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PN Review 276
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This interview is taken from PN Review 72, Volume 16 Number 4, March - April 1990.

Interview with José Saramago Giovanni Pontiero

GP: Sr. Saramago, you started publishing your major novels late in life, at least relatively late for a writer of your stature and output. Were there sporadic publications before the appearance of your novel Levantado do Chão [Raised From The Ground], first published in 1980?

JS: Leaving aside my first book, a novel, which appeared in 1947 when I was only twenty-five years of age, and which I do not include nowadays in my list of works, my literary activity started in 1966 with the publication of a book of poems Os Poemas Possíveis [Possible Poems]. But by 1980 I had published nine more books (two books of poetry, two collections of chronicles, two collections of political essays, a novel, a collection of short stories and a play). It's true that I started to write late in life, but less late than you imagine if you start counting from the first of my more important novels.

How would you describe your initial development as a writer?

I was eighteen years of age when, during one of those conversations between adolescents which are one of life's greatest pleasures, I told the friends I was with that I should like to become a writer. By that time all I had written were sentimental and dramatic poems typical of the poetry young people wrote at that time. Probably the most important thing for my future as a writer was my love of reading from an early age.

Your major novels seem to take us back to the tradition of classical fiction in terms of scope, thematic richness, wealth of ideas and associations.

That might be claiming too much and I'm certainly not the best person to reply, since I'd have to be my own judge and advocate. It is true, however, that for me the novel is inseparable from a certain sense of breadth and comprehensiveness, rather like a tiny universe which expands and starts gathering and assimilating all the errant 'bodies' it encounters, sometimes contradictory, but finally capable of being harmonised. From this point of view, the novel, as I understand and practise it, should always tend towards the 'excessive'. Now then, 'excess', at least in principle, should be incompatible with the 'classical' if the facts weren't there to prove otherwise: 'classical' novels are, as a general rule, 'excessive'...

While your books are vastly entertaining, they make real demands on the reader in terms of knowledge and curiosity.

It pleases me to know that my novels make the reader think. As for me, I thought a great deal while I was writing them. I thought as best I could and knew, and I should be disappointed if readers didn't find something more than the entertaining narrative I've also provided. If the entertainment has some value in itself, that value is greatly enhanced when the story becomes a passport to reflection.

You exercised various professions, mechanic, technical designer, literary editor and journalist before becoming a professional writer. Have these had any influence on your formation as a writer?

I don't think any of the various professional activities I have exercised have helped with my formation as a writer. They certainly helped to make me the man I am, along with many other factors, some perhaps identifiable, others of which I'm no longer aware. Who knows, perhaps simply by being a child sitting on a riverbank and watching the water flow past. That child will one day become a writer without ever knowing why.

At one point in A Jangada de Pedra [The Stone Raft] you state that 'the objectivity of the narrator is a modern invention'. Could I ask you to comment on this concept, given your own clear preference for a non-objective stance?

I shouldn't call it a concept, merely the formulation of the attitude adopted by the author when he identifies with the narrator and who, more often than not, deliberately takes his place. I'm opposed to a certain idea, which is fashionable nowadays, of an absent, impartial and objective narrator, who limits himself to registering impressions without reacting to them himself. Probably all this has to do with my inability (unpardonable from a theoretical point of view) to separate the narrator from the author himself.

The writer and critic Irving Howe in his review of Memorial do Convento (translated into English under the title Baltasar and Blimunda) described you as 'a connoisseur of ironies'. Undoubtedly, there is a strong vein of satire in your writing. I suspect that you enjoy being provocative especially where you refer to politicians and plutocrats.

Irony, let's face it, is a poor safeguard against power and its abuses, whether that power be political, economic, or religious, just to give some examples. A great Portuguese novelist of the last century, Eça de Queiroz, once wrote that one way to overthrow an institution was to go round it three times with howls of laughter. I'm much less optimistic. Irony is like whistling as you walk through a cemetery at night: we think we can ignore death thanks to that tiny human sound which ill conceals fear. But it's also true that if we should lose the capacity of being ironic we should find ourselves completely disarmed.

How do you view the relationship between text and sub-text in your novels, with the frequent parentheses and cross-references?

That's a difficult question. As difficult as asking a tennis player, for example, how he executes a particular move. In reply, he would most likely repeat the move in slow motion before our eyes while explaining it step by step, breaking down, as it were, into fixed images what had previously been only one fluent and effective movement. The writer, I suppose, cannot observe himself as he is writing, nor do I believe that, once confronted with the written page, he is capable of analysing a relationship as complicated as the one your question raises. Molière, on bringing his 'bourgeois gentilhomme' to the conclusion that he was speaking prose without knowing it, wasn't merely presenting us with a situation, comic to the point of absurdity. There is more knowledge in the not-knowing than we imagine.

