When I met José Saramago in Lisbon, in the late autumn of 2008, he was frail, but clearly relishing a reprieve. He had just recovered from a near-fatal respiratory illness, and was bemused by his escape, though he refused, as a die-hard atheist, to consider it a miracle. Writing with renewed energy, he was excited about his José Saramago Foundation moving into new premises in the Casa dos Bicos – the 16th-century House of Spikes near the sea – and was about to begin a tour of Brazil.
It seems fitting to pay tribute to him in a blog, since he so enthusiastically took up the form in his 80s. His unflagging drive may have been one of the benefits of late fame: his breakthrough novel, translated as Baltasar and Blimunda, came out only when he was 60, and he spent his earliest working life as a car mechanic. His blogs, published two months ago in book form by Verso as The Notebook, reveal an often sharp, sometimes mischievous, engagement with the world, whether skewering George W Bush as a “liar emeritus” or the cruel absurdity of the Gaza blockade.
Like many writers born outside powerful metropolitan centres (Portugal in the 1920s was no longer the world power it had been), from James Joyce to Orhan Pamuk, his writing sought to invent (or remake) Portugal as the centre, insisting on the universality of its inhabitants’ experience. Yet this with an ironic, self-mocking wit. His brilliant novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, which gave form to a pseudonym of the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa in 1930s Lisbon, entailed an imaginative leap, he later wrote, to describe the city beyond the “poor neighbourhoods” he knew as a child. He was happy recalling his family’s peasant origins. There is a touching description in his childhood memoir, Small Memories, of how his grandparents in Azinhaga would take ailing piglets into their warm bed, since the whole family depended on their survival.
Above all, he was a master of speculative fiction, of compassionate, ironic parables, or “what-ifs”. He told me his work was about “the possibility of the impossible”, and that it made a pact with the reader to imagine the development of an idea, however absurd its premise. Yet there was always a grounding in reality. Talking to the Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles about his film adaptation of Saramago’s novel Blindness (starring Julianne Moore), I was struck by a key difference with the author.
For Meirelles, the story about a whole society that goes blind was about the fragility of the veneer of civilisation, and how rapidly it could break down into violent mayhem. For Saramago, the device of mass blindness simply exposed society for what it already is, anatomising the stark workings of power and who controls it. His experience had already laid that bare to him.
He was accused of Stalinism after Portugal’s Carnation revolution of 1974, largely over editorial purges when he was a journalist. But his persistent, “hormonal communism”, he called it – like a beard that keeps growing – was formed in the period of Salazar’s fascist dictatorship with its pervasive secret police, when to be a member of the underground Communist party meant taking huge risks. That did not stop him from finally breaking off his long friendship with Fidel Castro in 2003, for having “cheated my dreams”. His fierce anticlericalism led to frequent quarrels with church dogma. As he told me: “We can’t accept truth coming from other people. We must always be able to question those truths.”
For Saramago, the task of anyone who writes was to “enlarge the world”. He did that not with pomp, but through attention to the lesser characters and smaller lives. One of his last books, The Elephant’s Journey, shortly to be published in the UK (where he had been due to visit in the summer of 2010), was a gentle human comedy spun from the tale of an elephant from Portuguese India bestowed by the Portuguese king as a wedding gift to the Habsburg Archduke Maximilian. Journeying by foot from Lisbon to Vienna, the elephant Solomon, a curiosity to all who meet him, suffers successive human attempts to impose meaning on what eludes their understanding.
Though Saramago had lived partly in Spain – on the Canary island of Lanzarote – since the early 90s, the Lisbon he continued to love was the city of “people who possess little and feel much”. Commenting on its birth as Lisboa when the Moors were defeated in 1147, he wrote:
We recall that blood was shed, first on one side, then the other, and that all sides make up the blood that flows in our veins. We, the inheritors of this city, are the descendants of Christians and Moors, of blacks and Jews, of Indians and Orientals, in short, of all races and creeds considered good, along with those that have been called bad. We shall leave to the ironic peace of their tombs those disturbed minds that not so long ago invented a Day of the Race for the Portuguese, and instead reclaim the magnificent mixing, not only of bloods but above all of cultures, that gave Portugal its foundation and has made it last to this day.
That blog was written when Saramago was 86. Such shafts of sanity and humour will be missed.