19 June 2010
José Saramago died yesterday, aged 87. He was born the same year as my grandmother, and a village registrar in the Ribatejo gave him – according to the Nobel laureate’s autobiography he wrote in 1998 – a start in life worthy of any of his characters:
José de Sousa would have been my own name had not the Registrar, on his own inititiave added the nickname by which my father’s family was known in the village: Saramago. I should add that saramago is a wild herbaceous plant, whose leaves in those times served at need as nourishment for the poor.
Saramago published his first novel at 25, fifteen uncomfortable years into the Salazar dictatorship; returned to fiction in his fifties, after Portugal’s democratic revolution. All The Names: an archive containing records on every inhabitant of a city who had ever lived. The History of the Siege of Lisbon: a proofreader rewrites national myth. Blindness (or An Essay about Blindness, as he’d rather the title had gone): the world loses its sight. Seeing: the voters in an election all hand in blank papers. (The British public nearly pulled that one this year.)
It’s alienating, reading his books in English. How much in the narration comes from him, and how much from his translators, Giovanni Pontiero and Margaret Jull Costa? You hope that he’d appreciate the extra layer of ambiguity on top of all the rest that he put in.
In my late teens and early twenties, Saramago was one of the most important writers in my reading life. (As these things often went ten years ago, I first picked up one of his books after an electrifying weekend involving a girl from Portugal who probably didn’t realise half of what was going on. I’ve no idea what happened to her after that. The most important thing was that, long after I’d even forgotten how to spell her surname, I kept reading the books.)
Learning to navigate their style – these weren’t books for the bus stop – opened up a worldview dominated by history, bureaucracy, fragile individuality and even more fragile social order. I learned more things stories could be about.
I first read The Stone Raft not long after the last humanitarian crisis had spun out of former Yugoslavia’s systemic collapse. The Iberian peninsula drifts into the sea, a crisis met with public outbursts of emotion and governmental indifference in the rest of Europe; most of the 1990s had seemed to be like that. I was amazed to turn to the copyright page and discover he had written it in 1986.
Eyjafjallajökull was one for Saramago. He held on long enough to see it by two months. And ultimately – with the surveillance state andthe digital trails we leave and a bloody great hole in the world underneath the sea – we all turned out to be living inside his books.