Leora Skolkin-Smith: On Jose Saramago’s The Notebook

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This post was originally published in Quarterly Conversation

Leora SkolkinIn September of 2008, at the age of eighty-five, Jose Saramago began to write a blog. His wife, watching him suffer the restlessness and anxiety of advanced age, had suggested to him that he try doing something challenging, as his traveling and own writing were slowing down. Unlike so many writers who viewed the approaching age of the Internet as threatening, Saramago wrote: “Could it be, to put it more clearly, that it’s here (on the Internet) that we most closely resemble one another? Are we more companionable when we write on the Internet? I have no answers. I’m merely asking the questions. And I enjoy writing here now. I don’t know whether it’s more democratic, I only know that I feel just the same as the young man with the wild hair and round-rimmed glasses, in his early twenties, who was asking the large questions. For a blog no doubt.”

Saramago viewed blogging as a new collectivism, egalitarian by its very nature. This kind of sentiment was not unusual for Saramago, as his work comes from a broad range of issues about power, social status, and social organization. “The one from and into which all others flow is the question of power,” he once wrote, “and the theoretical and practical problem we are presented with is identifying who holds it, discovering how they attained it, checking what use they make of it, and by what means and for what end.” The phenomenon of the Internet was, for Saramago, a necessary cleansing of the power structures inherent in print and other media, and reading this collection of essays (most of which are raw, urgent, and fragmentary) it seemed that the Nobel Prize winner wished to be a member of the clamorous cyber population, not a distant, superior observer from the upper ranks and echelons of literature and ideas. For him, blogging was a form of citizenship and a means, perhaps, that might engender a new moral conscience, fostering meaningful (albeit sometimes irrational and strident), global dialogues.

Saramago’s biography gives many indications of his literary and political sensibilities. Born in a small Portuguese village outside of Lisbon in 1922, he lived with his maternal grandparents—landless peasants who raised pigs—and he did his share of rigorous farm duties and errands. In his Nobel Prize lecture, Saramago described his grandfather, Jeronimo, as “the wisest man I ever knew.” He recalled in the same acceptance speech that on warm nights, his grandfather would take him to sleep outside under a fig tree and regale him with “legends, apparitions, and terrors.” It was “an untiring rumor of memories,” Saramago told his audience, “if my grandfather had been a rich landowner and not an illiterate pig breeder, I wouldn’t be the man I am today.” This accords with what Saramago has said elsewhere of his upbringing: “If I could choose my own background—even with the cold of the winters, the heat of the summers, sometimes going hungry—I wouldn’t change a thing.”

When Saramago was two, his parents moved the family to Lisbon. As he told Fernando Eberstadt in an excellent New York Times profile in 2007, continuing “when I showed up, aged seven, for my first day of school in Lisbon, I had to present my identity papers.” It was only then his parents discovered that the last name printed on his birth certificate was not their family name, de Sousa. The village clerk had instead registered the baby as “Saramago,” or “wild radish,” Eberstadt reports. “It was an insulting nickname villagers gave my father,” Saramago explained. “The clerk wrote it perhaps because he was drunk, perhaps as a prank. My father wasn’t very happy, but if that was his son’s official name, well, then, he had to take it, too.”

A military coup overthrew the Portuguese Republic in 1926, when Saramago was only three. His father became a policeman and rose in the ranks to chief of police. “He was not secret police,” Saramago clarifies in his interview for Eberstadt. “He was just a street cop, directing traffic, a profession that many uneducated people chose. It was not very nice for him when I later developed quite different political convictions, but there was never any conflict between us. . . . Neither the father nor the neighbor, both police agents and guardians of public order were conscious that they themselves were lacking in respect for someone who would have to become much older before he could finally tell this sad story. His own story and theirs.”

The Saramagos’ move to Lisbon failed to place the family on a sturdy financial footing, and young Jose—who was already excelling in academics—found that his parents could not pay the tuition to keep him in grammar school. At 13 he was sent to a vocational school to be trained to be a car mechanic, his literary sensibilities nurtured, Saramago tells us in his recollections, by the poems of a man named Ricardo Reis, which he discovered in the school library. Reis was supposedly a doctor living in Brazil, but Saramago soon discovered that “Ricardo Reis” was one of the heteronyms of Fernando Pessoa, Portugal’s great modernist poet.