Your novels take us into a number of different worlds where we meet an impressive range of characters both real and fictitious. Your narratives are peopled by monarchs, poets, priests, artists, musicians, the professional classes, workers and peasants. Yet in the final analysis, for you, as for writers like Colombia's García Márquez and Russia's Solzhenitsyn 'the poor are the salt of the earth'. I refer to the 'poor in spirit' rather than those who are simply poor in material terms.

I don't think that the positions of García Márquez and Solzhenitsyn coincide on this point. I even believe they're referring to quite different things: whereas the Colombian writer would look for a primary and immutable innocence in his characters, the Russian, after establishing an implacable inventory of evils and crimes, would try to restore that innocence to those who had definitely lost it. As for me, who was born poor and am not rich, what drives me is to show that the worst waste is not that of consumer goods, but that of simple humanity: millions of human beings trampled underfoot by History, millions and millions of people who possessed nothing other than life itself, which was of such little use to them, yet much exploited by others, the clever, the strong, the powerful.

Your technique as a novelist is quite distinctive. On the one hand, you have a marked preference for austerity: punctuation limited to commas and full stops without any dashes, colons, semi-colons, interrogation or exclamation marks. You rarely use the conjunctions and or but. On the other hand, you betray a penchant for baroque structures, circular oratory and ornate symmetrical patterns.

All the characteristics of my technique at present (I'd prefer to use the word style) stem from a basic principle whereby everything said is destined to be heard. What I am trying to say is that I see myself as an oral narrator when I write and that the words written by me are intended as much to be read as to be heard. Now, the oral narrator doesn't use punctuation, he speaks as if he were composing music and uses the same elements as the musician: sounds and pauses, high or low, some short, others long. Those tendencies which I acknowledge and endorse (baroque structures, circular oratory, symmetrical patterns), I suppose stem from a certain idea of an oral discourse accepted as music. I ask myself if there may not even be something more than a simple coincidence between the disorganized and fragmentary nature of spoken discourse today and the 'minimalist' expression of modern music.

Critics have commented on the amount of detail in your novels. How do you set about controlling so much detail as the narrative evolves?

I have no special method or discipline. Words emerge, one after another, in strict sequence, out of a kind of organic necessity, to put it loosely. But there is inside me a scale, a norm, which permits me to control, one might almost say intuitively, the 'economy' of detail. In principle, the logical I is open to all possibilities, but the intuitive I governs itself with its own laws which the other I has learnt to obey. All of this is clearly unscientific, unless as part of another involuntary and inherent science, impossible to define by someone like myself who simply practises the craft of writing.

Comparing the three major novels with which I have been closely involved as a translator, like all your readers I am impressed by your powers of invention. Memorial do Convento [Annals of the Convent], O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis [The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis] and A Jangada de Pedra [The Stone Raft] are all three vintage Saramago, yet each of these novels constitutes a fresh adventure, a new direction, a different perspective. Is there some point of unity here which you yourself judge to be important?

It's generally said (and so many people say it that there must be some validity) that the author is the person least qualified to define what he has written, that the intentions which moved him to write are one thing and the final result another, where the so-called intentions (which the author nearly always insists on defending as being paramount in his work) end up by becoming secondary because of the emergence of the subconscious, the aleatory, the humoral, through which he has come to express his deep desire. It is in this domain of intentions (perhaps unfulfilled) that I should look for this point of unity: the attempt to reconcile two opposites - compassion and radical scepticism.

In A Jangada de Pedra, in one of the most poetic and poignant passages in the entire novel, an anonymous voice reminds us that: 'Each of us sees the world with the eyes we possess, and our eyes see what they want to see'.

The phrase would be more precise if written as follows: 'Each of us sees the world with the eyes we possess, and our eyes see what they can'. Wanting to, as we know, is not the same as being able to.

Could I ask you to comment on one recurring image, that of the journey - either in the form of a pilgrimage, exodus, migration or private journey in search of one's past?

Perhaps something of my own nature is expressed in this. In fact, as a person I'm really somewhat sedentary, and the proof of this is that for me to make a journey is rather like pursuing the path that will lead me back to the point of departure. On arriving at any place, I immediately begin to feel the need to get away from there. I'm convinced that the characters in my novels travel a lot because they want to return to where they were, that place where, in the final analysis, they are.

Your use of topography intrigues me. On the surface there are carefully researched locations, landmarks and itineraries. Beneath the surface these are unmistakably linked to states of mind and feeling.

