The Year of the Death of José Saramago

By Wah-Ming Chang

“We mourn the man whom death takes from us, and the loss of his miraculous talent and the grace of his human presence, but only the man do we mourn, for destiny endowed his spirit and creative powers with a mysterious beauty that cannot perish.”
—from The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis

On June 18, 2010, the Portuguese writer José Saramago dies at the age of eighty-seven after a long illness. The cause is multiple organ failure. The government announces two days of mourning, and then, on June 20, after seventeen years of self-imposed exile in the Canary Islands following the controversy of his novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, he finds himself returned to Lisbon with a hero’s welcome. His wife, Pilar del Rio, to whom all his novels are dedicated, is at his side, as well as his daughter, Violante, and Portugal’s Minister of Culture, Gabriela Canavilhas.

The facts, then, then and now: He was the first Portuguese-language writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1998. He was a member of the Portuguese Communist Party. His politics and prose outraged many, the former for condemning Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the latter for unrelenting run-on sentences and long paragraphs, punctuated only by commas and the occasional period to separate ideas, dialogue, and voices (sometimes a smattering of them, but usually two). In his novels, a city goes blind, Jesus Christ has sex with Mary Magdalene, the Inquisition burns brightly as the backdrop for a pair of lovers, the faces of Fernando Pessoa roam Lisbon’s streets, a proofreader takes control of history, Death takes a holiday, a man encounters his identical double, the Iberian Peninsula goes rogue, a city’s sight is restored. Encouraged by family, for one year starting in September 2008 Saramago kept a blog and wrote about his literary heroes, offered scathing political commentaries, and professed his deep love for Lisbon; the posts are in Portuguese, and now they have been translated and published as The Notebook. A new novel, The Elephant’s Journey, translated by one of his longtime colleagues, Margaret Jull Costa, will appear in September later this year from his loyal publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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On October 13, 2007, the Strand Bookstore celebrates its eightieth birthday. A series of author appearances is scheduled for the day. I ignore the schedule, preferring to be surprised, though I am aware of the name of one guest, having met him by chance the week before. As he was in town for only the weekend and was confused by the Strand’s purpose in pairing him up with a writer he was unfamiliar with, I go to the celebration to support him. Three unsettling discoveries impress upon me that day: I lose my sunglasses in the folds of the crowded shelves; I find not the writer I’d met the week before but a bizarre scene of writers scattered throughout the store, each sitting behind a table with his or her books on one end and a bowl of candy on the other, while the customers (the Strand customer, note, tends to be either a die-hard book collector or a wide-eyed tourist) take the candy and peruse the shelves the way the Strand shelves are meant to be perused, always with the intent, that is, to purchase a specific title, not to interact unsupervised with a writer; and lastly, distracted by the way the atmosphere in the store has taken on a surreal edge, I pick up a novel by José Saramago called All the Names.

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After that day I buy all my Saramago books at the Strand.

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Soon after I become obsessed with Saramago, a friend leaves a note at the Strand for me. It is tucked between pages 16 and 17 in Death with Interruptions, and quotes a line on page 17: “‘Nothing is ever perfect, however, for alongside those who laugh, there will always be others who weep, and sometimes, as in the present case, for the self-same reasons.’ I’m right here, kiddo. Weeping and laughing with you. We are serving concurrent sentences.”

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In The History of the Siege of Lisbon, the implacable proofreader describes a proofreading mark, the deleatur: “It reminds me of a snake that changes its mind just as it is about to bite its tail.” This is as apt a description of the Saramago sentence as much as of the mark itself. The twists and turns in his sentences do have a purpose, though it is not always apparent until the end of them is reached, or the end of the paragraph itself. Sometimes a reader is not ready for such sensation from a fantastical voice. Or perhaps the voice—philosophical, anecdotal, predetermined—is not to the reader’s taste. For Saramago and his reader to understand each other, both must contract himself to serving the other. The writer, after all, is not merely meant to seduce the reader into being complicit in his rambles; the reader, too, must be willing to be led by the writer’s Ariadne’s thread, as in All the Names, through a maze of ideas, love, history, profundity both deep and shallow, all toward an ultimate fate, which is to absorb the comedy of life through an enlightening, and sometimes tragic, adventure. We are all unreliable as readers and as narrators. Just as I ask you to trust the scene I described at the Strand’s eightieth-birthday celebration—writers being assigned sterile seatings while readers studiously ignore them—Saramago, the ultimate narrator, asks the reader to trust his unreliable witnesses, namely the characters he watches over with both fatherly affection and exasperation. But a contract is a contract: we are reading not towards the fact of the unreliable narrator but towards the fact of the journey, of discovering how he is transformed from unreliable to reliable.

