Books: Cultural Amnesia — José Saramago |
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José Saramago (b. 1922) is a Portuguese writer who won the Nobel Prize, whereas Fernando Pessoa was a Portuguese writer who didn’t. Since Pessoa was without question the outstanding literary figure in his language, the anomaly tells you all you need to know about the true value of the prize: but Saramago is not without an importance of his own. His novels present the kind of straightforward allegorical provocations that journalists enjoy treating as problems. In The Stone Raft, Portugal breaks off and puts out to sea, thereby demonstrating its isolation: in The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, the Jesus story is rewritten to give him a sex life, thereby anticipating Martin Scorsese in the challenge to standard religious sensibilities; and in Blindness almost nobody can see what life is really like, thereby supporting the notion that bourgeois society demands blind obedience. The rehashed gospel did most to set a Catholic country by the ear, but the book about mental myopia was really the more outrageous statement in a country waking up from military dictatorship, because Saramago was still proposing what he had always proposed: that liberal democracy wouldn’t be democratic enough, and only communism could give life its full value. This latter conviction on his part should be kept in mind when reading his notebooks. Written in his idyllic retirement on the island of Lanzarote in the Canaries, the Cadernos give us a beguiling account of how a literary giant handles his life. But the enchantment ought to carry a health warning. Saramago joined the Communist Party in 1969. The Party had been banned under the military dictatorship, which no doubt seemed a good reason for joining it once the regime had melted away, but to join up in the year after the Soviet Union had stamped on Dubcek took a brass neck on Saramago’s part. There is no reason to think, however, that Saramago has ever especially admired the coercion exercised by all Communist regimes, without exception, against the common people they claim to champion. He just seems never to have heard of it. What he has heard of is the inadequacy of democracy. His Nobel Prize in 1998 might have been awarded for his proven inability to advance his position by so much as a nuance. In Le Monde Diplomatique for August 2004 he published an article pointing out that no ruling party elected by the people ever truly represents them. The possibility that an unelected ruling party would represent them even less he left unexamined. “I am not against parties (I am a militant member of a political party)... .” Yes, but that party is against parties, isn’t it? One could go on: almost everything he so confidently states to be true would be thought to need less absurdly guileless language even by those who share his views. Politically, Saramago is a writer whose fluent readiness to explain the world is unimpeded by the embarrassing fact that he has somehow managed never to hear the real news. A functioning democracy represents the people mainly by ensuring that no one group can maintain its power over them without being subject to displacement at their whim. Saramago’s impressive reluctance to consider this principle is perhaps evidence that a military dictatorship is a bad place in which to get an education in the politics of either wing, but there are plenty of Portuguese intellectuals among Saramago’s contemporaries who would say that the native land of Pessoa didn’t cease producing intelligent people just because the thugs were in charge. With Saramago, as with so many other writers and intellectuals of his stamp, we should be careful about attributing a deep seriousness to inflexible error. To be reasonable is not to be frivolous: it’s the very opposite. Saramago the Nobel laureate, however, deserves credit for making sure, especially in his highly readable notebooks, that the reader never loses sight of the turbulence where culture and politics meet.

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I am a Eurosceptic who learned his scepticism from a professor called Europe.

AT THE TIME he wrote this, Saramago was a distinguished old man snugly busy with his notebooks (cadernos in Portuguese, cuadernos in Spanish) on Lanzarote, his volcanic island in the Canaries. He was only a few years short of winning the Nobel Prize in literature for Portugal. No doubt it was Portugal’s turn: by the same standard, Fernando Pessoa should have won it six times, once for each of his multiple personalities. But some of us who enjoy Saramago’s expository prose found it hard to suppress a snort of derision at the general agreement by the international culture-page press that the prize committee, in paying its respects to literature, was justified in tacitly conceding that his political stance might have had something to it. It was a false equation: Saramago is a charming diarist, but his political stance has nothing to it beyond a formidable inbuilt capacity to gloss over its own consequences. Europe might have taught him Euroscepticism. There was a whole ruined world that should have taught him to be sceptical about communism. He never got the point. As a diehard believer who had refused to give up his faith even in the face of limitless evidence that it was a pack of lies whose first victims were the people it claimed to benefit, Saramago was reminiscent of Pablo Neruda and Nicolás Guillén: he had to be taken seriously because there was no other way to take him.

Beyond the ludicrous, the scale of the preposterous starts coming back in the other direction, so that we return to the point where a mind can be granted a kind of dignity for its persistence in folly. (This was the defence that was often made for the Scottish nationalist poet Hugh MacDiarmid, who joined the Communist Party after the repression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, at the precise moment when everyone else was leaving: you can’t deny that he stuck to his principles.) Neruda and Guillén can both be given points for sticking with communism if you concede that democracy might never be capable of bringing justice to Latin America: and there will probably continue to be dark moments when we want to concede that. But as in the case of Africa, these are moments of despair on our part, and by succumbing to them we grossly patronize the people on the spot, for whom a drastic solution will be no relief at all for their suffering, and will almost certainly intensify it. Similarly, Saramago’s long intransigence was a measure of the fix Portugal had got itself into with its tenaciously self-renewing tradition of salon fascism, a tradition that was by no means extinguished by the retirement of Salazar in 1968. When democracy finally arrived in 1974, Saramago didn’t trust it.

Saramago had good reason to suspect that justice would never come by reasonable means. But when it finally showed signs of doing so, he did nothing in his discursive writings to justify his position in the only way it could have been justified. He could have said that without the critique mounted from people like him who had been driven by exasperation to the far left, the far right would never have been eroded in its confidence. It would have been partly true. But it was wholly untrue to go on claiming that the far left offered an alternative in itself. The price of sticking to such a proposition was to restrict his frame of reference to the size of his own study. There was a world elsewhere in which the common people, all around the planet, had been massacred by the million over the course of decades, and all in the name of the cause he remained proud to represent. None of that taught him anything. It couldn’t because he didn’t want it to. Europe taught him Euroscepticism because he did want it to: because he thought that the idea of a united Europe was a stratagem for capitalist hegemony. But the people who hatched the idea had more creative aims in mind than that. They wanted an end to violent conflict. The people who hatched the ideas at the base of Saramago’s declared faith never wanted anything of the kind. For any deliberately withdrawn writer who would like to be encouraged in his isolation, Saramago’s journals make pleasant reading, but if you compare them to the journals of, say, Gombrowicz, the difference comes howling out of the page. When Gombrowicz ignores the world, he knows what the world is. Saramago doesn’t want to know. It wouldn’t matter if he were just a creative writer. But he wants to be taken as a political philosopher. It is a pose about which we are entitled to be sceptical, having learned our scepticism from a professor called history.