Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Democracy has pluralized the lie: Political Saramago

“To the stupefaction of a few listening to me, I have said here and there that I’m less and less interested in talking about literature. First of all, because my speaking about literature doesn’t add to it any more benefit than the one, debatable and doubtable, the books I have been writing would have given it, and, secondly, because literary speeches (the ones literature makes and the ones made about it) seem to me more like a chorus of angels hovering in the heights, with a great ruffle of wings, moans of harps and noise of trumpets. Life, that, is where it usually is, down there, perplexed, anguished, murmuring protests, ruminating rages, sometimes shouting indignations, nameless humiliations, infinite spites.” José Saramago wrote this in 1997, during a stay in Chiapas, Mexico, where he met members of the Zapatista Movement, which defends the land rights of indigenous people. The more I read about Saramago, the more I discover that for most of his writing life he was a man deeply committed to the problems of his time. Politics fascinated Saramago, who was an acute observer and polemic commentator. What he thought of regimes and presidents, of history and its falsifications, of capitalism and its discontents, of the left and its failures, can be found a bit everywhere in his books, even his fiction. For Saramago there wasn’t a separation between man and writer, for him the writer in the modern era had the obligation of being a world citizen committed to his world and not just his literary work. Saramago wouldn’t want people to condescendingly forgive the errors of the man to rehabilitate the writer: for him being a euro-sceptic against the ‘construction of Europe’ was the only course of action to stave off the destruction of the same, as history is now proving; and supporting an old communist ruler like Castro was hardly less immoral than voting for one Bill Clinton, who ordered the bombing of a Sudanese factory that supplied the country with anti-malaria vaccines, dooming countless innocent people. What’s right and what’s wrong? Saramago had his ideas about it, and his convictions, to which he remained loyal.

With such an intense interest in politics, it’s no surprise that he wrote enough about it to fill a volume with political articles. This volume is called Folhas Políticas (Political Writings, 1999) and collects material from between 1976 and 1998. The majority of the articles deals with the aftermath of the 1974 Carnation Revolution, which restored democracy in Portugal. For a while the revolution created a period of exuberance and optimism, but the hopes and dreams were dashed when the young democracy, to Saramago, seemed to have been born already with all the flaws and defects of the old ones: lies, false promises, compromise, a culture of arrivistes, back-stabbing, thirst for power. The book is, on a second plane, a portrait of the country at the time, but it’s first and foremost a testimony of Saramago’s disenchantment with post-revolutionary Portugal. In 1976 he describes the state of politics like this:

From the top of his podium, the president of the National Assembly doesn’t see the Nation: he sees (when they’re all present) 263 deputies who, by the grace of arithmetic, represent it. The right, the left and the centre are present. No one needs to question (himself about) what the right is doing, no one thinks opportune to investigate if the centre is what it claims, but we all grow restless with the left, with the past, the present and the future of the left.

Portugal after 1974 is a democracy slowly getting on its feet, with a right that is quickly gaining power, much to the concern of Saramago, who sees it infiltrating, fascism back into public and political institutions, and a anodyne and dispersed left destroying itself in internecine wars. A frequent theme to which Saramago returns is the failure to build a socialist state, the betrayal of the values of the revolution, the lies of a Socialist Party that uses socialism as a flag to earn votes without caring about its ideals, and the interference of the USA, worried by another Cuba, in the affairs of the country:

And now sovereignty. Yes, indeed, we’re not Puerto Rico. Aside from a few specific places where it naturally flutters, waves, hovers and casts a shadow, the North American flag – here’s our Portuguese flag, green, red, with the armillary sphere, the castles, and, if tradition is true, full of wounds, that covers us all, even when it doesn’t protect us. However, politics not always has the colours of the flags. And everyone who doesn’t want to close his eyes to what’s obvious or doesn’t allow them to be closed, knows very well that in Portugal there’s a “grey eminence” holding not a few of the threads of Portuguese life, those threads which have been weaving, with hands from Washington and the Duque of Loulé, the main net that has tied up the movements unleashed on the 25th of April and the First of May. That “grey eminence” is ambassador Carlucci, the freest man in Portugal, if power is synonymous with freedom, and if freedom is this giving out orders in Portugal as if he were giving them in Puerto Rico. But the constitution continues to say that we’re a sovereign Republic.

Frank Carlucci served as US ambassador in Portugal between 1974 and 1977; the embassy was located in the Avenida do Duque de Loulé. Carlucci, it has been written, was assigned by President Nixon to Portugal to make sure Portugal would abandon its socialist aspirations. He is rumoured to have helped orchestrate the 25th of November coup of 1975, which effectively broke whatever power the revolutionary left still had and paved the way for Portugal becoming a free market capitalist sociality. “Fascism is also capable of learning lessons, and at this moment, standing before the mirror of recent history, national and international, it reorganizes its face. It won’t come with the name of fascism, but that is its name,” wrote Saramago. Obviously he despised Carlucci.

