Tuesday, 27 August 2013

The fate of the wave that crashed on the shore: Saramago in his own words.

La estatua y la piedra is the name of an improvised lecture José Saramago gave, in 1997, at the University of Milan. Revised and expanded by the author before his death, it was published in a slim volume months ago. Saramago was notorious for not liking to talk about literature; for him books served as an introduction to more important topics. So it’s a precious thing to have a text where he opened himself and discussed his work, from Manual of Painting and Calligraphy to The Double.

In a very short text Saramago addresses several pertinent topics: his being pigeonholed as a historical novels, the way he works history and the past, the role of women in his fiction, and the stylistic changes after The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. He starts the lecture rejecting the popular claim (and I’m guilty of promoting it) that he writes historical novels:

There’s a definition which, in a way, marks my career as writer, in particular as novelist, and which I must confess I have always received with impatience. It’s the commonplace tag that I’m a historical novelist, which would find confirmation both in some books I wrote and in my relation with Time and my position regarding History. I must say, nevertheless, that, already before I started writing, I maintained as a given truth (otherwise nothing original) that we’re all inheritors of a time, of a culture, and that, to use a simile that I have already used other times, I see mankind as if it were the sea. Let’s imagine for a moment that we’re on a beach: there’s the sea, which continuously approaches in successive waves that arrive at the shore. Very well, those waves, which advance and couldn’t move without the sea behind them, bring a small fringe of foam that arrives on the shore and there ends. I think, pursuing the maritime metaphor, that we’re the foam carried over by the wave, and that same wave is impelled by the sea which is time, all the time that stopped behind it, all the lived time that transports and pushes us.

He then goes on to explain the relationship between history, the past and the place of mankind in time and how he explains the relationship in his fiction:

Without a doubt, History worries me, even if it’s truer to say that what worries me is the Past, and, above all, the fate of the wave that crashed on the beach, the mankind pushed on by time and which to time is always returning, taking with it, in the reflux, a sheet music, a painting, a book or a revolution. For that reason I prefer to talk more about life than literature, without forgetting that literature is in life and that we’ll always have amongst ourselves the ambition to make life out of literature.

Other important remarks about history, which I think are relevant here since they were uttered around the same time, can be found in his lambasting ClaudioMagris when he wrote ‘We all thought it was very easy to quickly surpass history, but the crisis will be long. We need more humility, we need to know the weight of history is far more intense than we thought.’ Magris wrote this apropos of the European Project and of the unexpected (to him anyway) difficulty in creating a European identity. Saramago was aghast at how a man of Magris’ intelligence could really believe a whole continent could forge a new identity outside history.

Saramago then returns to the defining moment of his life as a writer: his being sacked from his job as director of a newspaper during the counter-revolution of 1975. The unemployed, and politically unemployable, writer decided to turn this into an opportunity to become a full-time writer (even though he had to support himself with translations for several years) and two years later published his first novel in thirty years:

In 1977, two years after having left my job in the Diário de Notícias, I published a novel called Manual of Painting and Calligraphy and which of historical novel has nothing. I emphasise this to point out to what degree it can be reductive the definition of José Saramago as a historical novelist. Manual of Painting and Calligraphy is not History, is a novel of current times, written in 1976 and which goes back exactly to the weeks prior to the 1974 April Revolution. It’s the story of a painter (which shouldn’t be too strange, since I’ve always been interested in painting), it’s the story, I was saying, of a mediocre painter nevertheless aware of his mediocrity (which is truly extraordinary…) and who, unhappy with what he does, decides to change his way of painting, thinking that that way he’d improve his work’s quality. It happens, however, that quality not always depends on will, and our painter, on realizing of his inability to express what he profoundly intends, starts writing about the painting he’s doing and, inevitably, starts writing about the writing he’s doing. For that reason the book is called Manual of Painting and Calligraphy.

