Monday, 19 November 2012

Only wheat makes bread: José Saramago writes for newspapers

Today I’d like a rested, tranquil prose, which said the most serious things in the simplest way. A prose that helped itself, in which I wouldn’t intervene, or didn’t have more presence than the contemplative man resting by the riverbank and watching the water flow by. The history of people is made of tears, some laughter, a handful of small joys and a great final pain. And everything can be told in the most diverse tones: elegiac, dramatic, ironic, reserved, and all the others whose enumeration doesn’t fit here, or fitting would ruin the sentence’s cadence.

I devoted last week to books available in English. This week and the next I’m focusing solely on his yet untranslated books: the plays, the poems, his newspaper articles, to give everyone an idea of what they’re missing. Like most readers, I arrived at Saramago through his novels, mistakenly judging the rest of his output to be of secondary value. But over time I have reconsidered that stance. I think that his other books not only complement the novel and illuminate many aspects of the man and the author (Saramago wouldn’t have made this division), they also afford the reader many delights. Let us begin with his newspaper writings.

In Portugal there’s a literary genre called crónica. In its original meaning it’s the same as the English chronicle. As the reader knows, a chronicle (from the Greek chronos, time) is a historical account of events in chronological order. Examples from English literature include the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (from the time of Alfred the Great) and Raphael Holinshed’s The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1587), which was a source of inspiration for William Shakespeare’s plays. In another, stricter sense, a chronicle is also a history of the genealogy of kings and aristocrats.  In this sense, Portugal’s greatest chronicler was Fernão Lopes (c. 1380/1390-1460), who recorded the lives of three Portuguese kings and influenced those who came after him. A crónica, in a third meaning that has no synonym in English, also means a short article, some three or four pages, written for newspapers that deals with everyday topics, sometimes political or social, sometimes autobiographical, its content determined by whoever is writing it. Today we’re talking about crónicas in this sense (let’s call them articles from here on).

For several years, before he built a career as a novelist, José Saramago was known as a writer of articles. The first ones were written between 1968 and 1969 and later collected in a book called Deste Mundo e do Outro (Of this World and the Other, 1971). In Portugal there’s a long tradition of writers having daily or weekly articles in newspapers and magazines. Eça de Queiroz wrote them, as you’ll recall, as did the late poet Manuel António Pina, and António Lobo Antunes (The Fat Man and Infinity collects a few in English) and Gonçalo M. Tavares write them nowadays. Mozambican writer Mia Couto and Angolan writer José Eduardo Agualusa also write them for Portuguese newspapers. It’s a widespread practice that has some advantages: it helps pay bills and keeps the writer’s name alive between books. For Saramago, who was living under a dictatorship, it was also a tool to attack the government and social complacency.

Saramago started writing these texts around the time António de Oliveira Salazar was being replaced with Marcello Caetano, who had promised political reforms and some laxness in censorship. Although Caetano made promises in that direction, the fact is that literature and the press continued to be censored up until 1974. Therefore Saramago’s prose isn’t as direct as he’d like it to be, he has to beat around the bush, if you will, express things implicitly, use allegories and parables to get his meaning across to the reader. These constraints in nothing diminish the merit of the book, which is well-written, lively, and full of memorable passages and information. The book’s contents can be organized in three groups: articles about his family and childhood; foreign and domestic politics; and casual reflections and observations about human life.

The articles about his childhood are filled with his admiration for working class people of his youth. He writes of shoemakers and knife-sharpeners and of course of his grandmother and grandfather, of his days with them in the village of Azinhaga. The reader can always find a humorous remark or description in these articles. Of a shoemaker he knew as a boy, he writes: “The shop was a cubicle with a door one meter and a half high (more or less), through which only children could enter without stooping. I discovered myself an adult the day I had to lower my head.”

