An Ignoble Nobel

Portolani Books, Volume 1: Anthology

On July 15  2007, the 'Diário de Notícias',  Lisbon, published an interview with José Saramago in which he expressed his conviction that Portugal would be integrated into Spain and the new country would be called Iberia.  In view of the writer's national prominence as its only Nobel literature  prizewinner this announcement has been greeted with astonishment and widespread  repudiation


 An Ignoble Nobel

José Saramago:  the strange story of a literary humanist*

by Patricia Lança

It would scarcely be worth dissecting his past, and present, were it not that, even before the Nobel award, Saramago had become something of an icon on the literary Left world-wide  with his works translated into some thirty languages and over 600,000 copies sold.   Since the prize, this figure must have been far exceeded.   So that with the roughly one million dollars in prize money and soaring royalties, Saramago is now rich indeed.  In his own country he remained top of the best-seller list for weeks on end and his were the most-bought books to be given as  presents during the 1998 Christmas season.   Schools, libraries, streets and even a bridge have been named after him.  Local councils and other institutions in his own country invite the writer to address sessions of ‘literary homage’, while abroad he enjoys similar VIP treatment.  On these occasions and in his numerous television and Press interviews Saramago has little to say about literature: instead he is, in his own peculiar way, remarkably frank about his political views.  Not for him the contortions of a Heidegger.  He is, at least, fairly loyal to his past and continues uncompromising in the present.  Whether his life-style has been altered, ‘bourgeoisified’, by the wealth of recent years we do not know, for this summit of Portuguese letters has been a voluntary exile from his homeland for a number of years and lives some distance away in Lanzarote in the Canary Isles. 

This does not, however, keep him from taking a keen interest in national politics:  he is now on the Portuguese Communist Party list for election to the European Parliament.  Way down on that list, certainly, in an ineligible tenth position, for the communists are unlikely to obtain more than three seats at the very most.  But, explains Saramago, it is not because he wants to be a Euro-deputy that he has accepted nomination. He knows he won’t be elected and would not want to be.  ‘I accepted,’ he declared, ‘as a matter of militancy.’ He will campaign for the Party which wanted his name on their lists to give them much-needed prestige (and perhaps a few votes), and the artist agreed.  We can have no doubt that much as communists denigrated the value of Nobel awards when they went to such as Sakharov or Solzhenitzyn, communist euro-campaigning will make a lot of the Nobel this time round. 

Is he just another useful idiot?
So just who is José Saramago?  Is he just another ‘useful idiot’?  An anguished upper-middle-class intellectual with a conscience whose guilt is as deep as his ignorance of the party machine?  Or is he perhaps like one of those disgraced unpolluted true believers whose first thought after release from years of the Gulag  was to hasten to Party headquarters to renew their cards?   Saramago is none of these. 

He is no fellow-travelling ‘useful idiot’, for he has been a self-confessed card-carrying party militant since 1969, and it wasn’t pleasant to be a communist under the dictatorship, even though its rigour was waning by that year.    He is no upper-middle-class intellectual: as he told his Swedish audience at the prize-giving ceremony, he was born and reared in rural poverty, has little formal education and his early employment was as a welder in a motor workshop.  Nor is he ignorant of the workings of the Party machine as we shall presently see.  And. as we shall also see, he is not one of those unpolluted militants, subjected to disgrace and subsequent rehabilitation, because of some act of human decency.  On the contrary, his standing in the party can be gauged by the words of its leader Carlos Carvalhas. ‘As a member of our party,’ he said, ‘Saramago makes a great contribution to our ideals and to the struggle for social change.’ 

