Thursday, 11 November 2010

José Saramago

Having just finished reading Portuguese author José Saramago’s Seeing (see here), I was moved to brush up on my sketchy knowledge of the writer (and struck by a series of related incidents).

Saramago, who died in June this year, was known for his political activism as much as for being a Nobel prize winning author. As a committed communist and atheist, his views were bound to rub some people up the wrong way, but what comes through most strongly to me in his writing as well as interviews with him (see here and here for example) is humanity and compassion. These are a few of the events of his life and opinions I found interesting …

Born into relative poverty and sent to a technical school to become a mechanic, he was largely self-taught through his own reading in public libraries, acquiring the skills, incredibly, to translate French and German classics and ultimately become deputy editor of Portugal’s daily newspaper Diario de Noticias.

With Pilar del Rio, his Spanish journalist wife, who he described as "my home ... I see our relationship as a love story that has no need of being turned into a book"

He was a life-long member of the Communist party, which he joined  at a time when (under the Salazar dictatorship) this was a risky and dangerous business. I liked his description of himself as “a hormonal communist - just as there's a hormone that makes my beard grow every day. I don't make excuses for what communist regimes have done … but … I've found nothing better." Carlos Reis (rector of Portugal’s Open University) felt Saramago “lives his communism mostly as a spiritual condition - philosophical and moral” – a  turn of phrase that might confound his religious critics but makes perfect sense considering the beliefs that drove him …

… on human cruelty: “Man invented cruelty. Animals do not torture each other, but we do. We are the only cruel beings on this planet. These observations lead me to the following question, which I believe is perfectly legitimate: if we are cruel, how can we continue to say that we are rational beings? … This is an ethical issue that I feel must be discussed, and it is for this reason that I am less and less interested in discussing literature.”

 “I am a pessimist, but not so much so that I would shoot myself in the head”

… On Blindness (made into a film by Fernando Mereilles in 2008) and Seeing: “Blindness is a metaphor for the blindness of human reason. This is a blindness that permits us, without any conflict, to send a craft to Mars to examine rock formations on that planet while at the same time allowing millions of human beings to starve on this planet. Either we are blind, or we are mad.”

Magritte: The Son of Man

Saramago used his raised stature following the Nobel prize to engage more actively in the world political arena. A review of his political blog noted that Saramago aimed to ”cut through the web of "organized lies" surrounding humanity”. He spoke of globalization and the increasing power of multinational corporations as the new totalitarianism. His Blindness was a metaphor for the way richer nations pursue ever greater wealth to the continuing impoverishment of the poor, while the abject failure of democracy to staunch this process was the underlying theme of Seeing.

And as a footnote:

Seeing explores what might happen if voters give up the pretence that the electoral system gives them a choice worth making, by casting blank votes. Events of the last few months in Britain have caused echoes of Saramago’s ‘universal liars’ to ring in my ears. Yesterday, tens of thousands of students demonstrated in London (see here and here), attacking the Conservative party headquarters, against further cuts to higher education and moves to raise fees to unprecedented levels ...

with the implication that:

“The notion that higher education is open to all, regardless of class, has become a quaint, amusing, historic fiction. The idea that it is possible for children of intelligence and imagination to compete with the offspring of the wealthy on an even vaguely level playing field has finally been buried.”

Here’s what one commenter wrote, after describing his sense of betrayal over the Lib Dems’ reneging on their ‘solemn promise’ in this regard:

“All I can say is that like so many before me – hence the falling turnout at general elections – I have finally come to the conclusion that no politician will actually do what he or she says they will do, however much they may tell you beforehand that they will. The party political system of government is inherently flawed and cannot deliver what voters want of it. I now have a lifetime of political cynicism ahead of me. I only hope that come general election time I can muster the enthusiasm to visit the polling station to scribble "None of the above" on my ballot paper.”

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