Thursday, 22 November 2012

José Saramago's First Play

- What kind of language is that, what audacity? Where’s the fascism, where do you see fascism? There is no fascism! This is a newspaper, and an honourable newspaper.

In 1979 José Saramago wrote his first play, on order for a theatrical group. Saramago is, in my humble opinion, a very good playwright whose work the area of theatre has been overshadowed by his outstanding novels. But the themes of his novels are the themes of his plays: politics and religion, freedom, class struggle, the value of the individual in oppressive societies. One of the ideas the author kept insisting in after the restoration of democracy in 1974, was that very little had changed: the Portuguese people continued an anodyne and illiterate people; newspapers, now free, remained mute before the corruption and lies of the new parties; and the political class was swarming with neo-fascists who wanted the old regime back. Perhaps it’s because Saramago believed that fascism had never truly ended that he wrote the play as he did.

The play is called A Noite (The Night) and dramatizes the events inside a fascist newspaper newsroom on the night prior to the Carnation Revolution. Like other newspapers of its ilk, the newspaper didn’t have the purpose of informing but manipulating consciousnesses. Still reeling from the fear the botched March 16 coup caused, at one point the director tells to the editor in chief, “Tongues are too loose, that’s a fact, but for now it’s our policy to stop them, not cut them out. (…) More arrests are imminent, I’ve been informed of that, and our duty is to prepare public opinion. But with tact. With skill. Do you see?”

The play opens exactly with Valadares, the editor in chief, busy in his work of manipulating consciousnesses: censorship. One of the best aspects of the regime the play portrays is how censorship was enforced in newspapers. Valadares, a fascist sympathiser, is on the phone talking with the censorship bureau, going over the paragraphs of newspaper articles that have to be cut out. Even after having read a book about the topic, Portuguese censorship remains a process I don’t fully understand how it was carried out. Censorship was practised in two ways (three if we include self-censorship): book publishers, I think, had the choice of submitting the manuscript to the censor for examination before publication; or they could publish the book and wait for the authorities to confiscate them, if someone reported that the book contained something indecent or subversive. Of course it sometimes occurred that books passed the examination board, only to be seized afterwards (that’s why self-censorship was also a pointless endeavour; the writer could never know what the censor would find objectionable; he could let something pass, only for someone later to find something dangerous in the book). Newspapers, on the other hand, were more strictly controlled since they reached larger segments of the population, at least that’s my impression (since most Portuguese were extremely poor at the time, book buying was the luxury of a few); a newspaper couldn’t release a new issue without first making sure everything in it was in accordance to the rules. Valadares, then, is busily jotting down the numbered paragraphs that have to be cut out in order for the new issue to be approved.

Nothing exceptional is happening in the rest of the newsroom: journalists are dawdling about, chatting and listening to radio; the typographers are waiting for the texts to get the printing machines rolling; the director is writing a diatribe against intellectuals (a footnote informs it’s a real life article published in a fascist newspaper in reaction to an article Saramago had written when he worked for the Diário de Lisboa). It’s a normal evening, and then the first rumours of a military coup start to arrive. The director and Valadares frantically scramble whatever information they can acquire; the writing staff, mainly composed of fascist sympathisers, starts worrying about reprisals if it’s a leftist coup; the workers in the printing shop, because of their ties to the clandestine communist party, are kept in the dark. Only a journalist called Manuel Torres and an intern called Cláudia receive the rumours with hope.

Manuel Torres is a free-thinking journalist in charge of the news from the province (that means, in the mostly rural country that Portugal was at the time, any news from outside Lisbon), and Cláudia a young man disenchanted with journalism. In spite of his low status in the newspaper, Torres, a frank and confrontational man, is considered an intelligent and valuable worker by the editor in chief, who nevertheless can’t forgive his contempt for authority: Torres’ task is a sort of punishment, even though he’s considered the newspaper’s best journalist. But his political opinions make him unsuitable to cover, say, parliament news or foreign affairs. That’s left to his colleagues, a cadre of subservient hacks who despise Torres for his sarcasm. As the rumours intensify and the revolution becomes a fact, the conversations grow more animated in the newsroom, especially between and him Cláudia, who sees in him the journalist she’d like to be:

Cláudia (disappointed): We dream, we dream, and then reality is what we see, not what we dream. I arrived at journalism so happy! Sometimes I even laughed to myself. I thought I was going to write in the newspapers, and that people would read me, think about what I had thought…

Torres: Think what you had thought?

Cláudia: No, nothing like that, you don’t get it. I said: think about what I thought. It makes a huge difference. I didn’t want the reader to think like me, but to think about what I had thought. Then he’d decide how he should think. (Smiles about herself) Naïveté! (Discouraged) Now I know how things are. I’m been inside and I don’t like what I saw, I don’t like what I see. But the great truth is that I’m not sure I want another life besides this one. It may happen that the world takes a turn.