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Identity, identification, the id. Names, naming, the named. In Baltasar and Blimunda, the narrator describes a heretic: “Who knows what other names he might have assumed, because every man ought to have the right to choose his own name and be able to change it a hundred times daily, for there is nothing in a name.” This puzzlement over names, over naming of the self, is most evident in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. The name Ricardo Reis is a heteronym of the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, who makes an appearance here as a ghost. As written by the character, a doctor and poet returning to Lisbon after a stretch of time in Brazil: “Innumerable people live within us. If I think and feel, I know not who is thinking and feeling, I am only the place where there is thinking and feeling.” The mirroring, as multiplied most effectively by Borges, is further doubled by the haunting by Pessoa of his living, breathing heteronym. So, too, do Saramago’s other characters experience moments of an alternate identity, of somebody other than himself. In their ordinary lives they would never break from routine—except that for the purpose of a story, these men of routine and bachelorhood suddenly decide to set foot on a different road, take the road less traveled, fork onto a divergent reality, and so on, recognizing that the rules as had always been applied to themselves are no more. The proofreader in The History of the Siege of Lisbon turns in a job with a willfully inaccurate correction; the fastidious clerk in All the Names pursues a woman whose identity he’s lifted from his office’s confidential records; the history teacher in The Double stalks and finally confronts the man who looks exactly like him; and Death, perhaps the supreme id, wonders, “How about I take a vacation?” And so on, and so on.

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Saramago’s books always surprise me because I forget their content the moment I turn the page or set the book down. What always stays with me is their rhythm, the rhythm of speech, of oration, of irony, of sentimentality. Some keep their ears open for the bass in music, paying little attention, if at all, to lyrics. This is the same for me when I read a sublime sentence. Its bass, and the resulting bass-heavy paragraph, matters more than what’s happening in the story. Apologies—this is not accurate. Story does matter to me—and if you are patient enough to swim through the Saramago sentence, you will find story in spades—but what matters more is how the author unravels mood, the underlying bass in our atmosphere. No, never mind what matters more, for what is most astonishing and pleasing is when mood and story complement each other syntactically. The run-on sentence by Saramago is a thing of beauty, like the swift plays across the field by the Spanish football team—geometries within geometries, passing the ball back and forth idly or insistently, always expertly and with a goal, so to speak, and most of all with patience and trust. In death now, perhaps Saramago may find that his style—as echoed despairingly by Thomas Bernhard, mournfully by W. G. Sebald, meticulously by David Albahari, and comically by Bohumil Hrabal—can finally attract readers who have been reluctant in the past to take him on. Read everything, he insists to his readers. I would amend this statement to: Read everything by Saramago.

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Comments

1

This post made me fall in love with Saramago, and induced me to go buy Blindness. Thank you for the introduction.

2

This is a love affair: the author “met” José Saramago at a bookstore and fell in love with his books shortly after. Death can’t do them apart.
Beautifully written love stories are infectious. We want this feeling too, and we can only get it by reading his books. Great essay for a great writer.

3

For some inexplicable reason, I remember with clarity the source of every author I discovered and fell in love with. Not books, but authors.  Eric Newby through an obituary in The Economist, Italo Calvino through a chapter in a David Lodge book, W.G.Sebald through TC’s blog, E.B.White in a dusty hard-bound book at the local library, Penelope Fitzgerald at the Waterstone’s bookstore in Brussels, and so on.  I haven’t read Saramago yet, but now I will. And love him or not, I’ll remember how I came upon his world. Thank you for this lovely essay.  

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