The social and personal humiliations that Saramago suffered as a child clearly informed his work and the sense of outrage so prevalent in it. This can be seen in The Notebook which, unlike in his fiction, many reviewers noted for its “excesses of indignation.” Saramago’s rebuke to such critics was fierce: “How can one talk of excesses of indignation in a country where it is specifically lacking?” And, because Saramago fervently believed that “excesses of indignation” were urgently necessary to his stagnated society, he continuously ranted against many things in his blog posts: zoos and humankind’s brutality against animals; “the youth of today”; literary agents; American television and media; France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, about whom Saramago writes: “I’ve never thought much of this gentleman”; George W. Bush, whom he attacks for having “expelled truth from the world”; and American politics in general, against which he maintains “we are trying out an infallible whiteness test and this is what we have ascertained—it [American politics] is not merely dirty, it is filthy.” Similarly, Saramago bemoans the fact that Silvio Berlusconi was born in the same Italy as Verdi, and he is virulently critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, as well as the Arab Nations that condone torture, the abuse of women and their civil rights; he rails against American racism, citing the famous incident on the Southern bus involving Rosa Parks as triumphal for all people, white or black. Saramago also fiercely criticizes his own Portuguese Communist Party, of which he was a member since 1969. “The left has no fucking idea of the world it’s living in”, he writes, “Marx was never so right as he is today.” Stridently, Saramago asks today’s “economists to count just how many individuals condemned to wretchedness, to overwork, to demoralization it takes to produce one rich person.”

For some critics, Saramago’s collection of random thoughts and feelings was, as Thomas McGonigle in the Los Angeles Times reported, a disappointing “grab bag” of disconnected rants that we should be advised to avoid, as they do not represent the Nobel prize winner as he really is but rather as a vulnerable being undone by his own puerile emotions. Likewise, the literary critic Harold Bloom deemed that the comparison Saramago made of Israel to Nazi Germany and of the Palestinians to Jews in Auschwitz was “an unforgivable failure of imagination and humanity” on the part of a novelist he considers “second only to Philip Roth” among living writers. “Saramago’s novels are endlessly inventive, endlessly good-natured, endlessly skillful,” Bloom wrote, “but it baffles me why the man can’t grow up politically. In 2007, to be a Portuguese Stalinist means you’re simply not living in the real world.” Though acknowledging the integrity of some of the essays, McGonigle concluded that: “Saramago’s final book, The Notebook—published just two months before his death—does not represent him at his best. Instead, it is an opportunistic selection from the author’s blog . . . and while the author on display in these pages can be attractive and sympathetic, there is a distracting undercurrent that insidiously undermines his authority.” Critics, such as Toby Lichtig, who praised The Notebook seemed to do so by relishing the populist energy of the endeavor. Lichtig writes about Saramago’s voyage onto the “Infinite Internet” in the Times Literary Supplement:

The Nobel Laureate’s unstoppable blog is full of enthusiasm, outrage and energy. Saramago’s enthusiasm is irresistible and his commendations are acute. . . . Although Saramago’s judgment is too often eschewed for the rhetoric of lunatic howls. Far more rewarding are his musings on literature, language, theology. “God,” he writes, in an echo from The Lanzarote Notebooks(as yet unpublished in English), “is the silence of the universe and man is the cry that gives meaning to that silence.”

Lichtig, unlike McGonigle, does concede that “Saramago is no stranger to a well-ordered political manifesto. He has twice in recent years stood as a candidate for the European Parliament. It is easy to mock Saramago in his ire, but two things must be said in his defense. First, there is something invigorating about his ‘refus[al] to accept’ the world as it stands in its inequality. Second, this is a blog, and not a manifesto, and as such it is personal, fragmented, and reactionary. This does, however, prompt a wider question about the ‘book of the blog’ phenomenon, which risks forcing coherence on a body of writing that was never intended to be digested in this way.”

