A Writer's Progress: An Interview with Nobel Prize-Winning Portuguese Novelist José Saramago

By Anna Klobucka

Jose SaramagoJosé Saramago was born on November 16, 1922, the child of landless peasants in Azinhaga, Portugal, a small village northeast of Lisbon. His name would have been the same as his father`s — José de Sousa — had not the registrar, on his own initiative, added the Sousa family nickname: Saramago, the name of a wild plant that poor people often harvested for food. This kind of historical accident, with its rich symbolic resonance, frequently anchors Saramago`s own complex narratives. In his 1989 novel The History of the Siege of Lisbon, for example, a humble proofreader rewrites both Portugal`s national past and the story of his own life by willfully inserting a single word into a historical work he is editing. Multi-layered entanglements of fact and fiction, the weaving together of individual and collective perspectives, and a distinctive narrative voice adroit in conjuring both ironic de-tachment and emotional pathos: these are the hallmarks of the novels of José Saramago, the first Portuguese-language writer to be awarded, in 1998, the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Saramago`s long journey toward literary accomplishment and fame was anything but straightforward. Although he debuted as a novelist at an early age — his Terra do Pecado [Land of Sin] was published in 1947 — he then abandoned for nearly thirty years the genre that was to bring him worldwide recognition. When in 1976 Saramago published his second novel, Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, it was subtitled "ensaio de romance," a label that can be translated as both "novel-essay" and "rehearsal for a novel." The latter meaning points to Saramago`s notion of writing as an apprenticeship, a laborious process that must be faced with patience and humility.

Although both Saramago and his critics emphasize the formative importance and independent value of his earlier works, for a majority of his readers it was his 1982 historical novel Baltasar and Blimunda (entitled Memorial do Convento in Portuguese) that brought him critical acclaim and a wide readership. It is still perhaps the most widely read and studied of Saramago`s novels. It was adapted for the stage by the Italian composer Azio Corghi as the opera Blimunda, which premiered in Milan in 1990. Saramago`s unorthodox exploration of historical scenarios, begun with his revisitation of the Portuguese eighteenth century in Baltasar and Blimunda, continued throughout the 1980s and beyond, from the 1930s Portugal of Salazar`s dictatorship in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1984) to ancient Galilee in The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991).

The official reaction to The Gospel — the Portuguese government vetoed its presentation for the European Literary Prize, claiming that it was offensive to Catholics — prompted Saramago and his wife, journalist Pilar del Río, to move to the Spanish island of Lanzarote in the Canaries, where they continue to reside. The 1990s also marked a change in Saramago`s work: his novels Blindness (1995), All the Names (1997), and A Caverna [The Cave] (published in late 2000 and not yet available in English) are darkly philosophical parables that are peopled by frequently nameless characters and that unfold in an undefined but dystopian time and space. Their bleakness, however, is never absolute. They share with Saramago`s earlier works an underlying affirmative belief in the dynamic, transformative potential of individual human activity, even as they also suggest an increasingly pessimistic vision of the future of the human race.

An unapologetic leftist and to this day a card-carrying Communist, Saramago has never shunned political involvement or controversy. For many decades, he staunchly defended the role of literature as public discourse and the responsibility of artists and intellectuals to take action in the public sphere. The scope of his engagement with the many causes that have attracted his interest and support has not diminished with age. For example, he contributed a foreword to Our Word Is Our Weapon by Subconmandante Marcos, leader of the Zapatista National Liberation Front, the peasant movement in Chiapas, Mexico. If anything, Saramago`s visibility as an international spokesperson for what he recently described as "the simple imperative of equal justice for all" has only increased in the years since his Nobel Prize.

Anna Klobucka is Associate Professor of Portuguese at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Last year, Klobucka edited Portuguese Literary & Cultural Studies 6: On Saramago (Center for Portuguese Studies and Culture, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, Spring 2001), the only issue of a journal in English devoted entirely to Saramago`s works. She interviewed Saramago by e-mail.

Anna Klobucka: You experienced an explosion of literary creativity, followed by national and international fame, when you were already in your sixties. How do you explain the unusual trajectory of your development as a novelist?

José Saramago: I do not know how to explain it, and I don`t think anyone in a similar situation would be able to find and trace that line that leads, in a person`s life, from nothing to something. When I was about 19 years old, and I was asked what I would like to be in the future, I answered that I would like to be a writer. I did not postpone for long trying to achieve that objective, since I published a novel—Terra do Pecado—when I was just 24 years old. But over the following twenty years or so I wrote little and published nothing. Paradoxically, by the time writing again became a regular activity for me, that old desire to be a writer was no longer so clear in my mind. I kept writing and publishing as a matter of simple habit, with no well-defined project to guide me. By 1974—the year of the revolution that ended nearly fifty years of dictatorship in Portugal—I had published only six books: that already remote and almost forgotten novel, two volumes of poetry, and three collections of newspaper articles and editorials. Two earlier books, Manual of Painting and Calligraphy and Objecto Quase [Almost an Object] were published in 1975.

In late 1975, I was dismissed, for political reasons, from the post of associate director of the newspaper Diário de Notícias, which I had occupied for several months. I told myself then that if I really wanted to be a writer, now was the time to start. A few weeks later I found myself in the rural province of Alentejo, and that experience resulted in the novel Levantado do Chão [Raised from the Ground], published in 1980. I was finally beginning to believe I might have something to say that was worth saying. In 1982, when I was sixty years old, I published Baltasar and Blimunda. I ended up being the writer I had wanted to be, and when I`m asked how I got to this point, the only answer I find is this: "I do not just write, I write what I am." If there is a secret, perhaps that is it.

