José Saramago - 1922-2010Saturday, June 19, 2010
There was a man and a dog too this time. Two beasts; counting Old Ben, the bear and two men, counting Boon Hogganbeck, in whom some of the same blood ran which ran in Sam Fathers, even though Boon's was a plebian strain of it and only Sam and Old Ben and the mongrel Lion were taintless and incorruptible.
The Bear, from William Faulkner's Go Down, Moses, 1940
When I found out that Portuguese writer José Saramago died on Friday I knew that sooner or later I would have to write about him He was a big influence on my reading habits and in many ways changed me for the better. Before I go any further I will include, below, a review I wrote for Duthies’ The New Reader for the fall 1998 issue. I reviewed two Saramago novels, The History of the Siege of Lisbon, which I read in English, and Blindness which I read in Spanish. Some things have changed (for the worse) as we no longer have Mystery Merchant or any Duthie bookstores including the Manhattan. The Manhattan’s re-incarnation as Sophia Books closed recently.
One of the singular pleasures of being a reader in Vancouver is that if you frequent a few good bookstores those therein will know what you read. At the Mystery Merchant I may find an out-of-print Arthur H. Upfield novel set aside for me. At Duthie’s on Robson, James Bryner will inform me of a forthcoming Jerome Charyn release. But it can get even better when I visit the Manhattan Bookstore on the off chance that manager Marc Fournier will tell me “Hay un nuevo Mario Vargas Llosa.”
Thanks to the Manhattan I have been able to pursue my passion for reading my favourite Latin American authors in Spanish. Alas! Spanish isn’t going to help me with the recent rash of interesting books by Portuguese authors in English translations.
Happily we may be in debt to two translators, Gregory Rabassa and Giovanni Pontiero, for the new listings from Portugal. Rabassa’s translation into English of Mário de Carvallho’s A God Strolling in the Cool of the Evening may give this novel, set in a Lusitanian town during the twilight of the Roman Empire, the renown that his translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude garnered for Gabriel García Márquez in North America.
But it is the availability of translations of Portuguese-born José Saramago’s novels by Manchester resident Giovanni Pontiero that has started the buzz that Sarmago is soon to get the Nobel Prize for Literature [indeed awarded a few days before The New Reader went to press, on October 8]. Although new to us in North America, Saramago, is seventy-six, is a literature giant in Europe and South America. One of his novels, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, caused such a stir in Catholic Portugal that Saramago exiled himself to Spain and from there to the tiny volcanic island of Lanzarote [where he died] in the Canaries, where he lives with his wife Pilar [who has translated brilliantly most of Saramago’s novels and nonfiction into Spanish].
In the History of the Siege of Lisbon, an otherwise dull proofreader, Raimundo Silva, impulsively inserts a “not” into a manuscript, resulting in a passage that says that the Crusader, passing through Lisbon on their way to the Holy Land in 1147, did not help the King of Portugal recapture Lisbon from the Saracens. The “mistake” isn’t found until more than a week after the book goes to press.
Of The History of the Siege of Lisbon, Pontiero writes in the afterword,
“As in other novels, Saramago’s paragraph-long sentences, minimally interrupted by punctuation, challenge the reader to follow his continuous stream of thought, thus permitting a stronger sense of interaction and a more diverse interpretation of phrases and clauses. Keen that his reader should move easily back and forth between the present, the recorded and the imagined past, in this novel Saramago also freely shifts between past and present tenses, conveying the impression of the timelessness of the human imagination.”
Paradoxically when I was reading the first chapter, a conversation between two men with no paragraph breaks or punctuation except for commas and one period, I found the dialogue so immediate that I felt I was watching an exciting tennis match from centre court. But Saramago is tender, too. Silva woos and is wooed by the much younger María Sara, who is put in charge of supervising the proofreader by the not-too-happy publisher. Of their first meeting at his house Saramago writes:
He drew her gently towards him without their bodies touching, and slowly leaned forward until his lips touched hers, at first the merest touch, the most delicate contact, and then, after some hesitation, their mouths quickly opened, their sudden kiss total, intense, and eager. María Sara, María Sara, he murmured, not daring to use other words, but she made no reply, perhaps she still did not know how to day Raimundo, for anyone who thinks it is easy to pronounce a name for the first time when you’re in love, is much mistaken.