If in the Memorial do Convento Blimunda kills the friar who tried to rape her, it was because in that part of the sierra the author found the ruins of a convent; if in Jangada de Pedra the lands of Orce are described in great detail, that's because the author travelled more than a thousand kilometres to see them with his own eyes. And there is also the fundamental question of names: of inhabited places, of rivers, of mountains. They are the names, the words, that clothe the world of the spirit.

Gabriel García Márquez once observed that every author, however prolific, in fact only writes one book. He then went on to say that his was the book of solitude. Would you agree? And how would you define your own books collectively?

I believe authors write because, to put it very simply, we do not want to die. Therefore I would say that the book we persist in writing, one in many or all in one, is the book of survival. Needless to say, we are fighting a lost battle: nothing survives.

Jorge Luis Borges has also left us a much-quoted maxim in which he states that: 'Any great and lasting book must be ambiguous'. I find a strong current of ambiguity running through your novels.

Key phrases uttered by famous authors always leave me somewhat cold. Taken out of context, isolated from the work as a whole, they become somewhat contentious and intimidating, and somehow paralyse our own thinking. Ambiguity in a book, if not a defect, should not be considered a virtue to the extent of making it a condition of lasting value. I see things as being much simpler: the ambiguity of authors is what makes the ambiguity of books. And most likely ambiguity is really something inherent in the act of writing. In which case we really ought to look for other factors before deciding whether a book is important or not.

Sex and religion are examined from every possible angle in your fiction. But I want to ask you more specifically about your interest in supernatural forces, in things prodigious and mysterious; one critic even speaks of mysticism in your work.

Things supernatural, prodigious, mysteries, are simply the things I ignore. One day the supernatural will become natural, the prodigious will be within everyone's grasp, the mystery will cease to exist. The problem is solely between me and the knowledge I possess, and, from this point of view, the computer on which I write my books strikes me as being every bit as enigmatic as life after death. I am not a mystic. If I speak so much about religion, it's because it exists, and above all, because it conditioned and still conditions my moral being. But, being an atheist, I always say that one needs a fair dose of religion in order to make a coherent atheist.

Looking at Portugal's fortunes from the days of mighty empire to dwindling power and influence, you would appear to regret not so much her loss of importance and influence in the political sphere as the danger of losing one's national identity.

The Europe of the Common Market is a holding company with large and small shareholders. Power is in the hands of the rich, the small countries have no choice other than to abide by and fulfil the policies which are, in fact, decided by the large countries, even if there is the appearance of democracy. Today, being in the right means having money. The recent gathering of the Seven Richest Countries In The World is, in my opinion, an obscenity, all the more flagrant insofar as it took place during the commemorative celebrations of a revolution which launched an ideal of liberty, equality and fraternity throughout the world, but which has now become nothing more than a tragic mockery. To give but one example, seventy per cent of the forestation area of my country will be used to plant eucalyptus, not because the Portuguese people want it, but because it has been decreed by the E.E.C.

Portugal looms large in your writing. Your country's history and destiny, her people and their aspirations are evoked with a degree of passion and genuine concern.

If I were North-American, Russian or British, or German or French, perhaps I'd feel proud of my country's power and wealth, even if I reaped no benefits or compensations from that wealth and power. As a Portuguese, I feel it would now be idle to take pride in the power and influence which Portugal once enjoyed. Our present is what confronts us: supranationality, limitation of sovereignty, diverse acculturation. I should like at least to preserve my difference, because, frankly, if the World and Europe are not interested in knowing who I am (I, Portuguese, We, Portuguese), I'm not particularly interested in being a citizen of the World or even a European.

In your essay published in the TLS (December, 1988) under the title 'A Country Adrift', there was one sentence which made a deep impression. I refer to those arresting words: 'Every manner of crime has been committed in the name of patriotism'. An accusation inevitably linked to your open distrust of Eurocentrism.

I think these words are self-evident. When you send thousands or millions of people to their death with the pretext that the Fatherland is in danger - although what's really in danger are the individual interests of those who, directly or indirectly, hold power - that is a crime committed in the name of patriotism. People go to their deaths thinking they know why, and they are deceived to such an extent that they accuse of being unpatriotic anyone who tries to tell them the truth.

After absorbing your intimate portrait of Portugal and her people, I'm almost persuaded that 'small is truly beautiful'.

Small is not beautiful simply because it's small. It's beautiful if it enjoys justice and happiness. But small countries cannot, in fact, be as ambitious as big countries nearly always are. A small country, by dint of much effort, can only hope to get closer to achieving happiness and justice. The worst thing is that there are plenty of small countries in the world which are deprived of both justice and happiness.