Although bitter, the new political situation in Portugal allows him to put his sarcastic skills to their maximum effect. On freedom of speech, he observes:

There’s a lot to be said about freedom of speech. In the fascist past, when not venerable but high-ranking elders read our prose, and with a blue pencil and a rubberstamp defaced the ideas, our great satisfaction happened when if, because of a distraction by the veteran in charge or of his diminished intelligence, the message got through, half between the lines, half between the space of the letters, so many times later awakening furies in the hierarchy. Then we had the innocence to believe that, on arriving the day the gag fell, the rediscovered force of truth would be enough to take away from future masters the temptation of abusing power, and, better yet, would warn them about its simple use. Today we know a lot. We’ve learned, for instance, that bourgeois democracy is the most skilful way of emptying, in practice, the freedom of press: it maintains its appearance and annuls its effects.

He further elaborates on the difference between fascism and democracy:

Portuguese fascism had a quality: it was monotonous, not imaginative at all, very poorly skilled. It stated one thing alone, stated it infinitely, and stood waiting for people to believe in it. When resistance seemed excessive, it killed or arrested; when voices disagreed, it used the scissor and cut off the excesses. It was, then, stupid, and its stupidity our best quality.
   Now we live in a democracy. Democracy is, by definition, intelligent, very much alive, erudite, civilised, cosmopolitan, and above all westerner. Democracy is this civic pleasure of having elections for everything: the president goes for us, the government is for us, the parliament prays for us. Democracy is happiness at last achieved, paradise on Earth, the confraternization of classes, the kiss on the face. Of democracy one can say it doesn’t lie, since numbers, we all learn, don’t lie. But democracy, the one that doesn’t lie, knows how to tell lies, knows how to weave them and defend them. I’d say that’s one of its great skills: democracy has pluralized the lie. Out of a birth defect? No, poor thing. Out of servitude, compromise and weakness of character of those who could die (perhaps) for it (or emigrate), but can’t manage that act (far more complicated after all) of living for it. Or of making it truly and actually alive.

Saramago oscillates between praising the revolution and lamenting its betrayal. The best thing to come out of the revolution, writes Saramago, was that the “Portuguese came to love themselves, and that was the greatest conquest of April.” He refers to the fact that his countrymen are often melancholy, negative, down-beaten people, a spiritual ailment that the revolution healed for a while. But at the same time he sees the revolution as a means for a new class of rulers to replace the old order. “We’ve also learned a painful truth: that many of the men who were the hope of the people during the time of fascism weren’t any good after all. That was the great Portuguese defeat.”

Besides a self-serving political class that doesn’t give a damn about the people, and a free but silent press, Saramago has many other bête-noires: the state of culture in Portugal (“intellectually we continue to feed ourselves with French milk, the ‘new philosophers from France are the new pretty boys of the Portuguese intelligentsia. It’s fate.”), the difficulty of being a writer in a country that doesn’t invest in literature, the social injustices, and emigration, always emigration, he never forgets the thousands of men and women who leave their country because they can’t find work in it. This prompts to write, when the Portuguese president decides to grant amnesty to Américo Tomás, the last president of fascist Portugal, living in exile in Brazil:

Terribly irony this, nobly being a diaspora and not being able to return because there isn’t enough bread in Portugal, while from plentiful exile some can return by decision and tactical invitation of the president of the Republic. Of a president of the Republic stern in questions of guilt, tortures, and other moral and political judgments, and now benevolent to the point that he’s content with Tomás having nothing bad about him in the records of the Commission to the Extinction of the PIDE-DGS…

The PIDE-DGS was the political police of the dictatorship. Sometimes Saramago expresses his indignation in hilarious ways:

Perhaps it’s not useless to remember the reader that this god, for me, is nothing but an interesting fictional character, and it’s only as such that I call upon him so frequently or allow him to settle himself in my writings. Honestly, I can’t believe a god has created this. But I must confess that some times, throughout my life, I’ve regretted the lack of his real presence and his effective intervention. Not of that compassionate, lovely and share-the-blame god that Jesus Christ inaugurated and that the church’s most hypocrite sentimentalisms have prolonged to our times, but in the figure of indignation and rebellion, since it’s lost in ourselves, if we ever had it in the most necessary and just measure. Incapable of feeling indignant and rebelling, at least we’d always have a god to force us to stare at truth and answer for our offenses, not to him, but to the idea of mankind which, with better or worst results, has fed philosophies and religions.

Perhaps the most striking passage in the book was his interpretation of the French Revolution:

Deep down, these things are easy to understand. When in 1789 France made its bourgeois revolution, for the sole benefit of a bourgeoisie that couldn’t develop itself in the economical and political system of the time, the people believed that that also concerned them and threw down the Bastille. Some two hundred years later (and in spite of 1830, 1848, 1871, 1936, 1968), France is governed by the financial oligarchy that the revolution of 1789 prepared: to the French people it was ordered that they went about Europe killing and being killed in order to increase the freedom of the powerful, installed upon the ultimate equality of the dead and upon the difficult fraternity of the exploited.

Tomorrow, his plays.


  1. Saramago's views on democracy are so thought provoking and in many ways brilliant. Some of his thoughts parralel my own. Though I believe it to be the best form of government, it can be so very maddeningly frustrating.

    1. Brian, there's a great book by Saramago in English, The Notebook: it's full of his indignant observations about the current (circa 2008-2009) state of the world. I recommend it for fans of political books in the vein of Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein.