José Saramago by Katherine Vaz

The Portuguese novelist, critic, and translator passed away June 18th, 2010. In the summer of 2001, the Nobel laureate sat down with Katherine Vaz for BOMB.

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In 1998, when José Saramago became the first Portuguese-language author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, the city of Lisbon exploded–as one person told me, the buildings seemed to be swaying from people shouting and stomping.

It was a more tranquil moment when I stood next to Saramago at the Newark Museum, contemplating Edward Hopper’s The Sheridan Theatre. For a moment, standing there in silence, we looked like two people in an Edward Hopper painting ourselves. “Astonishing,” I said of the work. “Yes,” said Saramago, “look how he captures it–solitude.”

This moment of shared solitude–a state of being often considered emblematic of the Portuguese psyche–was a lovely gift from the author of Manual of Painting and Calligraphy.

José Saramago (the “J” is pronounced like the English “J,” not the Spanish one) published his first novel, The Land of Sin, in 1947, and there followed a lacuna in his literary output, though he worked as a journalist, critic, and translator. In 1980, Risen from the Ground won the City of Lisbon Prize, but it was Baltasar and Blimunda (1982) that won him international acclaim. There followed The Year of the Death of Ricardo ReisThe Stone Raft, and The History of the Siege of Lisbon.

In 1991, the Portuguese government, bowing to pressure from the Catholic Church, blocked the nomination of his controversial The Gospel According to Jesus Christ for Europe’s Ariosto competition. Saramago, born in 1922 and a witness to the Salazar era, picked up and moved to Lanzarote, where he now lives with his wife, Pilar del Rio.

Recent works such as BlindnessAll the Names, and La Caverna delineate worlds that are bureaucratic or drained of compassion. His work can be vehement and nightmarish, but also celebratory of the powers of love. The torrential rainstorm at the end of the relentless dance macabre of Blindness is one of the most moving scenes in literature.

Saramago was in Newark to speak in the Daniel and Elvira Rodrigues lecture series at the Rutgers-Newark State University. We sat down in the house of my good friend, Linda Rodrigues, the daughter of the late Daniel and Elvira. There are white stone lions in front of her old red brick house and the original ice house remains, across the street. Linda’s dog, Pavlova raced around while her sister and brother-in-law made chocolate chip cookies. After the interview, Saramago, exhausted, was pleased to accept a gift of them.


Katherine Vaz You once said that after winning the Nobel, all the traveling and appearances made you feel like Miss America. Is that still true?

José Saramago No, no, I’d never be Miss America. I said it was as if I was Miss Universe. Because America is not yet the universe!

KV I’d like to address your passion for writing about people who are often invisible or unrecognized. You’ve mentioned that even when Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel are discussed, the name of the assistant who ground the paints is left out. In Baltasar and Blimunda, when you talk about the building of the gigantic monastery in Mafra, you call the reader’s attention to the silversmiths, lace-makers, clock-makers, carpenters. I think of them as the people whose blood is left hiding in the stones.

JS My intention is to not leave people who come into this world in the dark. Obviously we can’t give voice to everyone, but our culture demands that we speak only of things of obvious importance, or of those who leave the completed work of art. But often–I could say always–whether it’s a painter, writer, sculptor or musician, there are others who leave traces within any given work. You bring up Michelangelo; there had to be an apprentice who was moving the cans of paint or producing landscapes off in the atelier. Then the master came in, painted, retouched his assistant’s work, and signed his name.

KV You’ve emphasized a certain obligation toward those people and their names. For me, the most striking illustration is in Baltasar and Blimunda, when the men transport the enormous stone required to make the door of the monastery. The action continues for many pages, forcing us to be there with the men as they struggle to get the stone slab past trees and around corners. Some oxen are killed by it, and Francisco Marques’s legs are severed. This happens while he’s thinking of how much he wants to go home and make love with his wife. We’re asked to see his life and blood and desire to love literally sacrificed for King Dom João V’s arrogant request to have this door.

JS Yes, yes, Francisco Marques is fictional, he never actually existed, but I mean for him to demonstrate that complete death is the absence of remembrance. Most people will never have any record left except a bureaucratic one. What do you call it here? A “vital statistic,” nothing else. In Baltasar and Blimunda, when I present Francisco Marques or list those twenty or so names by letter–A, B, C, D, to Z–I want those fictional characters to represent all those human beings who never get mentioned. My point is to stop them from being ignored people. I write them down on the page because that’s my best means of conveying this notion; I write books. Francisco and the rest of them are there to shed light, to tear away the remaining shadow that covers the majority of humanity.

KV Where does it come from, your need to do this?

JS If I’d been born into a rich family and had had an easy life, this probably would not be an important issue for me. But since I come from poor people, a family from the working class, I consider this type of justice to be necessary.

KV I’m reminded of your speech yesterday, when you mentioned your brother who died at the age of four. You called him the co-author of All the Names. Can you explain that a little more?

JS I can’t pinpoint what stage of creation I was in, but I decided to write an autobiography–an unusual one that would cover only my first 14 years. But addressing my childhood was going to be difficult, because I had to include my brother, who was two years older and died when I was only two. I did not know the exact date of his death. I had some information about his dying of bronco-pneumonia in 1924, four or five months after my parents moved to Lisbon, and I set out to put together the facts. I requested his birth certificate from our native town (Azinhaga, in the central Ribatejo section of Portugal), and what I received went against everything I had known: it showed that my brother was alive. No date of death was written down.

I then asked for a death certificate from the hospital (Instituto Câmara Pestana) where my parents had told me that he died, and the answer came back that he’d never been there. No trace existed. But they did send me some papers showing that I myself had been a patient for four days! So I had my temperature charts. If it mattered to a biographer, he could say that on such and such a day, José Saramago ran a temperature of 38.5. At least the hospital wasn’t saying that I had died there.

After researching the eight cemeteries of Lisbon and the archives in Lisbon’s City Hall, the truth fell into place: the date of death (December 22, 1924) and the date of burial (two days later in the Cemetery of Benfica). And in fact he really had died in that hospital. But those original, central records had blank spaces. My brother was born in 1920 and today would be 80 years old. If I keep quiet, if I fail to inform the Department of Vital Statistics about their error, then two hundred years from now, some scrupulous employee will say, “Somewhere out there is an old man named Francisco who’s 240 years old! It must be a miracle!”

Tomorrow, if I request another copy of my brother’s birth certificate, it will still be issued missing the date of death. I think I’ll leave him the way he is–alive.

KV So your brother is a presence in All the Names? The main character, José, a clerical worker, becomes obsessed with tracing the life of the nameless woman whose record falls by accident into his hands.

JS My brother’s story didn’t make it into my book, but it had a direct connection to the one I told, about people’s names and the atmosphere of a central registry and the dead’s place among the living. That’s why I consider him a coauthor.

KV José eventually becomes consumed with finding out why this unknown woman committed suicide. He breaks in to spend the night at the school that she attended, where she later taught math; he speaks to her parents, her neighbors. He goes to her former residence. But no one can help him get to her essential mystery. Likewise, when the dead poet Fernando Pessoa visits his heteronym, Ricardo Reis, whom you present as a living character in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, he tells him that he can’t really hope to know anything about Lídia and Marcenda. Pessoa remarks, “…the wall that separates the living from one another is no less opaque than the wall that separates the living from the dead.”

JS The “real dead” would never die if we kept on thinking about them. Maybe it comes down to this: what is it that we fear about the dead? Because what we derive from them are the same things we get from the living; we have memory connected to them, we have their work, we have whatever they left behind. If we stopped worrying about the fact that the dead are dead, we could defeat many of the oppositions we construct between the dead and the living, and we could continue life through memory. There’s memory of the past–meaning all that existed, and there’s memory of the future–the things that people have done or not done that end up leaving a mark on the future. However you want to describe it, we have a continuing relationship with past events, with people, beyond divisions of life and death.