His grandparents, whom he worshipped, are not tenderly evoked too. In “Letter to Josefa, my grandmother,” he writes:

You’re ninety years old. You’re old, pained. You tell me you were the prettiest girl of your time – and I believe it. You can’t read. Your hands are thick and deformed, your feet are callous. You carried on your head tons of roots and lumber wood, lagoons of water. You saw the sunrise every day. Of all the bread you kneaded one could make a universal banquet. You raised people and cattle, you tucked piglets in your own bed when the cold threatened to freeze them. You told me stories of apparitions and werewolves, old family matters, a crime of death. Crossbeam of your house, fire of your hearth – you were seven times pregnant, seven times you gave birth.

The rest of this ‘letter’ is a beautiful tribute Saramago pays to her memory. And since he also loved his grandfather, “a great illiterate writer,” he writes of him in “My grandfather too:”

He walks tired, the old man. He drags with him seventy years of a hard life, of discomfort, of ignorance. And yet he’s a wise man, quiet and who keeps to himself, who only opens his mouth to utter important words, the ones that matter. He speaks so little (the important words are truly scarce) that we all shut up to listen to him when in his face something like a warning light is turned on. Besides that, he has a way of being seated, looking far away, even if that far away is just the nearest wall, that it’s almost intimacy. I don’t know what mute dialogue keeps him distracted from us.

Given the tight deadlines, one the strategies used in these articles is just to think of a theme and develop something about it. Saramago does that often, like when writes about words in the aptly-titled “Words:”

Words are good. Words are bad. Words offend. Words apologize. Words burn. Words caress. Words are given, exchanged, offered, sold and invented. Words are absent. Some words suck us in, never let us go again: they’re like ticks: they show up in books, in newspapers, in advertising slogans, in movies’ subtitles, in letters and posters. Words counsel, suggest, insinuate, order, impose, segregate, eliminate. They’re mellifluous or bitter. The world rotates on words lubricated with the oil of patience. Brains are full of words that live in good peace with their opposites and enemies. That’s why people do the opposite of what they think, believing to be thinking what they’re doing. There are many words.

He then on moves on speeches, and the reader of the time, if he could (and usually was trained to) read between the lines, he’d realize this was an article about censorship. “Because words have stopped communicating. Each word is said so the word isn’t heard. The word, even when it doesn’t state, states itself. The word doesn’t answer or ask: it crushes. The word is the fresh and green grass that covers the teeth of the swamp. The word is dust in the eyes and perforated eyes. The word doesn’t show. The word disguises.” Saramago concludes with a rumination on silence: “There’s also silence. Silence, by definition, is what isn’t heard. Silence hears, examines, observes, weighs and analyses. Silence is fertile. Silence is the fertile and black earth, the humus of being, the quiet melody under sun light. Words fall upon it. All the words. The good and bad words. The wheat and the chaff. But only the wheat makes bread.”

In “Hip, hip, hippies!,” he poses a question to hippies, regarding their use of the flower as a symbol:

That flower (know that I love flowers), where do you keep it? In your hands, or in the heart? Here’s the main point of my doubts. You are young now: to pick up a flower, to turn it into a weapon and shield, it’ll be as natural to you as breathing and loving. (We who are adults nowadays, we also picked up the flowers available when we had clean hands and a confident soul.) But time won’t forgive you. You’ll have to get, as we did, onto this canoe full of holes, always on the brink of capsizing, which is the adult man’s daily compromise. And then, what will you do? If follow our footsteps, it’s not worth it: we’re here for that, we who did nothing but put our feet on the marks our parents and grandparents left.

After he warns them that the hardships of life will probably destroy their youthful dreams, he offers them a final advice. “There’s the heart still left to you. If you keep the flower there, if that’s where you hold it already then I keep your reply as a precious signal and promise. And here I thank you, hope of the world!”

And then they grew up and voted for Ronald Reagan. The assassination of Martin Luther King also doesn’t pass unnoticed:

Martin Luther King was a man like anyone of us. He had the virtues we know, certainly some flaws that didn’t diminish his virtues. He had a job to do – and he did it. He fought against the currents of custom, of habit and of prejudice, covered in them up to his neck. Until that rifle shot came to remind the distracted people that we are that skin colour matters a lot.