Saramago interrupts his point about historical novels to briefly explain the role of women in his novels. Starting here with M., the woman who helps H. on his journey of self-discovery, Saramago claims to see his women as symbols of regeneration and of the best qualities of mankind. M. will later became Blimunda, Maria Sara, who persuades Raimundo Silva to become a writer, and the doctor’s wife who takes care of the blind. And though he leaves her out, I’d include Death from Death at Intervals because, paradoxically, she brings positive changes to the violoncellist. I have to confess I’m wary of characters as symbols and not characters. But going back to the doctor’s wife, Saramago reveals that he originally planned to make her blind too:

The woman, who accompanies her husband to the ambulance, also gets in. When the driver orders her to get out, she answers, lying, that she has just lost her sight. She’s not blind, yet she will accompany her husband, and this is a first step in the definition of her personality. That woman won’t blind ever, even if at the time she got in the truck I didn’t know it… It could happen that she’d lose the sight in the next chapter, but suddenly, when I was working on her, I understood that this character, the woman, couldn’t blind because she had been capable of compassion, of love, of respect, of keeping a sense of deep dignity in her relation with others because, recognizing man’s weakness, she was capable of understanding.

This also gives credence to the notion that the blindness in Blindness is more ethical than physical. People are affected because of their choice not to see and do, for their actions, they’ve blinded themselves to the suffering and humiliation around them.

After ‘Manual’ and The Lives of Things, he started working on a project to write his autobiography, that is, the memories of his childhood up to his fifteen years: his childhood and adolescence, his years in his grandparents’ village, the struggles and miseries of the people he grew up around. This project, which at one point was called The Book of Temptations and was published decades later as Small Memories, planted in Saramago’s mind the seed of his next novel, Raised from the Ground, a novel that paid homage to the humble peasants and workers he had lived amongst during his childhood. Again he refutes the claim this novel is a historical novel.

It’s true that it describes the final years of the 19th century until the 1974 April Revolution. However, of the three generations, only the first one properly belongs to what we’d call historical past, and, for that reason, on describing its way of life, I had to carry out a reconstruction of ancient facts. Someone could then object that indeed it is a historical novel. I don’t agree with that at all, because it’d mean to depreciate, in a way, the sociological and ideological mark that characterises it.

He followed this with a novel I don’t particularly love, Baltasar and Blimunda. He clarifies that he got the idea of writing this novel after his idea for a novel about Ricardo Reis. He explains that he wrote B&B first because the idea of writing about one of Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms was more daunting a task that inserting the whole Mafra Convent into a novel. According to him, and I disagree, if this novel had been published after Ricardo Reis it’d not be considered a historical novel. I think he’s wrong, B&B has all the trappings of a historical novel and I’m not even particularly convinced it’s not. But he poses a good question: when do we start considering something history? “Is what happened one hundred years History? It seems there are not many doubts about that, but is fifty years History? And twenty years, is it? And twenty-four hours? Is History yesterday’s day? The truth is we don’t know where resides that border that separates the notion of a Present without dimension from a Past (…)”

For him what he does when he writes about history is different from what historical novelists do, and he gives the writers Walter Scott and Alexandre Herculano (our first novelist, and a great historian) as examples of that genre. “Deep down, a historical novel is like a journey the writer takes to the Past, he goes there, takes a picture, and then returns to the Present, places the picture in front of him and describes what he saw and what the picture teaches. None of his concerns of today will interfere in a direct way with the recreation of a past time. That is, more or less (for in these matters we should not be too radical…) the historical novel as Alexandre Herculano and Walter Scott understood it.”

To Saramago, he distances himself from their way of working because he brings his own personality and consciousness of his time into the novel. I’m not completely sure a writer can step outside his own era so completely and recreate a past one without some influence from it. I think Saramago is trying to create a difference where there’s none. About B&B he says that it’s “a fiction about a time in the past, but seen from the perspective of the time the author is inserted in, with everything that the writer has: his education, his interpretation of the world, his way of understanding the processes of transformation of societies. Everything is seen under the light of the time the author lives in, and not with the concern of illuminating that which the lights of the past had already reflected.” This is my italics; even if I disagree with Saramago I think it’s a very original way of dismissing the historical novel.