Jose SaramagoHow one reacts to The Notebook will certainly depend on one’s tolerance for the easy passion of the Internet. Each essay is unrelated to the one before and after it; Saramago’s moral indignation is the only constant, and this is, in fact, what ties the collection thematically together. The personal fervor in Saramago’s essays tempts one to dismiss them as the extremes of an imaginative prose writer who simply can’t translate his passionate subjectivity into an objective essay. That is, the kind of essay we are used to reading, measured and well-tempered, consistent, organized, and un-bombastic.

These essays are packed with contradictions in the man and the writer, and, paradoxically, Saramago is surprisingly idealistic about our better natures. Despite his bleak and despairing summation of the current human condition, and for all his dark feelings, he espouses a hierarchy of virtues. His believes that “kindness” should stand in first place of all virtues “because kindness already dispenses justice and charity of ours wins accord and because a fair system of justice already contains sufficient charity within it. Charity is what is left when there is neither kindness nor justice.”

Saramago is also tender and generous when he speaks of his colleagues and friends. Still guilt-ridden and apologetic for not appreciating a certain accomplished woman writer named Augustina Bessa-Luis, having instead, given her a poor review in his first newspaper assignments some forty years ago, he expresses his chagrin in himself, and his shame. “They say that anyone can make a mistake but that wasn’t merely a mistake it was (if you’ll excuse the vulgarity of the word) a complete screw up.” He also sidetracks into essays about Pessoa; Franz Kafka; the violation of women’s rights, including the widespread domestic violence toward women; swine flu; commercial publishers; the earthquake in Abruzzi; the omnipresence in exhibitionism replacing sexuality; and narcissism (which he condemns among with the worst of savage acts). Always, he writes about violence, which seems to him to be the primary expression of our social interaction. His standards are good and evil, and as an atheist he is uncompromising towards values regarding human casualties. Lastly, Saramago’s sensitivity to the issues of gender and his humility on the subject of women in general endears one to think he understood the depths and essentials surrounding literary and societal gender politics in most cultures. “I’m told my strongest characters are women,” Saramago writes in The Notebook, “and I believe that sometimes I consider the women I have described set examples that I myself would like to follow. . . . Sometimes they are no more than examples, sometimes they really don’t exist, but if one thing I am certain: with women like these, we would not have had this chaos in the world, because they would have always remembered what it means to be human.”

The voice in Saramago’s The Notebook, its “lunatic howl,” is so far from the learned and controlled voice of his fiction that one can admire the enormous risk Saramago has taken. Rather than place himself and his words above the collective shout, he let himself become a part of the roar, an equal standing and writing citizen. This is the gift he gives us in these blog essays, his capacity to become one of many, and it was unexpected and unique among his peers, most of whom maintained the superiority of print and other media without acknowledging its exclusivity. In venturing onto the Web, Saramago stands with those he has always rallied behind in this fiction: the outsiders who ultimately comprise most of the world’s silent and powerless populations.

One of the fine things about The Notebook is that prompts a reappraisal of Saramago’s fiction. One then discovers and feels the same humanity working in Saramago’s prose, the same stance of an outraged citizen seeking some sort of justice for those being buried in the world’s crushing exclusivity. Presented as literature—through Saramago’s soaring prose, his rare aesthetic, and especially his uses of allegory—the author’s indignation becomes stirring and radiant: it is what has won him wide acclaim as one of our greatest novelists. The difference between Saramago as a novelist and as a blogger tells us something important about great literature’s ability to send us through profound circles of transformed reality without making us feel undone. Though, as the critic Irving Howe has noted, Saramago’s sensibility in his novels, is “caustic and shrewd” his literary prose is, (paradoxically again) haunted by a pervasive powerlessness meant to represent the experience of life itself. His characters often are submerged helplessly into circumstances, which won’t change no matter what they or others do. The salvation in his prose is not really about political activism but the awareness of the depth of one’s impotence. Again, I found Fernando Eberstadt’s explanation of Saramago’s life and work the most lucid:

From his peasant roots, Saramago acknowledged in many interviews, that he developed a sense of fatalism and a certain pragmatism. . . . Yet coexisting with this flinty skepticism is a taste for the fantastical. The joke implicit in Saramago’s fiction is that he has placed his sober, mistrustful protagonists in a world of magic, where countries detach themselves from the mainland and float out to sea, cities are struck by epidemics of blindness and an 18th-century renegade priest escapes the Inquisition in a flying machine whose means of locomotion is the human will. . . . This folktale sensibility is what differentiates Saramago’s novels from the middle-class, urban mainstream of American and Western European literature. If his literary sensibility seems closer to the absurdism of Soviet-era novelists. it is perhaps because fantasy and allegory are natural outlets for writers raised under political dictatorship.