Torres, however, isn’t a hero. Saramago obviously sympathises with this free-thinker and his anguish of living in an oppressive society. Torres may even be a stand-in for Saramago, who knew the ins and outs of publishing during the dictatorship. But Saramago, like Torres, only had pessimism and sarcasm to show in the face of oppression. Torres may ridicule his co-workers’ fear and subservience, but his position, admirable as it may be, is the position of a bitter man resigned to living in an imperfect and afraid of taking action to change it. Like Saramago once wrote about Giordano Bruno, “We forget too much that men are of easily suffering flesh. From childhood educators talk to us of martyrs, they give us examples of civism and morality at their expense, but they don’t say how painful martyrdom, torture was.” Saramago is sensitive to the fact that there aren’t heroes, just people, heroic sometimes but not exempt from flaws. When Cláudia expresses her admiration for Torres, he replies, “No one deserves to be admired twenty-four hours a day. Our life is a constant resistance to weakness, to neglect, to conformism, and even, sometimes, to the small and great betrayals. And there’s no one who can state that he has never erred. If you make such a point of admiring me, admire me only the times I’m right. By turns.”

With reports of tanks and soldiers in the streets of Lisbon, the director and Valadares are unsure of which course of action to take. They still don’t know the political colour of the revolutionaries. In order not to burn any bridges with the forces that the next day may be ruling the country, they decide to publish the newspaper without any news of the coup. Torres and Cláudia object, but for all their good intentions they don’t have any power inside the newspaper. The stroke of genius in the play is that Saramago shows that the power doesn’t come from the director or the editor in chief either. Always true to his roots in the working class, Saramago brings to the foreground characters that had been mostly in the margins, the workers from the printing machines. Excited with the idea of a leftist revolution, the typographers and linotypists remember the administration how newspapers are really made. “Mr. Director, sir, make an effort to understand, if you can’t any other way. The newspaper is written here, in the Newsroom, but it’s produced in there. We’ve been making newspapers passively, sometimes crying with rage, we’ve transformed shame into lead lines, and we’ve melted the lead lines waiting for the day we’d found new lines. New lines, do you understand? The day has arrived. Today.” Only Saramago. Any other writer would have made the journalist the hero of the piece, but Saramago doesn’t forget that newspapers, for all their lofty idealism, are nothing without someone actually producing them. Without manual workers. The most extraordinary thing is that Saramago was a journalist.

A final observation. José Saramago was often accused of writing universal parables in order to court international audiences. This was in strict opposition to António Lobo Antunes (like ALA once jokingly stated they’ll always be paired up like Tom & Jerry) who stubbornly continues to write about Portugal. Specifically Peter Conrad wrote in The New Yorker that “Saramago’s secular parables, set mostly in unnamed or imaginary countries, easily float off into universality. Lobo Antunes remains obsessively local, worrying over the inherited ailments of Portuguese history and the debilities of its culture.” Conrad’s ignorance is easily forgiven: Saramago has been badly treated regarding translations. Conrad, whom I presume doesn’t read Portuguese, can only get his facts from whatever Saramago books he reads in English. It’s true that the Nobel Laureate adopted a parabolic in the ‘90s, after he exiled himself in the Canary Islands (may that be an answer?). That doesn’t erase the decades’ worth of books he previously wrote concerning the “inherited ailments of Portuguese history and the debilities of its culture.” I think the posts I’ve written this week have made more than clear. But if Conrad wants Saramago at his “obsessively local,” I wish he can one day read A Noite. There are nuances in the text that I doubt could ever mean anything to anyone outside Portugal. When a character in the newsroom turns on a radio and suddenly Paulo de Carvalho’s “EDepois do Adeus” (Portugal’s entry for the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest) is heard, that will mean absolutely nothing to a non-Portuguese. Nor will Zeca Afonso’s “Grândola, Vila Morena,” played at the end of the first act. I try to imagine this play being performed in Broadway, and it just seems ridiculous. The dark room, the audience, and all of a sudden these songs burst in. I presume at this point most viewers would not confusedly and wonder what’s going on. But I doubt any Portuguese can hear these songs without a chill of recognition. The first song was played by workers of a radio, in tandem with the revolutionaries, to alert the forces to be ready to leave the headquarters at any moment. The second one was the signal for the operation to begin and that there was no turning back. They’re full of meaning and sentimental affinities to the average Portuguese citizen, symbols of hope and freedom. Peter Conrad, who seems to revel in local colour, probably wouldn’t give two shits if he casually listened to these quaint songs in a foreign language. Local colour after all depends on being able to recognize both the local and its colours.

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