The Marxist Messiah: Jose Saramago
Staunch Communist. Militant atheist. Those two facts alone are enough to raise Portuguese Nobel laureate Jose Saramago to the hardcore heights inhabited by the likes of Hemingway and Rimbaud. Saramago describes himself as a “hormonal Communist,” and, to elaborate the rest of the intoxicating quote:
“I am a hormonal communist – just as there’s a hormone that makes my beard grow every day. I don’t make excuses for what communist regimes have done – the church has done a lot of wrong things, burning people at the stake. But I have the right to keep my ideas. I’ve found nothing better.”
Tough words. Fighting words. And more often than not backed up.
There have been many communist writers in the past, such as Breton and Neruda, but most of them were pulled towards it from a bourgeois vantage-point. Few were as truly part of the peasant class as Saramago. He was born in 1922 to a family of landless peasants in Azinhaga, Portugal. When he was two years old his family moved to Lisbon where his father worked as a policeman. Saramago kept spending his summers in Azinhaga with his grandparents, and he describes his grandfather’s death with the kind of earthly poeticism he used in his novels: “He went into the yard of his house, where there were a few trees, fig trees, olive trees. And he went one by one, embracing the trees and crying, saying good-bye to them because he knew he would not return. To see this, to live this, if that doesn’t mark you for the rest of your life, you have no feeling.”
His humble upbringing left Saramago with a lot of feeling. A lot. After he graduated from vocational school he went to work as a mechanic, then a translator and journalist, all during Portugal’s dark Salazar years. After the democratic revolution of 1974 he became a lifelong member of the Portuguese Communist party.
As is often the case with genuine communists, Saramago was a genuine atheist. As such he has written one of the most laudable treatise on the life of Jesus: The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. A novel written from Jesus’ point of view where, the man is not the son of god, but just a man on a mission. It is a psychological essay into what it’s like to be the saviour of man. And it is heathenishly funny. It is replete with a unique brand of atheistic humour:
“God does not forgive the sins He makes us commit.”
“Whether in peace or in war, man generally speaking is the best thing that ever happened to the gods.”
“…Jesus slowly turned to look at her and said, I have never been with a woman. Mary held his hands, This is how everyone has to begin, men who have never known a woman, women who have never known a man, until the day comes for the one who knows to teach the one who does not.”
It is little wonder that when it was published in 1991 the conservative, perpetually Catholic government of Portugal withdrew it from a European prize it had been nominated for. And this led to one of Saramago’s most poignant life choices, what makes him truly hardcore: he left his home country and sequestered himself in self-imposed exile on the dusty Spanish island of Lanzarote.
When we hear the name Lanzarote we often think of hordes of tattooed, lobstered, nasal British tourists out on the piss in a sunny Spanish paradise. But Saramago lived in a remote part of the remote island; he didn’t go there for sun and sand. Here is how he described his move there, in typically pragmatic style (from an interview he gave to the Paris Review):
“I adapted easily. I believe myself to be the type of person who does not complicate his life. I have always lived my life without dramatizing things, whether the good things that have happened to me or the bad. I simply live those moments. Of course, if I feel sorrow, I feel it, but I do not . . . Let me say it another way: I do not look for ways of being interesting.”
The rich, celebrated, soon-to-be Nobel prize winner, still lived and talked like a peasant-boy from Azinhaga. He refused the trappings of celebrity, lived on his own self-appointed mandate, rarely gave interviews or partook in the ecosystem of public life and lived happily with his beautiful, young Spanish wife.
From Lanzarote he began to write less Portugal-centred novels. From there he wrote masterpieces that dealt, realistically, with grandiose what-if scenarios. Like, what if an entire city suddenly went blind? (Blindness) What if death were suddenly banned? (Death Without Intervals) Or what if the Iberian peninsula were suddenly separated from mainland Europe? (The Stone Raft). These are all intelligent, funny, satires on the state of civilization as seen from the eyes of a man who knows life’s true values, is frightened by consumerist decay and warmongering, a man still thinking of his impoverished grandfather saying goodbye to his trees.
And they are novels written in a style that revolutionised literature much as Hemingway’s iceberg theory. Saramago wrote his novels without punctuation, with very little punctuation, no speech marks; they feel like a hymn being sung in free- verse. And when I say he revolutionised literature I am of course lying. Revolutions create copycats. Saramago’s revolution was a one-off. No one could write like him, before or since. It is an inimitable style that we will never again see. A revolution of one that leaves us feeling that little bit envious and emasculated.
It is writing that takes getting used to. But, in typical Saramago fashion, it strips down all the pretences of fiction, all its embellishments and falsities, and returns to it its natural flow, its streaming consciousness, and if you slow down enough you will be rewarded with great, kindly, empathetic humanity and surprising beauty. James Wood, the greatest literary critic of our time, had this to say about Saramago’s style:
“Some of the more significant writing of the past thirty years has taken delight in the long, lawless sentence—think of Thomas Bernhard, Bohumil Hrabal, W. G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño—but no one sounds quite like Saramago. He has an ability to seem wise and ignorant at the same time, as if he were not really narrating the stories he narrates. Often, he uses what could be called unidentified free indirect style—his fictions sound as if they were being told not by an author but by, say, a group of wise and somewhat garrulous old men, sitting down by the harbor in Lisbon, having a smoke, one of whom is the writer himself. This community is fond of truisms, proverbs, clichés. “It is said that one cannot have everything in life,” the narrator of “Death with Interruptions” tells us, and he adds, “That’s how life is, what it gives with one hand one day, it takes away with the other.”
And this all from a man who did not find success until he was sixty years old with the publication of his fourth novel Baltasar and Bilmunda. A man who left it late, to say the least, who won the Nobel Prize based on the writings of the last twenty years of his life, who wrote with surprising youth and evergreen vigour. Saramago never was one of the Angry Young Men of letters. He is the triumphant Angry Pensioner, who trumpets communism and atheism and still manages to be the first Portuguese writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, ever and still unsurpassed at home. He may not be the hard-drinking, hard-living hardcore writer we traditionally think of, but no one can light a candle to his stubborn sincerity, his clarity of voice, his daring exile and determination to harmonise living with principles, living proof that a working-class boy can become a great man and still live true to his roots, without ever selling out. And no one is more genuine, honest and sincere about writing as Saramago, for whom writing is just another form of labour:
“In the end, I am quite normal. I don’t have odd habits. I don’t dramatize. Above all, I do not romanticize the act of writing. I don’t talk about the anguish I suffer in creating. I do not have a fear of the blank page, writer’s block, all those things that we hear about writers. I don’t have any of those problems, but I do have problems just like any other person doing any other type of work. Sometimes things do not come out as I want them to, or they don’t come out at all. When things do not come out as well as I would have liked, I have to resign myself to accepting them as they are.”
Outspoken. Controversial. Mysterious. Utterly sincere. Wildly imaginative. These are adjectives non-writers would use to describe Saramago, and they are noble adjectives, hard-won, that do justice to literature and to writers; Saramago has helped to de-mystify literature, to make it public, honest, hard-working and revolutionary. Obregado, Maestro!
“If I could repeat my childhood, I would repeat it exactly as it was, with the poverty, the cold, little food, with the flies and pigs, all that.” – Jose Saramago