VSEVIT 082010 Emperor of Metaphors | Portugal | Pessimism

José Saramago: Emperor of Metaphors Sónia Pedro Sebastião ISCSP – UTL [CAPP


The Man and the literary legacy José Saramago was born in 1922 in a family of landless peasants, in Azinhaga, a small village in the province of Ribatejo, around a hundred kilometers north-east of Lisbon (Portugal). He was a good pupil at primary school, but for financial reasons he abandoned high-school studies and trained as a mechanic. After trying different jobs in the civil service, he worked for a publishing company for twelve years and then for newspapers, as assistant editor of Diário de Notícias (Portuguese newspaper). A position he was forced to leave after the political events in November 1975. Meanwhile he developed a parallel activity as a translator (1955-1981) and literary critic (1967-1968). In 1969, he joined the then illegal Communist Party, in which however he has always adopted a critical standpoint. In 1947, he published his first book, a novel that he entitled The Widow, but which for editorial reasons appeared as The Land of Sin. Yet, his first attempt to become a writer was a failure and he felt he had nothing worthwhile to write until 1966 when he published Possible Poems, a poetry book that marked his return to literature. In 1970, another book of poems, Probably Joy was made available and shortly after, in 1971 and 1973 respectively, he published From this World and the Other and The Traveller's Baggage, two collections of newspaper articles. Saramago has published plays, short stories, novels, poems, diaries, and travelogues. His first novel, Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, appeared in 1977. Its basic theme is the genesis of the artist, of a painter as well as a writer. After that, he published Levantado do Chão (1980), a three-generation saga of a poor sharecropper family from the post-World War I period through 25 April 1974, the date of the Portuguese revolution. His international breakthrough came in 1982 with the blasphemous and humorous love story Baltasar and Blimunda (Memorial do Convento), a novel set in 18th century Portugal that stills his only recommended reading in Portuguese language high school teaching programs. We can affirm that his literary success arrived in the 1980’s. Following the success of Baltasar and Blimunda, we find The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1984), The Stone Raft (1986), The History of the Siege of Lisbon (1989). The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis takes its subject from the history in form of a dialogue between the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), and his alternative authorial personality, Ricardo Reis, from the poem collection Odes de Ricardo Reis (1946). The story is set in the 1930’s, the year of the onset of the Spanish Civil War, and the rise of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and Salazar. For many Portuguese, this is Saramago’s masterpiece. The symbolic The Stone Raft (1986) tells a story of Portugal's exclusion from Europe: a series of supernatural events culminates in the severance of the Iberian Peninsula so that it starts to

Published in Ukrainian in August 2010 in VSESVIT, Ukrainian magazine of world literature, issue 7-8, pp. 209-213 (www.vsesvit-journal.com).

float into the Atlantic, initially heading for the Azores. Saramago's tone is ironic: he mixes different views from the Prime Minister and the US president to tourist officers and European Community. This novel has a cinematographic adaptation by George Sluizer (2002) and was presented at the Montreal World Film Festival. The first huge polemic was settle in 1991, with the publication of Saramago's controversial novel, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, that was excluded from the European Union literary contest Ariosto by Sousa Lara, Portuguese Under-Secretary of Culture. The story pictures Jesus as a regular man with a love relationship with Maria Magdalena, which was a prostitute. Catholics felt offended with the adulteration of the Son of God’s history. And we must not forget the role of religiosity in the Portuguese Culture. As a consequence of the contentious, Saramago and the Spanish journalist Pilar del Rio, his wife since 1988, transferred their residence to the island of Lanzarote in the Canaries (Spain). Portuguese people hardly forgive him for his close relation with Spain and his constant forecast of the Iberian union, illustrated in The Stone Raft, and constantly remembered in public interventions. In 1993, he started writing a diary with five volumes, Lanzarote Diaries. In 1995, he published the novel Blindness, in which an epidemic of blindness start to spread in a nameless city. Saramago’s pessimism is obvious in his statement "blindness is the good fortune of the ugly" since the blind cannot see the ugliness of the world. The plot of Blindness, adapted by Fernando Meireilles to cinema sums Saramago’s appeal to the world: “If you can look, see. If you can see, notice”. In 1997, he published All the Names, in which he pays homage to the bureaucratic labyrinths of Kafka. In the XXIst century he published: The Cave (2000) a story of a potter and his family, who are the "real" people, living the life of Plato's allegory of the cave; The Double (2002) illustration of the idea of a doppelganger; Death with Interruptions (2005) picture of the relation between man and death, being Death a personified character; Seeing (2006), a political satire where a state of emergency is declared after voters cast blank votes in an election, illustrating his disbelief in democracy; Little Memories (2007) an autobiographic collection of memories from Saramago’s childhood (4-15 years old); The Elephant’s Journey (2008) and Caín (2009), image of the eternal misunderstanding between God and men (“the history of the men is the history of his misunderstanding with god, not even he understands us, not even we understand him”). The Portuguese hate-and-love Saramago’s relations with Portugal and the Portuguese people are contradictory, even in the moment of his death. He irritated catholic and Jewish, communists and non-communists, Fidel's supporters and opponents. His public interventions usually ended-up in mediatic scandals where the weapon was his sharp and master use of words. Though we realize that he needed to shock, and he was not consistent in his fights. In his lack of coherency, Saramago was deeply Portuguese. The same Portuguese that Saramago outraged with his statement that it is inevitable that Portugal will end up joining with Spain.

