I have no story to tell. I feel tired of stories as if suddenly I had discovered that all were told the day man was capable of uttering the first word, if a first word truly existed, if words aren’t all of them, each one and in every moment, the first word. Then stories will be needed again, then we’ll have to admit that none has yet been told.
In 1973 a second book collecting José Saramago’s crónicas came out, titled A Bagagem do Viajante (The Traveller’s Baggage). This book contains articles he wrote in 1969 and 1971-1972. It’s not too different in tone and topics from the previous one, but I found it slightly weaker. The book, however, opens with a very strong article, a concise history of his family dating back to three generations:
For my part, I’m not bothered knowing that beyond the third generation total darkness reigns. It’s as if my grandparents had been born from a spontaneous birth into a fully formed world, about which they had no responsibility: good and evil were foreign things which they had to take into their innocent hands. I like to think like that, especially when I evoke my maternal great-grandfather, whom I never met, arrived from North Africa, about whom many stories were told. They described him as a tall man, very slim and dark, a stone face, where a smile, for being so rare, was a festivity. They told me he killed a man in suspicious circumstances, in cold blood, like someone pulling out a plant. And they also told me that the victim was right: but he didn’t have a rifle.
In spite of so thick a stain in the family blood, I like to think about this man, who came from far, from mysteriously far, from an Africa of Arab clothes and sand, from cold and burning mountains, shepherd maybe, perhaps a marauder – and who went there to get into the old agricultural science, which he quickly abandoned in order to guard lands, a rifle under his arm, walking in an elastic and balanced step, tireless.
I had read of this fabled Berber ancestor in a biography, but reading the author’s actual words is far more fascinating. He also remembers his grandparents in the same article:
Closer to me (so close I extend my hand and touch its carnal memory, the dry face and the grown beard, the slim shoulders that have repeated themselves in me), that grandfather who guarded pigs, about whose parents nothing was known, abandoned at a state orphanage, a secretive man all his life, of minimal sentences, also slim and tall like a beam. This man had the whole village’s ire against him, because he came from outside, because he was the son of grass, and, notwithstanding, my grandmother fell in love with him, the most beautiful girl of her time. That’s why my grandfather had to spend his wedding night seated by the house’s door, outside, a stick coated with iron on his knees, waiting for the jealous rivals who had sworn to stone his roof. No one showed up after all, and the moon travelled all night through the sky, while my grandmother, her eyes open, waited for her husband. And it was already clear dawn when both hugged each other.
Curiously, when it comes to his parents, he merely describes them from a photograph he has, as if he had no memories of them worth sharing, as if they were more distant to him than the great-grandfather he never knew but admired. In a separate article he describes his trip, epic to his twelve-year-old spirit, with his uncle to the Santarém fair, to sell piglets. For me those two articles are the best of the book. From reading them one feels convinced that these childhood days were the happiest days of his life. Another interesting article about his childhood was about the books he had in his parents’ house in Lisbon: only a novel by 19th century French writer Emile Richebourg and a Portuguese-French conversation guide. Because Saramago was a great dog lover, I also found curious an article about his childhood fear of dogs.
But let’s move away from his childhood. Saramago is an adult and he’s living under a dictatorship, which, if it constrains his writings, at least never leaves him without topics to write about. For instance, I loved his short observation about truth:
Contrary to what the naïve claim (we all are a bit once in a while), it’s not enough to say the truth. It won’t do much good when dealing with people if it isn’t credible, and perhaps that should even be its first quality. The truth is only half the way, the other half is called credibility. That’s why some lies pass themselves off as truths, and some truths are seen as lies.
I also liked his article on suicide, mainly for the imaginative way he used to circumvent censorship. Suicide officially didn’t exist in fascist Portugal, the word suicide couldn’t even be printed, so this is the way Saramago found to discuss the topic:
The pistol, that morning, went out in such a state of irritation that, on closing the door, it let the clip fall on the ground. The bullets fell everywhere on the floor, and if the pistol was furious already, imagine how it was when it finished recharging itself. In order to make matters worse, the elevator didn’t work, which, for a gun like this, was the last straw. The pistol’s anatomy makes climbing down stairs difficult. It’s forced to slide sideways, and, no matter how careful it is, it always ends up scratching the barrel. It is left, obviously, with a dishevelled look.
The man lived in the same building, I believe in the same apartment. The neighbours had noticed in him a certain worry, a melancholy, a distracted way of saying hello, like someone thinking about another world or talking to himself. It didn’t cross anyone’s mind, however, that there were troubles between the man and the gun, that they were sour at each other, and that’s why it was such a surprise, not just in the building but in the whole street and neighbourhood.
The day comes when the pistol kills the man with two shots. “I know, I know, reader, that the story is absurd, that pistols don’t climb stairs down (or up), and that, no matter how wicked they may be, they don’t shoot point blank men going up (and down). But be assured that I haven’t been amusing myself at your expense. What I reported is just one of the thousand possible versions of the news I read a while ago in a Lisbon newspaper, according to which ‘a man had been shot, in the staircase of his residence, by two shots of his own pistol.’ And he died of that.”
That censorship exists is already evil, but he adds another reason why censoring a suicide is even more immoral. “There’s still the irony of stealing the meaning from a gesture, a decision, this stealing death from a man whose life had been already stolen (how? by whom?) before that meeting between the hand and the gun.”
Regarding Portugal being considered the world champion of fireworks, Saramago ironically imagines what else they could be world champions of: “For instance I wouldn’t be too surprised if tomorrow I discovered that we’re also the world champions of emigration. In fact, if we already are, as I suspect, I don’t understand why we don’t take from that title the natural and just satisfactions, the international applause and recognition for our firm contribution to the prosperity of peoples.” During the dictatorship, hundreds of thousands of Portuguese emigrated, to France, Brazil, Germany, the USA.
Another article I liked was about a brief biography of Giordano Bruno he reads in a dictionary. “The dictionary only says he was burned, it doesn’t say he screamed. Why, what dictionary is this that doesn’t inform us? What do I want a biography of Giordano Bruno for that doesn’t speak of the screams he gave, there, in Rome, in a square or in a patio, with people around, some fanning the flames, others watching, others who serenely wrote the execution papers?” And he adds: “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.”
Someone informs him that a former chief he had is now attached to a metallic tube keeping him alive. This man hated him and Saramago detested him in return; he describes him as one of the subservient lackeys to the fascist regime, always watching his workers for subversive thoughts. Saramago imagines someone disconnecting the machine and the satisfaction of seeing him dead. “It wasn’t I who disconnected the machine. I let imagination run like this because I needed to kill this man in my memory. It’s over. Only the machine is alive, not him.”
He writes of Roberto Rossellini’s Il Generale della Rovere with admiration, once again surprising me about his film states. He also describes an idea for a children’s book (he finally published it in 2001), and even fables and allegories, which are the best way of getting round the censorship (I once visited an exhibition of his life and work and I managed to see some of the originals all crossed out in blue by the censor’s pencil. It was a sobering experience). He writes too of his contempt for Christmas, a time when everyone is everyone else’s brother, for a single day, before the daily slaughter resumes. He laments how much of Portuguese entertainment has an anti-intellectual bias. “Well, if you permit me, I’d like to express here a wish: that the day arrives in this country when all its citizens are intellectuals, the day when the continuous exercise of intelligence is not a privilege of the few but the natural realization of everyone.”
Finally, the final articles form a group thematically linked by his travels in Italy, his visits to its museums and cathedrals, his going to see the works of the Old Masters. I always asked myself if H., the painter from Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, who reminisces about his trip to Italy, was based on actual experience from Saramago’s life, and now I know.