José Saramago, who was born in 1922, first attained national notoriety in the turbulent years following the 1974 military coup which overthrew the Portuguese right-wing dictatorship. Prior to that he had one small novel to his credit, which helped him out of the working class and into jobs on literary journals. But he did not produce another book for many years.   In 1974 with the Communist Party and its armed forces allies prominent in the government, and the Press taken over, Saramago was named Editor of the Lisbon Diário de Notícias, the country’s leading national daily newspaper.  There he proceeded to do what communists in most of the country’s institutions were busy at:  summarily purging them of ‘reactionaries’.  Saramago arbitrarily dismissed many of the paper’s staff, journalists of long-standing whose only crime was that of not aligning themselves with the country’s new masters.  These people, many with families to support, were consigned to unemployment, for nowhere else in the Press was there room at that time for the politically incorrect.  The DN became one of the CP’s chief sounding boards, a Portuguese Pravda, supporting and publicizing the Party line at home and abroad.  Not as narrow as Pravda,  of course, for in that confused year-and-a-half  of the Portuguese revolution some space was given to the antics of the less extreme of the ‘loonie Left’ —something a Soviet paper would not have tolerated. Nevertheless Saramago’s DN enthusiastically promoted the land occupations which helped to destroy Portuguese agriculture, the wholesale nationalization of the economy which brought it to ruins and the disastrous kind of decolonization  whose fruits are so apparent in present-day Angola

Saramago’s career at the DN was a short one—it lasted nineteen months—as short as that of the communists in government, for they suffered an ambiguous defeat when more moderate Leftists gained power in November 1975.  After that he dedicated himself to his budding career as a novelist.  He did not, however, abandon his militancy and for a decade and a half thereafter was to be seen regularly on the campus of Lisbon’s classical university, especially on a Saturday morning, plying  the Party Press  to unwary students.  What he was doing less publicly among the Party’s intellectuals only they know. Wave after wave of disenchanted dissidents left the Party during those years, but Saramago’s name was never among them. His name, however, was always present among the signatories of those regular manifestos, petitions and open letters beloved of semi-skilled intellectuals.  His following  solidified and grew as his literary output increased. As the years went by and memories began to fade most people outside intellectual and university circles had forgotten Saramago’s role in the 1974-75 purges. 

His name really became known outside literary circles with the publication of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, a book condemned by the Catholic Church as blasphemous because of its portrayal of Jesus as the innocent victim of a nasty God whose real purpose was to found a persecutory Church guilty of the inhumanities of the Inquisition.  The book was greeted with glee by Portugal’s powerful anti-clerical lobby and the Socialist Party then in opposition.  It met with hostility from conservatives (centrist Cavaco Silva was  Prime Minister) and an under-secretary of State for culture refused to allow Saramago’s name to go forward for a 1992 European literary prize. A conservative mayor turned Saramago down for a local honour. Prelates and priests denounced the book from the pulpit. 

 Deserved or not, this hostility proved a gift for Saramago and made him a hero of the Left.  Democratic socialists, always eager to attack the Church and recall its not always tacit support for the dictatorship,  promptly forgot the author’s communist affiliations: Saramago became a martyr for anti-clericals, both inside Portugal and abroad.  His name was now made and nobody on either side of the barricades thought of discussing literary merit.  From that moment onwards he began to be mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel.  It was rumoured that his communism was a thing of the past.  So much so that in the immediate aftermath of the Nobel announcement the first comments in the New York Times referred to Saramago as ‘then (in 1975) a committed communist’, but now ‘an outspoken nonconformist who has a soft spot for the common man’; and someone who ‘reflects views that are always inspired by his deep concern for his fellow man.’ 

One of Fidel’s buddies
In interviews, Saramago frequently and simplistically exhibits this concern. Describing his novel Blindness, the tale of how an inexplicable blindness sweeps through society, he said ‘this isn´t a real blindness, it’s a blindness of rationality. We’re rational beings but we don’t behave rationally.  If we did there’d be no starvation in the world.’  All this is, of course, very consoling for the orthodox Left and youthful idealists.  And, if he had been shrewder, Saramago might have stopped just there.

