The death of José Saramago (1922-2010) doesn’t escape its sombre irony. It is a final punctuation mark in the life of a writer who wrote unpunctuated, seamless sentences. The man who designated the writer as an apprentice and his characters as masters, was ultimately forced to quit his training at the ripe age of eighty-seven. Nevertheless, in tune with his working class roots, Saramago kept his tryst with productivity as diligently as his respiratory illness worked against him.
In his meditative, 1998 Nobel Prize speech, Saramago began by paying tribute to his illiterate grandfather, Jerónimo Meirinho, calling him the wisest man he ever knew. Why was the grandfather so wise? Because he could tell stories endlessly, recounting, what Saramago called, “an untiring rumour of memories”.
This early exposure to oral storytelling helped Saramago incorporate its skills in his writing. He urged the reader to “hear” his novels by reading them aloud, rather than silently. His prose demanded the recognition of the oral as much as the written techniques of language. Saramago himself used the term “written orality” to signify the language he deployed. It opens up an interesting horizon in our understanding of writing’s aural character, apart from the visual. It also grants a twofold meaning to the narrator: as a voice and as a signature.
This must have immediate repercussions on Roland Barthes’ contentions regarding the death of the author.
Unlike what Barthes pointed out, in Saramago’s writing, the “hand” is not “cut off from any voice”. Saramago makes hand and voice work together, where the voice feeds the hand, the way hearing precedes (hence, dictates) writing. The author (in) Saramago thus exists between two disparate credentials, that of the writer and of the oral narrator. The dissemination of language occurs through this process of reciprocal translation between voice and hand, body and mind, memory and invention.
The other contention of Barthes, about the difference between reader and writer, gets blurred as Saramago’s writing itself emerges as a kind of reading. Saramago is infamous for committing mischief with religious and historical narratives. A task he owes to both, a reading and a counter-reading of canonical texts to produce new, critical versions by a reader. The author (in) Saramago is a reader beyond recognition.
For example, in The History of the Siege of Lisbon, Saramago reads between the lines of history and legend, to produce a counter tale. Raimundo Silva, a proofreader, tampers with a vital fact about the Christian re-conquest of Lisbon, by making the Crusaders refuse to help the Portuguese king, hence by default siding with the Moors. Such a move mocks and disturbs Portugal’s nationalist imaginary.
Saramago also spoke of inviting the reader (speculatively, including himself) to “accept a pact”, where he would transform an “absurd idea” into a “logical” stream of thought. He called this “the possibility of the impossible”.
This is particularly evident in novels like Blindness, Seeing and Death with Interruptions, where improbable events take place in a believable language. The events serve as an allegorical device by Saramago to bring to focus his deepest concerns about the human world. The language is believable because Saramago’s plots exaggerate on the oldest anxieties of human beings. He reworks old questions in the light of contemporary concerns, where the bizarre clashes against the everyday. This rupture between the bizarre and the everyday is the key secret of Saramago’s power to both enthral and disturb his audience. Whenever Saramago delves into the theme of political decadence, as he does in Seeing, he traps the reader at the psychological level, but keeps him marvelling at the ingenuity of the plot. The question of plot in Saramago works in an insidious manner: to highlight a particular crisis in the world which the writer finds to be going out of hand, and therefore in need of a radical sub-version of vision. It is a critical subversion of reality, where uncanny events emerge from the heart of the mundane. There is a constant tendency in Saramago to fuse the surreal with the pragmatic. Born to landless peasants, and brought up in a working class neighbourhood, the writer was vigilant about the contradictions of life.
Saramago spent his formative years under Salazar’s fascist dictatorship. This had a deep impact on his working class sensibilities. Saramago became a card carrying member of the Communist Party of Portugal from 1969, when the party was illegal. His relationship with the movement was, however, always critical.
In the 1980s, Saramago sided with the reformist rebellion within the party. Except him, everyone else was expelled. Fidel Castro was a friend who invited him many times to Cuba. Yet in 2003, despite and because of his love for Cuba, Saramago disowned Castro by saying, he “has lost my confidence, damaged my hopes, cheated my dreams”. In 2004, during his visit to Columbia, Saramago designated the two rebel guerrilla groups in that country as “armed gangs”.