Nowadays we’re preoccupied with not recalling the past, with declaring that memory has no importance. The new generations are not interested in what happened to their parents or grandparents: only what matters today and perhaps tomorrow. This is a disease, a mortal illness. People who have amputated themselves from their own memories become a species of zombies. The irony is that we’ve developed this consciousness–or lack thereof–according to our country, attitudes, and language–all things that could only exist through memory! A plant has no memory. We should expect better from sentient beings.

KV In terms of memory and the naming of names, I’m wondering if you’ve seen the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. There’s a scar in the earth, and–

JS That’s pure rhetoric! Pure rhetoric. You can fill the earth with evocative monuments, and for the first few times people see them they make associations; what they observe induces a feeling. But as time passes, our eyes glance indifferently over these things. What remains is the aesthetic value of the piece, but the point is not to have people think that something is a beautiful and evocative artwork; the point is to continue contemplation, toward what’s fundamental. The only authentic place to store memory is in people’s heads.

I don’t wish to be offensive, but it’s a fact that the United States has a particular talent in promoting and feeding historical memories that end up becoming quite superficial, rather than developing a committed, authentic conscience. Maybe I’m wrong. But monuments tend to be in designated areas, apart from where people actually reside, so it becomes easy for us to set any deeper meanings aside from contact with our daily lives, from affecting us in the places we occupy.

I’m also quite skeptical about flags or military music; these are designed to mobilize people. The first flag, in ancient Egypt–what we might consider the precursor of all the world’s flags–was the uterus of a cow hung on top of a stick and elevated. We’re supposed to give a cry of emotion and raise our arms against the enemy–because of that? In my opinion, if people were to look at flags from that perspective, much of the solemnity and patriotic rhetoric would fade out.

KV Can we agree that the world falls apart in small ways, but also in overwhelming, large ones? That’s the sense I get from your descriptions, that everything can come loose from its moorings without warning–the entire Iberian Peninsula in The Stone Raft. Gangs roam inBlindness and The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. In The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, the title character searches for his love, Marcenda, who might be at the shrine of Fátima because of her paralyzed left arm, but instead of going there, he wanders alone through a crowd beseeching God for a miracle. Then he’s enveloped in the madness of fascist Lisbon. In all these scenes of tumult the backdrop of the world often becomes like a rendition of La Guernica.

JS In fiction, the narrative is obviously about individuals, but to do that effectively, to convey the personal situation of one, two, or three people, the author must understand that everything is set in the context of history. We are “subjected,” the subjects of history. One can’t forget what is behind us and what exists now in a world that is fragmented, chaotic, corrupted, and always moving toward the unknown. We appear on this planet, we try to give our actions meaning, but when the sun finally disappears there won’t be anyone left to talk about it. The Divine Comedy and The Brothers Karamazov will be over. Don Quixote will be over, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony will be over, as well as the Seventh and the Sixth and all the others, and therefore we will vanish. Humanity will become an insignificant episode in the universe.

KV In Fernando Pessoa’s “Tobacco Shop,” the narrator reflects that one day both he and the shop’s owner will die. The poet will leave his verses and the tobacconist his signboards, but both will perish–it’s only a matter of time–and so will the street with the shop, the language of the verses, and eventually the planet.

JS Let me add to that perspective: it doesn’t imply that there’s any orderly progression to the end of things. I don’t believe that God exists, but let’s suppose for the sake of argument that He does. How can we reasonably think that He devised a universe like this one, one that makes no sense? If He created all those distances, those billions of light-years, why are we confined to this tiny spot? There must have been a time when we populated the whole universe, but because we behaved so badly God cleared us out and put us here; the rest of His creation surpassed us. Pessoa asserts that time will end everything, but I think we ourselves will help time along. I suspect that if there is a God, He is waiting for us to put a final end to our existence. We certainly keep trying to do just that.