Afterwards he wrote The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, his magnum opus. And until reading his lecture I hadn’t understood the joke in title. Indeed now I realize the novel really is more about the year of 1936 than Ricardo Reis per se. Perhaps I am being reductive, but the title itself points that out – Saramago did a magnificent reconstruction of the major events of this critical year, against which he contrasts the withering of a poet who never even existed, or existed in the most exceptional of ways. Next we have The History of the Siege of Lisbon, which was an even greater attack on historical truth because it denies the existence of ‘historical truth,’ without whose assumption historical novels can’t be written. In this book Saramago imagines a new history for Lisbon and consequently Portugal. His next novel, The Stone Raft, was a story set in modern times and it seemed like his cycle of novels about the past were over, but then he gave us one of his greatest books: The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. This time he doesn’t just go into historical time, he goes into mythical time. Not content with rewriting the history of Portugal, he tries to make more realistic a history that may never have existed. But there’s something else I realize now. I used to think this was his first book dealing with history outside Portuguese history, but he had already done that with ‘Ricardo Reis.’ The events that course through this novel have nothing to do with Portugal – the start of the Spanish Civil War, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, the Nazi Party’s consolidation of power, vestiges of which bled their way into Portugal and Reis’ aloof life. Although Saramago claims not to plan his books, there’s a symmetry to their trajectory that seems to imply a grand design at work.

After the ‘Gospel’ there occurred a change in Saramago’s perspective. To explain this, he comes up with the metaphor that gives the title to the lecture: the statue and the stone. Up until ‘Gospel’ he had been ‘describing a statue.’ Afterwards he started describing stones. Speaking of Blindness he explains: “The book is no longer committed to describing the statue, it’s an attempt to get inside the stone’s interior, in the deepest part of ourselves, it’s an attempt to ask ourselves what and who we are. And what for. Probably there’s no answer, and, if there is, surely I wouldn’t be the person capable of offering it. Deep down, what the book wants to express is very simple: if we’re like this, let each one ask himself why.”

Blindness was a violent, brutal, apocalyptic novel, a total rupture with what he had written before, leaving history behind to tackle the new social problems of modernity. Following Blindness his novels became more introspective and allegorical: All The Names was about loneliness and the need to interact with others; The Cave was about the illusions that sustain the modern world and the consumerism that seems to have replaced religion as a way of killing existential doubts; The Double was about identity. Saramago was now writing about the challenges in a post-Soviet world where globalization and neoliberalism had triumphed: matters of ethics, critical thinking, scepticism became his favourite topics. My only regret is that Saramago, since he expanded the lecture before his death, left out his thoughts about my favourite novel, Seeing. Since it’s his most direct political allegory and a scabrous satire on the crisis of democracy, I’d like to know his personal opinions about it. Even so, La estatua y la piedra contains a lot for the reader interested in having a better understanding of José Saramago.


  1. Wonderful - but I suspect that this is not in English...

  2. I have really loved the limited number of Saramago books that I have read. I tend to also really like reading a talented author's thoughts on literature, life etc. so this sounds intriguing.

    The comments about M make me really want to read Blindness more. I have been a bit hesitant to do so as I found parts of the film a bit disquieting.

    1. Brian, I can assure you the novel is much, much better than the movie. But it's also very different from the other Saramago novels you've read. You have to be prepared for a very violent graphic novel.

  3. Another great look at some sadly inaccessible texts of such high interest.

    I do not believe that Saramago is correct that Scott's novels have "[n]one of his concerns of today," or that Scott believed that to be the case. How odd that would be if it were so.

    These sound like author's self-criticism at its best - insight into every work.

    1. Yes, I take his comments on historical novelists with a pinch of salt; I think he's just anxious not be compared with, I don't know, Ellis Peters?