But the Nobel prize went to his head.  To the dismay of many of his admirers Saramago’s mask suddenly dropped.  It happened that not long after the Nobel prize was announced there took place in the north Portuguese city of Oporto a meeting of Ibero-American heads of State, including that well-known defender of the common man, Fidel Castro. The Nobel laureate  could not resist the opportunity of meeting the Cuban caudillo.  A near-hysterical street demonstration of some ten thousand was organized by the communists and addressed by Castro from a balcony.  Saramago stood beside Fidel, each with arms  lovingly around the other’s shoulders.  Castro repeatedly referred to his new friend as ‘a comrade whose views are identical with my own.’  Saramago himself was prolix in his words of praise for the Cuban tyrant.  These were not well received  in the Press and because the scene was shown on TV, everybody heard them.  Apart from the communists, whose share of the electorate is now well below ten percent, and a rump of discredited socialists, the Portuguese do not have a good opinion of Fidel.  Indeed Cubamania has largely died and it is rare to see a Che Guevara T-shirt these days.  But Saramago remains impenitent when the question of his support for Fidel now repeatedly comes up in interviews as well as inconvenient questions about communism. 

In his last interview on television in February, Saramago presented a very different image from the triumphant humanitarian laureate of a few weeks earlier.  Questioned about  political prisoners in Cuba, which he had just visited,  he declared there were none.  ‘Those in prison are counter-revolutionaries,’ he declared without a blush.  Then he counter-attacked.  ‘Why are you always picking on the errors of communism as crimes,’ he declared, ‘why do you never mention the far worse crimes of capitalism.’  All this has been too much, even for some of Saramago’s admirers and Press comments have  become increasingly hostile.  However, now that he is a Euro-candidate he does have the consolation of knowing one constituency to be secure: that of his permanent  patron, the Communist Party.

Has any of this much importance?  After all, Portugal  is a small country nobody knows much about.  Nor does anybody know much about its communist party although it is probably the strongest old-time unrepentant Stalinist party in Europe.  It has been unable to control the Press for years and nowadays its own publications are meagre and it has no theoretical journal worth mentioning.  But Saramago continues to be an icon.  The first official act of the  new Portuguese emissary to Indonesia was to visit the Timorese resistance leader Xanana Gusmão, now released from jail and living in a private residence under surveillance.  She proudly displayed to the TV cameras the two books she had brought as a present: one of them was a book by Saramago.  Soon, it is said, he will be compulsory reading on the secondary school curriculum in Portugal.  Despite hostile comment from more intelligent columnists, he is now consecrated by all of officialdom as the doyen of Portuguese letters, invited to State functions and a visitor at the presidential palace.  Even centrist politicians pay him tribute, considering their attitude to his book on Jesus an unfortunate mistake.  It has now become part of ‘political correctness’ to venerate Saramago and express pride in what he has done for Portugal and the Portuguese language.  It appears that he is particularly beloved in Brazil and words of praise have been coming from former Portuguese Africa.              

To judge by Press reports of his reception outside the Luso world, things are probably even worse there, where scarcely anybody knows who the Nobel prize-winner really is.  But the Saramago phenomenon is not to be dismissed lightly.  There are a number of lessons it has to offer.  First, that the literary judgement of  elderly Swedes is  as little to be trusted nowadays as when their grandfathers  flunked Tolstoy in 1901.   Second, that communism, a decade after its fall, is now quite respectable and not to be held against its adepts.  This means that at least in one way  things are worse than they were before the fall, when the daily publicized testimony of dissidents had made  it  decidedly unrespectable.  Third, that the international news media, so well-informed when it comes to things lubricious, can be remarkably ill-informed on important matters.  Fourth, that there are still a huge number of ‘useful idiots’ around. Indeed there are probably more of them today in consequence of 1968 and its heirs helping to destroy educational standards. Finally, that strange things happening in ‘far-away, unknown countries’ should not be dismissed lightly.  The Luso world of Portugal, Angola and Brazil occupies a sizeable mileage of the Atlantic coastline and is not to be ignored when it comes to strategic considerations. Which, of course, is why Cuban and Russian military advisers are once again appearing in war-torn Angola.  But that is another story which has even less to do with literature than has Saramago.


* Published in The Salisbury Review,  Summer, 1999