KV But haven’t you also implied that we can create dignity and compassion? That we can reclaim history if we respond to what passes as the official word with a “no”? Then we’ve set up an obligation to find another answer, a “yes.” Isn’t there something redemptive or creative there?

JS No, compassion is what would save us, reclaiming history would help us–so why don’t we see much of it? Let me explain myself. Most of us know already that so-called official history is a fiction. Historians write about Portugal, or Spain, or the United States of America, or wherever, by collecting some facts and a certain number of characters–and so they leave out all the rest. Deciding to write a conclusive book about “The Past” is inconceivable, because by definition it’s impossible to include everything. What if I wanted to write a book called Pilar del Rio [Saramago’s wife]? Or your “complete” story? Or mine, or anyone else’s? We pick certain facts, we try to be coherent. And then someone comes along and claims that we’ve written the truth and it gets put on television. Nothing should ever be considered so correct that we could not also reply with a “no” or “perhaps.”

But giving such a radical “no” to every answer would be considered anarchic; it would suggest that everything should be questioned. “No” creates a revolution. Raimundo (The History of the Siege of Lisbon) is curious, he’s doubtful, and he changes the entire history of a city, the lie about it, by inserting one true negative word. The reality is that a “no” often, inevitably, undergoes the process of becoming the norm. And it becomes necessary to fight the subsequent “yes” with another “no.” This isn’t destruction for the sake of destruction; it’s constructive, ongoing discourse. For instance, we’re aware that power can corrupt, that a lack of ethics can overtake the revolutionary who overthrew a power that very much needed a “no” applied to it. Today’s world, unfortunately, is one big “yes,” a self-centered “yes,” the “yes” is everything. There are very few people in today’s world who continue to bring forward the “no.”

KV What role, then, does memory serve in recalling history? In One Hundred Years of Solitude, the disease of forgetfulness infects Macondo. There is a strong undercurrent later about the need to remember in order to defeat forgotten episodes of history. In this case, that means keeping alive the memory of the massacre that occurred during a protest against the United Fruit Company. History may be inexact, but aren’t there things that exist as indisputably true, without equivocation?

JS Well, sure, yes, but the truth there wasn’t recorded, the official local history omitted the incident, that was the point; it was left to the memories of the people to say no, to provide the truth.

There cannot be any writing without memory. Writers are constantly nourished by what they remember–in fact, everyone is. Memory is our deepest actual language. It’s our storehouse of riches, our gold mine or diamond mine, and we need to keep it open, to keep in mind the importance of childhood events that will somehow condition our life and character as adults. What would happen to someone who forgot those experiences? If we have no memory, we are nobody, and nothing is possible.

KV You once said, “Perhaps it is the language that chooses the writers it needs, making use of them so that each might express a tiny part of what it is.”

JS No, I never said that!

KV Okay, okay, forgive me. The narrator of The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis says it. Do you agree with that yourself? Did the Portuguese language choose you? What part of it have you expressed?

JS This is a common situation for writers–I’m not sure I can make sense of those words. We write things, we evaluate them later as good or terrible, we rethink. Maybe we should keep this as a metaphor instead of a rigorous belief: language needed Luís de Camões, Camilo Castelo Branco, Fernando Pessoa, and because it went looking for them, it found them. Or maybe we can say that we don’t see language creating the writer during the precise, living moment of writing, but when we observe the history of literature, our perspective enables us to observe language in its growing expressiveness.

KV Shall we finish by addressing the practical matters concerning those precise, living moments of writing? How do you manage to write while you travel?

