Her real name was Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu.


  1. Fascinating insights from Saramago. I love to read what great minds have to say about contemporary issues.

    The information about Saramago's love of comic strips is priceless!

    1. Brian, I too was happy to know he liked comic strips, the man had good taste.

      I have a post, scheduled for the end of the month, that will be mostly Saramago's opinions of political matters.

      But starting this monday, we're going to have a look at his novels.

  2. This series has been a public service. Book blogging at its best.

    1. Tom, thanks! I'm glad you've been enjoying it.

  3. I've been catching up on this fascinating series.

    1. I was hoping people would like the gossip from these diaries, and it seems I wasn't wrong :)