Over and over again, the principal question, for Saramago, in both his prose and essays, is the same, a question about what constitutes power over people and how they are victims of these social hierarchies. Saramago’s focus is narrowed down onto capitalism per se, and the marketplace, which for him is the central arsenal of domination and power over its citizens. He emphasizes repeatedly that it is impure democracy that is the problem, for democracy as an ideal is the “instrument par excellence of authentic, unitary, and, simple power, global and economic and financial power.” But the marketplace as a power, he says, “is not democratic, having neither the people’s happiness or will in mind, it is not elected by the majority yet it is the sole ruling force in the world.” We are all, for Saramago, libraries because we keep what we read inside us “like the best parts of ourselves”—but now with new means of expression in cyberspace, more of these voices can be heard. As one of these voices, Saramago comes across much like the main his character in his novel, All The Names: a part of rest of the populace lost in the infinite files of the rich and famous, and made to feel erased by the power of a capitalistic social hierarchy. Thereby, Saramago sees the Internet and its Wild West of everymen and everywomen bloggers as offering no less than the prospect of a social revolution.

“We seem to be locked inside Plato’s cave,” Saramago writes in conclusion to The Notebook: “We have jettisoned our responsibility for thought and action. We have turned ourselves into inert beings incapable of the sense of outrage, the refusal to conform, the capacity to protest that were such strong features of our past. . . . I do not think I have ever divided my identity as writer from my conscience as a citizen. ” He spent his life “looking for a childhood he has lost,” he tells us in one essay, he is “merely that quiet and discreet Portuguese man who appeared one day, led by the hand of the person I most love in the world and who since then has been honored with the title of adoptive son of the land and has gone up and din from village to river to village walking along the banks and the ancient footpaths that still retain the memory of the bare feet that walked in spite of all the time so, so much time gone by the old man I am today.” Perhaps Saramago’s “indignation” comes because of his refusal to stop being that boy in some sense—even though he became a man, he is not done growing and seeing as a boy, he seems to be telling us. Or, as the epigram he wrote, for his novel, Blindness states,

If one can see, look

If one can look, observe”

Some years ago, Saramago remarked at the launch of the film, based on Blindness: “Read the epigrams in my novels and you already know the rest. Seeing this one today I’d not know why I had a sudden insight into the urgency of restoring sight and fighting blindness. Can it be because I have just seen these words written on a book in which they are not written? Or is it because in today’s world it has become necessary to fight shadows I don’t know. But if you can see, observe.”

Saramago believed that to live is to feel powerless and to be angry about it, at times, blaming others. But in his novels, a subtle contradiction exists: most of his characters are painfully ineffectual in changing their circumstances, the activism he often participated in and wished for others to demonstrate is replaced in his books where by the need to “look and observe.” Our exit from helplessness and powerlessness and blindness is simply to “see.”

“I have never thought of myself living or dying,” Saramago writes in The Notebook, “they’re the same thing because naturally life is not in this little body. What matters is the way we live and the message we leave behind that is what survives us. That is immortality . . . all the words we speak, all the movements and gestures we make, whether completed or merely sketched can each and every one of them be understood as stray pieces of an unintended autobiography which, however involuntary or perhaps precisely because it is involuntary is no less sincere or truthful than the most detailed account of a life put into writing onto paper. . . . Every man has his own patch of earth to cultivate. What’s important is that he dig deep.”

Saramago dug deep. One can truthfully say that he went further than simply giving the world his ethics and critical viewpoints, his “rants.” He left behind a body of literature that was nothing less than honest and immense. With his death earlier this year, the world stands in need of a writer who can, as he did, go beyond surfaces to make profound literary excavations into the often overlooked depths of our vast human landscapes.


HysteraLeora Skolkin-Smith is the author of the critically-acclaimed novel Hystera. You can learn more about her and her book at our website.

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On December 20, 2013
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