The OF Blog: R.I.P. José Saramago

Friday, June 18, 2010

R.I.P. José Saramago

I woke up this morning to the news that Portuguese writer José Saramago had died, at the age of 87.  Throughout the day, whether it be links on forums that I read, Twitter tweets in Portuguese and English about it, or even a news brief in Spanish on Univision during halftime of the England-Algeria match, so much talk has been made about the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature laureate.  Doubtless there are several finer eulogies that have been composed or are being composed right now, but I feel compelled to give a sort of anti-eulogy here, as I suspect Saramago would not have it any other way.

In looking back on a recently-deceased author's oeuvre, it is commonplace for the eulogist to highlight the deceased's best qualities and to downplay those traits that make us uncomfortable.  Doubtless, there are several praising Saramago in vague terms, lauding him for his commitment to social justice and declaiming the virtues of his prose.  What I fear might be lost in this praise is the fact that so often, Saramago's stories and commentaries divided his readership, causing no end of controversies about the subject matters he covered and the treatment that those subjects received in his prose. 

For myself, when I discovered Saramago in 2003, it was a revelatory experience, but it was also a series of challenges to values and traditions that I had held dear.  I remember reading the English translation of a recent book, The Cave (as I had not yet becoming reading proficient in Spanish - or Portuguese, as I am now, more or less) and finding myself lost in his long winding passages, where narrative and dialogue intertwined, creating a sort of mental haze by which Saramago's thoughts on industrialization and the Platonic search for identity penetrated my thoughts closely.  I loved what I read and yet I resisted much of what was being said.  A good story does not need for the Reader to agree with the Author.  If anything, if the Reader and the Author, via the Text, can be in opposition and yet a dialogue could be established, then that story may be of more value to the Reader for the effort expended in wrestling with the Text, trying to sort out the complex emotions generated from that interaction.

Saramago in virtually all of his novels, short fictions, and non-fiction writings has managed to make me struggle to understand his viewpoints, to see the world through the eyes of his protagonists, and to turn that vision inward, to see if what I had considered to be "truth" could in fact be self-deception.  But there were times in which I could not agree with what he was arguing.  In one of his three most famous works, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, I just could not accept what he was doing.  I understood why he had to write that tale and part of me admired him for tackling such a controversial topic with aplomb, but I just could not wrap my mind around some of his arguments; they were too strident, too full of condemnation for the faith that I've held true for most of my life.  But yet even in this rejection of the themes behind some of his fiction, I found great value.  There was a genuine love for people, even despite the pessimistic view he often expressed about how people would manage in a modern society whose values served to dehumanize its denizens.  Even when his anger and frustration were most evident, as in his final novel, Cain, it was obvious that he had not abandoned his fellow human beings.  But he was so bitter then, as if he knew he had little time remaining to attempt to influence others.  It affected that novel, making it perhaps his weakest in twenty years.

But even in this, Saramago still exerted a strong influence on his readers.  Those who immersed themselves in his prose, who delved further into the Text, those were rewarded with vivid images and striking social contrasts to consider.  José Saramago was a social and literary gadfly of the highest order and I cannot help but feel it would be a grave disrespect to his memory and to the person he was if I did not note this element in his literary output and in the person himself.  Gadflies are not universally loved, but the best of them are highly respected and after their last buzzing has been quelled and the last clod of earth thrown over his grave, it would behoove the reader to remember that such people as Saramago are valued not just for their successes, but also for their noble failures.  Even if we may not agree with them very often, the world needs more people like José Saramago in this world to remind us of how powerful of a dream social justice on this planet can be.  He will be dearly missed.

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