There have been polemical attacks by communist intellectuals against Saramago on these issues. It includes sociologist James Petras’ open letter to Saramago regarding the comments on the Columbian guerrilla in the American newsletter Counterpunch, where he accused the writer of “bizarre historical amnesia”.
What is, however, missing in these attacks is the old question post-Stalinist, communist politics needs to ask itself: How does the movement and the party understand the relationship between writers and politics?
For Saramago, like Garcia Marquez, being a writer and being part of politics sometimes uncomfortably came to mean torn loyalties. This rupture of loyalty however doesn’t take place under any relativistic prism. It is not a rupture with the political but rather a rupture within the political. It works as an event which always reaffirms the presence of ethics in politics. Am alert writer, free from the burdens of bourgeois/religious morality, may not fail to distinguish and question the difference between politics as such, and what happens in the name of politics. In other words, the writer would question the representative form of politics and probe the justifications of its excesses. Such an intervention, in cases like Saramago’s, steers clear from any individualised conception of both society and politics.
Despite the de-individualised form of such a writer’s identity, involved in the larger dream of historical transformation, clashes can occur with the vagaries of political expediency and its justificatory, ideological logic. Saramago called himself a “hormonal communist” and yet added, he wouldn’t “make excuses for what communist regimes have done”.
This is a post-Sartrean distinction where a writer refuses to follow any diktat which seeks to undermine criticism in the name of ideological commitment. The angst of good faith is privileged over the paranoia of bad faith. To the disgrace of political regimes, such writers have been violently punished by disciplining bosses in the shadow of ideological excuses. Saramago was fortunate to escape, unlike others, in this regard.
Both literary temperament and politics work within certain constraints. The rationalist logic of politics cannot forcibly restrain the intense logic of literary imagination. Imagination is political, but on its own grounds. This issue not only begs a re-reading of the Frankfurt School and other intellectuals, but more importantly a re-reading of the (auto)biographies of poets and writers who were convicted under communist regimes.
What Saramago owed to communist ideas is best exemplified in his novels. A modern fabulist, he set the mythical vis-à-vis the historical, and the moral vis-à-vis the political. The materiality of Saramago’s imagination never failed to assert its concern of how class divisions work in historical contexts.
In Balthazar and Blimunda, Saramago used the baroque style to capture the violent contrasts between the royalty and the Church on the one hand and the common people on the other. His description of elaborate grandeur surrounding royal and religious formalities gets constantly tampered by his sense of bitter irony and irreverence. The story pays homage to the courage of marginal but talented heroes and heretics who don’t give up the audacity to dream and love in the midst of an impending auto-da-fé.
In novels like The History and All the Names, Saramago also showed his keenness towards certain minor figures like the proofreader and the clerk. These figures, alluding to Saramago’s own journey through these crafts and positions, gain extraordinary prominence due to their idiosyncratic insights into history and society.
Once when asked to specify his identity, Saramago said: “First of all I’m Portuguese, then Iberian, and then, if I feel like it, I’m European.” To prefer linguistic and geographical specificities about oneself over an occidental frame of reference shows how Saramago understood political contexts without taking the rhetoric of grand, cultural narratives too seriously. His understanding of communist politics can also be read through this register.
In 2002, Saramago enraged Jews by comparing Israel’s barbarities with the Holocaust. Saramago’s interest in the Middle East and his siding with the Palestinians is an illuminating shift from a writer who was whimsical about his European identity.
In his last published book of essays, The Notebook, Saramago severely criticised the new global economic order. He called George Bush “the high priest of all liars” and severely took the United States to task.
In a world besieged by neo-liberal fascism, the populist decadence of democracy and the calculated murdering of the poor and the other, Saramago’s voice is a warning from the future. It is very different from the way Hollywood imagines the future in the form of re-colonising, scientific fantasies. Saramago tried to persistently tell us, the future is disappearing before our eyes.
The writer is a poet and a political theorist, living in New Delhi. This article is a slightly improved version of the one by the same title as it appeared in the Literary Review section of The Hindu, 4th July, 2010.