Saramago (reformatted)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Mar 6 14:56:40 MST 2001

[João, something is wrong with your email software settings. Please check
with Les Schaffer to fix. The 'spillover' effect tends to make your posts
difficult to read, something obviously to be avoided in light of their
carefully thought out content.]

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

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

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

Louis Proyect
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