AK: In October 1998, you became the first Portuguese-language writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Beyond obvious practical consequences, has this distinction affected your identity as a writer or the psychological rhythm of your work, or your relationship with your readers?

JS: I am the same person I was before receiving the Nobel Prize. I work with the same regularity, I have not modified my habits, I have the same friends, and I have not moved away from my course, be it as a writer or as a citizen. The Nobel has not made me a different man, neither for better nor for worse.

AK: Having tried your hand as a writer in several different genres, from the 1980s on you have found your main literary home in the novel. At the same time, you have continued to write plays, from the 1979 A Noite [The Night] to the 1993 In Nomine Dei. You seem to have given up on poetry. How does Saramago the novelist differ from Saramago the playwright, Saramago the poet, and Saramago the essayist?

JS: I am a better writer as a novelist than as a poet, a playwright, or an essayist. But I would not be the novelist that I am (for what it`s worth) without those other identities that also exist in me, however imperfectly. I have said on earlier occasions that in effect I am not a novelist, but rather a failed essayist who started to write novels because he didn`t know how to write essays.

AK: The mainly historical novels you wrote in the 1980s, from Baltasar and Blimunda to The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (published in 1991), form the first grand narrative cycle in your work. Many of your readers perceive a clear dividing line between these narratives and your subsequent works, the three allegorical novels from the 1990s: Blindness, All the Names, and A Caverna. How do you describe the balance of continuity and change in your writing in the last two decades?

JS: The first narrative cycle you mention includes also, as a starting point, Levantado do Chão, the novel in which I articulated for the first time the distinct "narrative voice" that from then on became the hallmark of my work. And in the novels of the second cycle there are clear echoes of my earlier volume of short stories, Objecto Quase. Furthermore, we must not forget my still earlier collections of newspaper columns, Deste Mundo e do Outro [From This World and the Other] (1971) and A Bagagem do Viajante [The Traveler`s Baggage] (1973). In my view, everything I have written in later years is rooted in those texts. As for the definition of the "dividing line" that separates the two novel cycles, I explain it through the metaphor of a statue and a stone: up to and including The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, I was describing statues, insofar as a statue is the external surface of a stone; with Blindness and later novels, I have moved inside the stone, into that space where the stone does not know whether on the outside it is a statue or, for example, a doorsill.

AK: If a person unfamiliar with your writing were to ask you: "I am very eager to read some of your work, where do you recommend that I should start?," what would you advise?

JS: I would recommend—surely against all expectations—Journey to Portugal, a travel book I published in 1981, between Levantado do Chão and Baltasar and Blimunda. The hypothetical reader who accepts this suggestion is likely to appreciate my recommendation.

AK: Some critics of your work have defined you as first and foremost a political moralist. What are the fundamental elements of social and political morality that you subscribe to as a writer, an intellectual and a human being?

JS: In Objecto Quase there is an epigraph from The Holy Family by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: "If the human being is shaped by his circumstances, then it is necessary to shape those circumstances humanely." This contains all the wisdom I needed in order to become what it seems I am considered to be: a "political moralist."

AK: We have heard it said over and over in recent months: since September 11, the world as we knew it has changed forever. Do you agree?

JS: The world had already changed before September 11. The world has been going through a process of change over the last twenty or thirty years. A civilization ends, another one begins. It is not the first time that such a transformation has occurred, but in this case we happen to be its witnesses. Since September 11, however, something has indeed changed in the collective mentality of North Americans, who have lost the conviction that the United States are protected from any cala-mity save of the natural kind. They have discovered the fragility of life, that ominous fragility that the rest of the world either already experienced in the past or is experiencing now with terrible intensity. The have realized (at least I hope they have) their own fundamentalism, the kind that made them indifferent toward what happens in the outside world, that has produced the attitude of insolent haughtiness characteristic of the relationships Americans form with what is alien to them, with others. They have discovered fear. My own fear is that the only result of the material and psychological aggression they have suffered will be a compensatory reinforcement of their familiar insolence and arrogance.

AK: In your work, contemplation of the past coexists with episodes of meditation about the future, in both a utopian and a dystopian mode. How do you imagine, twenty years from now, the new world order (or disorder)?

JS: I am not a prophet. The human being of the future will be different from us. I am not sure at all that he and I would be able to understand each other.

As for the new world order, for the time being it will continue to be an arrangement that is convenient to the United States and imposed by the United States. Tomorrow, the role of the world leader may belong to China, a China once and for all converted to capitalism, as the recent acceleration of steps it has taken in that direction leads one to believe. Then, the United States will once again experience fear.

AK: To conclude, a perhaps unavoidable question: Can you tell us something about your current projects in these early days of 2002, the eightieth year of your life and work?

JS: I am traveling less in order to be able to write more. I select my travel destinations according to their degree of usefulness [to my work]. I will publish the sixth volume of my diary Cadernos de Lanzarote [Lanzarote Notebooks], and I hope that next fall will see the publication of my new novel, O Homem Duplicado [The Duplicated Man]. About the latter, naturally, I will say no more. Except that it has nothing to do with cloning.

©2002 The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Published in Mass Humanities, Spring 2002