Published in Ukrainian in August 2010 in VSESVIT, Ukrainian magazine of world literature, issue 7-8, pp. 209-213 (www.vsesvit-journal.com).

Accused of being a traitor, non-patriotic, Saramago needed to woke up Portuguese minds that “had stopped” and he kept on saying that he couldn’t understand why people were so inert. And people had difficulties understanding why he needed to criticize its homeland and above all: God. The truth is, if he hadn’t be so controversial, so publicly incorrect, Portuguese wouldn’t have found him, or read his work, or love and hate him. Because hate comes with deep love and that is why Saramago “leaves a deep impression in the Portuguese soul” (José Socrates, Portuguese Prime-Minister). The Portuguese love in absence and love himself above all. Well, Saramago had the ability to come to the nerves of this quiet people, not used to think, or philosophize about its existence. The writer and the man, used words to spice up spirits, but the spirits were melted in sugar and salt. The artist created stories, allegories where he appropriates elements of the passive characters of the Portuguese and caricaturizes it. And this is like putting acid into a wound. The deep wound of not being perfect and become aware that we are not perfect because we don’t deserve it, and do nothing to accomplish perfectness. Portuguese people couldn’t love Saramago more, and couldn’t hate him more. Why? Because he dared to be unperfected; he dared to have a style that doesn’t respect the canonic rules of Portuguese grammar. The international impression Some called him the “Prophet of Doom” (Adam Langer), some compared him with Kafka, and most stated his pessimistic view of humanity, that he often confirmed declaring that “if there is a way for the world to be transformed for the better, it can only be done by pessimism”. In his 2003 book, Genius: a Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, the American literary critic Harold Bloom named Saramago as "one of the last titans of an expiring literary genre". Internationally recognized as the finest Portuguese writer of his generation, Saramago saw his work valued with several Portuguese speaking and European literary awards1, though it was the Nobel Prize of 1998 that gave echo to his allegories worldwide. Forty-six titles in essay, romance, poetry and plays, about two million books sold all around the world, Saramago is the emperor of the post dictatorship Portuguese literature. Defined by a European skepticism, irony, and caustic neo-realism, Saramago was above all a bored soul. Communist, atheist, and humanist, his latent torment with the Portuguese lack of purpose is evident in his rebel yell against church, against politics, and against the world establishment. Yet, his yell is silent, sarcastically treated and represented in parable, in reinvented fantasized history. Saramago seems to hesitate in talking about what he really sees

For detailed list see: http://www.josesaramago.org/saramago/detalle.php?id=680, last consult in 18 June, 2010.


Published in Ukrainian in August 2010 in VSESVIT, Ukrainian magazine of world literature, issue 7-8, pp. 209-213 (www.vsesvit-journal.com).

what he really despises. He rather prefers to write figuratively leaving to the reader the right to imagine and interpret. Saramago is an artist and artistes don’t explain, they don’t want or need to be understood or coherent, they want to be felt and use art in the construction of a possible knowledge of the world. For Saramago this knowledge is ultimately important due to his preoccupation with the positive construction of Man and of the future. And where is God in this process? Saramago can be read as blasphemous and as a deep believer and it is with no satire that his last piece of art Cain is once again a dialog with God’s message. The same God that polemizes his life and his work, that provoked his auto-exile in Lanzarote island. The obituary The man died on June 18th 2010, but the emperor of metaphors will live forever in Blindness, Seing, The Year of Ricardo Reis’s death, Baltasar and Blimund, among so many others. May the boredom be over and the spirit rest in peace. “The travel never finishes” and now Portuguese people can only love him... .

Published in Ukrainian in August 2010 in VSESVIT, Ukrainian magazine of world literature, issue 7-8, pp. 209-213 (www.vsesvit-journal.com).

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