José Saramago: memorial to a centennial Nobel

I started knowing the work of Joseph Saramago before the author, and in that work I entered through the main door that was called convent memoriala novel that definitively consolidated a personal way of formulating and literarily structuring the writer’s gaze about reality, although that peculiar way – which, as the author would declare on more than one occasion, forces the narrative text to be read like a musical score – had already been seen in the stories of Quase Object (almost an object).

In convent memorialas in most of Saramago’s novels, we find –in juxtaposition, conjunction and definitive fusion– a critique of power and its mechanisms of domination (focused here on the court of D João V), a love story with a female character central –here, Blimunda–, and a general ideological and political reflection, which in this case uses the real story of the successive attempts to build a hot air balloon in order to realize the old human dream of flying to highlight the struggle between two ways of basing knowledge, which does so based on the indisputable power of auctoritas and the one that affirms the superiority of reason and experience.

Led by Blimunda, I returned to my previous work – stories, chronicles, poetry, theatre, an unclassifiable book that always interested me (the year of 1993), the novels Manual of Painting and Calligraphy Y lifted off the groundand the Trip to Portugalwhich brought me back to the path that Saramago would trace, especially in the territory of the novel, with works such as The year of the death of Ricardo Reis, the stone raft, History of the siege of Lisbon, The Gospel according to Jesus Christ, essay on blindness, All the names either The cavernamong other.

lifted off the ground meant the overcoming of a long period of silence and maturation, and also the beginning of a path of literary production and progressive national and international recognition that would remain until his death: it is a novel-saga about the peasant world of the Alentejo that, due to its structure, we could link to The Maias of Eça de Queirós.

On the indicated path, The Gospel according to Jesus Christ It would be a fundamental station for the definitive consolidation of Saramago as an international cultural and literary reference, with the help of the controversy created from the trenches of the Catholic Church that would lead first to the veto of the government of Cavaco Silva to the award of the European Literary Prize and later to the self-exile of the author in Lanzarote with River Pillarhis wife, translator and director of the Saramago Foundation.

‘Raised from the ground’ marked the overcoming of a long time of silence and the beginning of a path of world recognition

The heterodox and “human” vision of the Gospel, which Saramago claimed to be a personal “settling of accounts with God”, must be linked to the critical and “human” rereading of the Bible through the recreation of some of its most significant passages and protagonists that we find in Cain, where the fratricide is redeemed from his crime, shifting the blame to the contempt that God had shown him and that would have led him to the fatal confrontation with Abel.

If the publication of the stone raft was a timely and necessary work for Portugal and Europe due to the historical moment in which the book appeared, equally timely was the publication of The year of the death of Ricardo Reiscoinciding with the definitive universalization of the work of person from the celebrations, publications and translations related to the centenary of his birth and the fiftieth anniversary of his death.

This time, the protagonist would be one of the heteronyms of Fernando Pessoa, the one who had assumed the entire translation of the classical lyrics for the definitive work of Supra-Camões, now back in Portugal, after having been exiled for his monarchical ideas, and retired in a Lisbon hotel where he is going to coincide with Lidia, the protagonist of some of his greatest poems (a true tour de force between author, heteronym and character), and all this with the construction of a beautician character confined in his ivory tower that It has as a backdrop the tragic and bloody landscape of the Spanish Civil War, a theme that would reappear in other Saramago novels.

Two works that function partially as communicating vessels would essay on blindness Y essay on lucidity, the first focused on the reality and consequences of an epidemic (physical and mental, individual and social) that had a new interpretation in light of the pandemic that we are still suffering; the second, fictionalizing the “lucid” attitude of some citizens who massively decide to abstain from voting as democrats, increasingly further away from the drift of Western democracies.

An intimate and personal journey

I quote the titles, known to all, because by naming them I return reality to them and they return me to the joyful circumstances of their reading. And I highlight the Trip to Portugalbecause the theme of travel is so present in his work that an attentive critic such as elvira he points to it as a “nodular theme-symbol”.

Saramago’s personal journey starts, as is known, from a rural childhood to which the author has frequently returned, recreating it through the intertwined word of a nostalgic lyricism that does not cover up denunciation and criticism. A rural childhood that would be completed and prolonged in what some have called “lonely urban childhood” in a Lisbon bounded by the limits of Mrs. Albertina’s garden and the small window of her attic room. With an escape route towards more open horizons, the reading of the book that the mother kept as the most precious treasure.

He had a boundless curiosity, a generosity without ostentation and a smile that kept affection at bay by dint of irony and humor.

If others did not exist, there are outlined some of the reasons why I have always felt so close to the Portuguese: the same origins in a parallel and close time and world, a living space without windows or almost, a tendency to travel to that childhood from the borders of dreams, memory and words that they were adorning us throughout life with the clothes of the lost paradise, and the passion for reading.

Hence my surprise and my joy when, from the work, I had the great fortune to be able to approach the man and share with him (always in the friendly and discreet company of Pilar del Río), some moments –in Amherst, in Lisbon, in Toledo, in Menorca, in Mallorca– that allowed me to draw him intimately with the features that are imposed on me right now against the immediate background of his imposing physical presence: a boundless curiosity -I was going to say childish- translated into questions that generated more questions, a vitality and a dynamism oriented in all directions and moved by the force of that same insatiable curiosity, a generosity without ostentation of which I can personally give good faith, a smile that he kept affection at bay by dint of irony and humor (the latter he came to deny me in public, without convincing me), a constant and preferential concern for social, political and economic problems and their effects on the “humiliated and offended”, that led to personal reflection out loud to immediately lead to dialogue and controversy.

I spoke before about the stories (“fantastic” their author once called them), and I return to them to close this brief evocation dubbed as a tribute. Quase Object (almost an object) opens with a quote from The Holy Family of Marx Y engels: “If man is conditioned by circumstances, it is necessary to condition circumstances humanely.” A quote to which the author ironically referred in these terms: “I speak against myself: the best thing that books sometimes have are the epigraphs that serve as credentials and navigation charts. almost an objectfor example, it would be perfect if it only enclosed the page that bears the quote from Marx and Engels”.

An appointment that, however, can summarize the vital and artistic trajectory of the one who, due to an administrative error, we would end up knowing as José Saramago and who could well appear as guiding motto of a moral, ethical and political renewal so necessary in these times in which a new ghost, very much alive and recognizable and active and destructive, runs through the world: the ghost of involution.

Perfecto Cuadrado is a professor of Galician and Portuguese Philologies.

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José Saramago: memorial to a centennial Nobel