JS When I have something to say, I have to create the conditions for writing it, and with the life I am leading, that’s not always easy. I’ve traveled lately to Italy and Germany, to Timor and America, and Pilar and I recently spent a month in Lisbon. But even with all the traveling as a result of the prize in 1998, I do manage to write, although things might take me a little longer. I only write at home. I can’t write in hotels, or at a friend’s house–totally impossible! I’m just incapable of it, nothing comes out, and that’s that. But when a work is outlined, when I have the idea, it becomes an obsession. I wanted La Caverna to be published this year (in Portugal), and fortunately that will happen. My better half would say that my focus and concentration make this possible.

KV Do you still produce two pages faithfully every day that you’re working?

JS For La Caverna, I was writing four pages a day. It’s a matter of mental organization. It may not seem like a lot, but–

KV Four pages a day every day is a lot.

JS It helps that I start out with a fairly clear idea of what I’m going to say, of certain situations. I have a relationship with my writing that is probably uncommon, which I compare to the growth of a tree that’s been planted and grows and grows in a way that seems simultaneously expected and unexpected. It’s expected, because if we’ve just planted an olive tree, we know what the result will be; olive trees are easy to recognize. But there’s a large degree of unpredictability, in that no two olive trees are alike. Similarly, a book takes root and grows with its own logic.

I don’t write 40 pages and go back to transform them into 80; I don’t go back and rewrite 120 and transform them into 200.

I don’t begin with a detailed outline. To predetermine a story too much is to oblige it to exist before it comes into existence. No, all my books begin as books and branch out by being written, and then they come to an end.

KV Without revisions?

JS I perform a final revision, editing out unpleasant repetitions or errors. I go through everything carefully. Now, what I want to say is this: my method is not haphazard. My books give the reader an impression of solidity, of a real structure. But this is not the result of pulling out a rotten passage, calling it weak, and strengthening it. It’s because the book began as itself and I guided it to grow solidly. As the author, I retain control, of course. Sometimes I say that writing a novel is the same as constructing a chair: a person must be able to sit in it, to be balanced on it. If I can produce a great chair, even better. But above all I have to make sure that it has four stable feet. A chair with three feet promises a fatal fall. No three-footed chair will last.

Writing is my job. It’s the work I do, what I build. I don’t believe in inspiration. I don’t even know what that is. What I know is that I have to decide to sit down at my desk, and inspiration isn’t going to push me there. The first condition for writing is sitting–then writing.

KV There’s a great deal of talk about your novels being books with ideas, but I find that very often–despite your claim as a pessimist–they contain beautiful stories about love and compassion.

JS It never happens that when I’m writing a new book I preplan a love story for it. But in the process of narrating something, in dealing with the circumstances, love enters in as a constant human variable. So it’s possible that in the middle of a story love will spring up, but I don’t specifically intend that. It’s different in every book.

KV In The History of the Siege of Lisbon, Raimundo’s love story grows out of his writing a “no” in a book he’s proofreading. He reverses the history of Lisbon, and suddenly his lonely personal life is turned around.

JS And he meets Maria Sara, who finds that “no” so attractive. Sometimes absolute love occurs; for instance, for Baltasar and Blimunda, and that’s a curious case. When I got to the end of writing that novel, I realized that I had composed a love story without any words of love: no “light of my eyes,” “I love you,” “star of my life”–those sorts of things. A reader might imagine that these omissions were deliberate. It wasn’t like that! I was surprised at this myself. And yet readers have found it a moving, passionate love story. It would have interfered with the book and with the integrity of the characters to have gone back and added those plain spoken words as an afterthought.

At this point in our interview, Saramago’s wife Pilar moved to the couch to sit next to him. He reached out to put his arm around her as she lowered her head to his shoulder.]

My books turn out to be unusual in matters of love. In All the Names, Senhor José has the awkward situation of being in love with someone he will never meet. Even in Blindness, in that terrible environment, we have the Doctor and his wife, and the Young Woman with the Dark Glasses and the Old Man. These are love stories out of the ordinary, but I think it’s for a reason. The love is predetermined by the character of the women who enter the picture. The women who come into my stories–it’s all thanks to them. They’re the ones, these women with their capacities and affection, who make everything extraordinary.

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