In The History of the Siege of Lisbon are hints of Saramago’s next novel, as in the description of the muezzin in the besieged city who must wake the faithful to prayer. “Only when a vision a thousand times sharper than nature can provide might be capable of perceiving in the eastern sky the initial difference that separates night from day, did the muezzin awake.” We found out later that he is blind. In Blindness, one by one the inhabitants of Lisbon go blind (they all “see” white instead of the expected darkness). Blindness is a brutally depressing novel in spite of lots of black humour where the blind really do rob the blind. A panicking government herds the sightless citizens into an empty insane asylum that becomes sort of a magic realist Lord of the Flies. As order crumbles little by little, the only inmate who can see, the wife of an ophthalmologist (who himself is one of the first to go blind and ironically the only doctor in the asylum) takes command of the place. Although Blindness does not end on a positive note, Saramago all but takes it away from his protagonists.
Dying has always been a matter of time, said the doctor, But to die just because you’re blind , there can be no worse way of dying. We die of illnesses, accidents, chance events, And now we shall die of blindness, I mean we shall die of blindness and cancer, of blindness and tuberculosis, of blindness and AIDS, of blindness and heart attacks, illnesses may differ from one person to another but what is really killing us is blindness…
Pontiero died on his sixy-fourth birthday, while correcting the proofs of the The History of the Siege of Lisbon. He left behind his finished translation of Blindness. After I finished Blindness, I was unable to read anything for days.
I could have never read Saramago had I not had the desire to photograph and interview Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa in 1992. To prepare myself to my perceived ordeal I had decided to read his total literary output to that year. I found out that Vargas Llosa was difficult to read in English and more so in Spanish. In 1992 I had all but abandoned reading in my native Spanish. Books in Spanish were hard to find in Vancouver. All that traits I mention above about Saramago, his long paragraphs with minimal punctuation were even worse in some of the Vargas Llosa novels. In one, Conversation in the Cathedral his protagonists have several names and nicknames. Only by knowing all of these names can you understand who is talking to whom. And the time changes in Llosa can only be compared to modern flashbacks that you see in film. In the Argentine oscar-winning film The Secret in Their Eyes the only way you can figure out the constant shift from the present to the past is by watching the colour of the male protagonist’s hair (black in the past, gray in the present).
When I eventually met up with Vargas Llosa in his Miraflores home in Lima I asked him about the complexity of his novels. His answer made sense, “I want my readers to participate with me in the creation of the novel.” I asked Vargas Llosa who had influenced him on this tack. His answer was that it was William Faulkner and he particularly mentioned the short story (but not short story, depending in what version you read it as it could be considered a chapter of Go Down Moses ) The Bear.
A few years later I traveled to New York City to interview and photography Jerome Charyn. I asked him who had been his greatest influence. His answer, by now, did not surprise me, “William Faulkner and in particular The Bear.”
Both Charyn and Vargas Llosa helped me get away from the predictably comfortable novel that I would call the “ideal” novel to read at 30,000 feet. They prepared me for the delight of finding it easy to read a complex novel. They prepared me for Saramago. If there is anybody here who might want to try I would recommend that first, one paragraph, chapter of Saramago’s The History of the Siege of Lisbon. It is like a warm-up excercise of calisthenics. Once you polish it off you will be ready for long-distance running.
It was on May 15, 1972 that I received an unintended push (or was it?) into the direction of reading in complexity. Her name was Ana María Ramirez Ponce. She was in my English class at Colgate Palmolive in Mexico City. She was short, very smart, very quick and very efficient. Unfortunately it was many years after before I sat down to read Go Down, Moses and in particular The Bear.
Wherever you might be, Ana María, thank you!
Not all of Saramago's books are complex. I have one of his memoirs in Spanish, Cuadernos de Lanzarote (1993-1995) where he writes about averyday things. He writes about taking walks the island. He writes of the dogs and his dog. He writes about his Spanish wife Pilar and of his trips abroad to book fairs and book reading. But there is one particular entry that is close to my heart. Saramago is in the kitchen and he is troubled by the brilliant white grout of the kitchen floor tiles. It is much too white. "What can I do about this?" he thinks. Then in an accident he spills some tea on the floor and notices the change of the white and gets all excited. You then read how a man in his 70s gets on his hands and knees to change the colour of the tile grout with tea.
Saramago became a novelist very late in life. As I find it next to impossible to secure work in my chosen field of photography I sometimes wake up in the morning with the idea that I should simply quit. But then Saramago wrote inventive avant-garde novels late in his life. Many of them are based on of-the-wall premises that used to be in the territory of science fiction novels that I read in my past. One of them Ensayo sobre la lucidez is about a whole city (Lisbon?) deciding independently (as in citizens) to cast blank ballots during a federal election. What happens subsequently is as excting and as funny as when Portugal and Spain (physically just like a an iceberg from and ice barrier reef) break off from Europe in his The Raft. I tell myself that my best photographs are still not taken. I will not quit. Some of my best work may be ahead.