At one point in A Jangada de Pedra you write: 'Life itself enjoys cultivating a sense of the dramatic'. Does this account for your own keen sense of the dramatic in your writing, whether farcical or tragic?

I don't have a dramatic concept of existence, or rather, I have it, but I de-dramatize it through irony. I try as hard as possible to avoid turning life into a Wailing Wall: to have to die is misfortune enough, but even that has its hour.

Have any of your own plays been performed on the stage?

Yes, I have written for the theatre, although I don't see myself as a playwright but rather as a novelist who occasionally writes for the theatre on request. I have written three plays to date, and all three have been performed on stage: A Noite [The Night] (where the action takes place in a newspaper office during the night of 24th to 25th April 1974), Que Farei Com Este Livro? [What Shall I Do With This Book?] (in which the protagonist is Luís de Camões after his return from India, when he was looking for a publisher for his epic poem) and A Segunda Vida de Francisco de Assis [The Second Life of Francis of Assisi] (the hero is, and is not, the saint).

In May, 1990, an opera entitled Blimunda, based on your novel Memorial do Convento, will be given its première at La Scala, Milan. Can you tell me something about Azio Corghi, the composer of the opera?

Azio Corghi is one of Italy's most prominent contemporary composers. He has mainly composed music for opera and ballet. His opera Gargantua, based on Rabelais and staged several years ago, caused quite a stir in musical circles.

Have you been involved in the preparation of the libretto?

The libretto of Blimunda was prepared by Azio Corghi and based on the Italian translation of Memorial do Convento. Any intervention on my part was limited to a general exchange of ideas and helping to find solutions for the dramatic expression of certain situations in the novel once adapted for the opera.

Who would you cite as important influences on your work?

Although this statement might sound absurdly pretentious, I don't recognise any significant influences on my work, except perhaps of certain affinities with Portuguese writers of the seventeenth century.

Who are the writers with whom you feel a certain affinity of temperament and outlook?

Gogol, Montaigne, Cervantes, all of them pessimists, and Padre António Vieira, who was a practical Utopian.

In your contribution to the B.B.C. television series of programmes about Portugal and the Portuguese, you expressed certain fears about literacy and culture. Could I ask you to elaborate on the crisis as you see it?

I suspect that this concern is not confined to Portugal. The number of illiterates in the world is growing. And in this day and age, there exists a very large number of people who have been taught to read and write but who, because of lack of continuity in reading and writing, effectively end up with the illiterate majority. This state of affairs probably suits the super-powers wherever they may be, for all they require to maintain and extend their predominance is to rely on the services of highly specialized minorities who monopolise the skills and means which permit a global vision, without which tactics cannot be defined, let alone strategies.

In recent years, a considerable number of talented Portuguese writers have come to the fore. Worldwide interest in the centenary celebrations to mark the birth of your great poet Fernando Pessoa may have helped to focus greater attention on Portuguese literature in recent years. But perhaps there are other reasons for this sudden interest abroad?

One cannot deny the influence Fernando Pessoa has exerted and continues to exert in the recent projection of Portuguese literature abroad, but it would be a mistake to imagine everything begins and ends with Pessoa. What is interesting to note, within proper limits, is that the Portuguese writers who came after Pessoa have matched up to the expectations aroused by Pessoa's writing. In other words, while no contemporary Portuguese writer aspires to the greatness of a Pessoa, their works nevertheless appear to the outside world as being worthy of attention. It's also possible that a certain crisis in creative writing in some countries has also contributed to this tiny discovery of a peripheral literature: the principle of communicating vessels is not the exclusive domain of physics.

I suspect that even you must be surprised at the ever increasing interest in your fiction abroad. Your novel Memorial do Convento, for example, soon to be appearing in as many as twenty-five different languages.

Frankly, I don't know. One day, conversing with my German publisher, I asked him why he had become interested in the books of an author hitherto unknown in the Federal Republic of Germany, an author originating from a small, remote country with a literature virtually ignored by the rest of Europe. He replied by explaining that he was looking for unconventional novels to publish and that he had found them in my work. I can only offer you this explanation for what it's worth and which isn't mine.

Your latest novel O Cerco de Lisboa [The Siege of Lisbon] looks like equalling the success of your other novels. Is there any other novel on the way?

The title of my next novel will be O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo [The Gospel According to Jesus Christ]. I leave the rest to the reader's imagination.

This interview is taken from PN Review 72, Volume 16 Number 4, March - April 1990.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this interview to
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