He also writes about Luís de Camões, Gil Vicente (the father of Portuguese theatre), Almeida Garrett, Ben Jonson, Lewis Carroll, Fernando Pessoa, and Fernão Lopes, to whom he pays tribute:

I see a man with a severe face, not because joy has been refused to him, but because the matter which he deals with is the flesh and blood of men. Because he has before him the bustle of a people and he doesn’t want to miss anything of the heartthrobs, the passions, the selfish gestures, the cowardice, and also the courage which all of a sudden is bigger than the being in whom it has settled. Because if it’s certain that he’s going to tell the story of princes and their lackeys, the palace conspiracies, the great sentences for posterity and the short interjections of rage and pain – it’s also true that through the narrow windows of the tower crude, everyday words arrive from the ‘bellies in the sun’ – the dispersed mass that in a history’s moment became spear and battering ram, shield and morning hour.

I was also impressed by some of his exercises in imagination, like for instance his deserted island scenario:

For having made too many demands to the captain of the ship carrying me, I was disembarked upon a deserted island. They have left with me supplies for fifteen days or fifteen years (I was never able to ascertain), weapons and ammunition (including atomic bombs), and from the ship’s treats they allowed me to remove a book and an album. I chose Don Quixote and Orpheus. It will be necessary to explain why. I was going to live alone and in peace, if possible. I was going to have a lot of work and few distractions. Therefore there wasn’t a better book than Don Quixote, which makes one laugh and has a non-existing Dulcineia, and Orpheus, which makes one cry and has a dead Eurydice. With this deliberate absence I’d people my interminable nights.

Other exercises include the day when animals decide to revolt against mankind (already imagined, by the way, by Arthur Machen in The Terror), his encounter with a monkey on a beach, and even meeting the 18th erotic poet Bocage in the streets of Lisbon. I think he takes this method to its limit with his trip to Mars (in the grand tradition of Cyrano de Bergerac), apparently a utopia save for the Martians only knowing the colours black and white:

In Mars they were happy to know that Earth has seven fundamental colours from which thousands of tonalities can be extracted. They only have two there, white and black (with all the gradations in between), and they always suspected there would be more. They assured me it was the only thing they needed to be completely happy. And although they made me swear I wouldn’t speak of what I saw there, I suspect they would be willing to exchange all of Mars’ secrets in exchange for the procedure to obtain blue.

If this sounds silly, there are also many articles with Saramago’s usual pessimism and scepticism about mankind. Regarding an actual Martian expedition that discovered that the red planet is dead as dead can be, he concludes:

So we’re alone. Around the sun there’s a crown of planets whose only precious stone – emerald, ruby, diamond – is Earth. The rest is dust, furnaces, ice vortexes. And here, where life was possible (with dust too, some furnaces, enough ice), we haven’t found anything better to do than inventing procedures to equalize, in aridness, desolation and neglect, the neighbouring planets. And we’re so committed it seems it’s no longer impossible to open vast atomic wells, obeying the landscape style of the Moon, and now Mars: a sort of cliché of orography: the crater.


Let us accept that we’re alone. Let us accept it without despair. On this side of the galaxy, in an insignificant solar system, here’s our fatherland. Three billion people live in it, other living satellites that can’t live outside it. Let us then accept that we’re alone, and, from there, let us make the discovery that we’re accompanied – each one by the other.

A lot was, to me, padding written for the sake of publishing something (deadlines must be horrible), and there was only so much I could take of his casual strolls through Lisbon or what he did on the beach or the look of people in a cold morning in a public garden. But there are gems too, many interesting intimate writings, witty analyses of situations, tributes and homages to people he admired, and thoughts about events of the time from his unique perspective. If I had transcribed everything I wanted, this post would have been a lot longer.


  1. Based upon what I have read from Saramago it is not surprising that he wrote so positively about working people. That tendency really shows through in his fiction.

    The tributes that he wrote about his Grandparents are so very touching.

    1. That tendency really shows through in his fiction.

      Especially in Raised from the Ground, Brian; I can never praise and recommend this book enough: if people want to understand Saramago, this is the novel to read, it's all there, everything else he wrote are just (sometimes better) variations.