Saramago

João Paulo Monteiro jpmonteiro at SPAMmail.telepac.pt
Tue Mar 6 14:48:02 MST 2001


Social and political issues are indeed
present as background on all Saramagos's novels. And they have center
stage at
one of my favorites - "Levantado do Chão" -, a historical saga of the
struggles
of the rural proletariat in Alentejo (in the South of Portugal).

Saramago is a nice character if, somehow, also a reclusive man, which
was
aggravated by the petty intrigues of the portuguese literary and
political
milieu. I have met him a couple of times. He is a longtime CPer and
fought well,
on his assigned trench (at the editorial board of "Diário de Notícias",
the then
leading portuguese daily) during the revolution. More recently - late
80's - he
sided with a reformist rebellion within the party. The protagonists of
the
episode were expelled but he remained, cultivating a personal friendship
with the
old patriarch Alvaro Cunhal. He is considered "patrimony" of the PCP,
though his
political statements are somehow heterodox (and, sometimes, frankly
puzzling).

I recommend his reading, with the caveat that Saramago's writing is kind
of
baroque and verbally excessive, not at all fit for the standards of
american
prose. Most anglo-saxonic editors would, no doubt, say that he
"overwrites".

One thing I haven't mentioned about him, however, is
this: he is not only a fine man and a good comrade, he is also a great
writer. He has a powerful, relentless, marvelously subtle and
bewitching imagination. His prose is like a chant from the earth:
magical, udder, abounding.

I'm not quite sure how his prose stands in english. (For some reason he
has won most critical acclaim in Brazil, Spain and Italy.) But I
strongly recommend "Baltazar and Blimunda" for whoever wants to make
first acquaintance with him.

Much time is wasted, on the portuguese literary circles, whispering
maliciously about Saramago not having a "stable culture". Of course, he
is a
learned and erudite man. But his imaginary is indeed anchored in the
fertile
soil of folksy tales and myths. He is a force of nature, a kind of
tellurical
phenomenon. Rude and gentle. He expresses himself like village sorcerer.
He
embodies that magical, feminile force of a dry field in the summer.
These
things you cannot learn at "creative writing" academies. You have to
breath
them.

It's these kind of things I also fear might get hopelessly "lost in
translation". Or, worst still, be seen as "exotic".

"Baltazar and Blimunda" ("Memorial do Convento"
on the original portuguese version) is the best known novel of Saramago
and
perhaps justly so. It is conceived around the building of the monumental

convent of Mafra, a pharaonic enterprise financed with the gold from
Brazil.
It also recreates the story of an unconventional portuguese priest - the
friar
Bartolomeu de Gusmão - and his eccentric flying machine. The novel has
recently been adapted for an opera by a very accredited contemporary
italian
composer, Azhio Corghi.

The PCP, based on a position of rigorous republican secularism, has a
long
history of appeasement and conciliation with the hierarchy of the
Church.
Curiously enough, Saramago, who is very much attuned with the folksy
paganist
pantheism, has, by that way, a reputation of anti-clerical. He is two
times
the devil (as a communist atheist and as, nonetheless, a researcher of
certain paths of free spirituality). "L'Osservatore Romano" (the pope's
mouthpiece) has made very ugly remarks about this years Nobel prize
(well,
after Dario Fo nothing worst could have come their way really), which
Saramago has very fittingly retributed in kind and with interests.

Saramago is a first generation
intellectual, or, as he likes to put it, was "brought up in a house
without
books". In fact, the house where he was born didn't even had a window.
His
father was a rural worker (he would appear every morning on the central
square
of his village, where laborers were pick up by the landlords). Later he
moved
to the capital and became a police officer. Saramago dropped out of
high-school after two years and learned the art of locksmith. At 18 he
was a
manual worker. Later he became a journalist (and also, occasionally,
translator, editor and draughtsman).

After the coup of April 1974 (that deposed the fascist regime), as in
many
other fascist organs, the workers took control of "Diário de Notícias"
(which was the very officious organ of the late regime) and demanded
changes in
it's editorial line. It was in this context that Saramago, in April
1975,
accepted the post of sub-director. Sure he was a party man. The "DN"
became
very close to the PCP at this time. Some old-timers were sent off by the
workers' plenary. After the right-wing coup of November 25, 1975,
Saramago was, in his turn,
fired and indeed barred from making journalism anywhere. He was forced
to earn a living with
translations (48 books, in all). But then, for him personally, this may
also
have been a blessing in disguise. It was during 1976-7  (he was 55 years
old)
that he operated the interior revolution that turned him into the author
he is
now. We lost the revolution, won a great artist.

Saramago was absolutely no excuses to present for this episode. Leaving
aside
politics (he was a good soldier of the revolution), from a poetic
perspective his
passage through the editorial body of "DN" was quintessentially
saramaguian.
Saramago was and remains proud to have been a pen at the service of the
workers. At
that time, the "DN" was, for once, ruled by it's true makers. Saramago
was the
voice of the typographers, of the printers, of the sellers on the
streets. He was
the servant of that cry on the streets of Lisbon, the voice of the
people. No excuses for that.

After the Nobel, Saramago was invited to visit the installations of the
"DN" (which is now
a very mainstream organ of the "serious press"). Someone asked him to
leave a message
on a computer. He wrote:

"Search the truth".


João Paulo Monteiro










More information about the Marxism mailing list