People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 28

July 11, 2010

                        José Saramago: What He Did, Why He Matters


R Indu



IN his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Jose Saramago declared, “In this half-century, obviously governments have not morally done for human rights all that they should. The injustices multiply, the inequalities get worse, the ignorance grows, and the misery expands. This same schizophrenic humanity that has the capacity to send instruments to a planet to study the composition of its rocks can with indifference note the deaths of millions of people from starvation. To go to Mars seems easier than going to the neighbour. Nobody performs her or his duties. Governments do not, because they do not know, they are not able or they do not wish, or because they are not permitted by those who effectively govern the world: The multinational and pluricontinental companies whose power – absolutely non-democratic – reduce to next to nothing what is left of the ideal of democracy...It is not to be expected that governments in the next 50 years will do it. Let us common citizens therefore speak up...Perhaps the world could turn a little better.”

On June 18 2010, Saramago died in Lisbon. He was 87. He was a member of the Portuguese Communist Party and died a communist, whose heart always beat for the downtrodden. He was born into a family of landless peasants in 1922, some hundred kilometers to the northeast of Lisbon in Azinhaga, a small village in Portugal.

He started his life as a car mechanic, later worked as a translator, as a journalist, then as a novelist. Over the course of 60-year stint in writing, he covered the repressive Salazar dictatorship in Portugal, Franco’s fascist regime in Spain and American interference in foreign nations.  He called George W Bush a “liar emeritus”. His persistent, “hormonal communism”, he called it – like a beard that keeps growing – was formed in the period of Salazar's fascist dictatorship with its pervasive secret police, when to be a member of the underground Communist party meant taking huge risks.

His books Baltasar and Blinunda, The Stone Raft, Gospel of Jesus Christ, Blindness, All the Names, Death at Intervals, The Cave and Cain were statements on humanism and atheism.

He said, “I’ve always considered myself a quiet non-believer, because atheism as a public militancy seemed useless to me, but now I’m changing my mind. The reactionary insolence of the Catholic Church needs to be answered with the insolence of lively intelligence, of reason, of the responsible word. We can’t let the truth to be offended everyday by the self-proclaimed representatives of god on earth, whose only real interest is power. The church doesn’t care about the destiny of souls, what it has always pursued is control over the bodies. Reason can be an ethics. Let’s use it.”

José Saramago shed new light on the interrelation – complex, dynamic and in no sense reducible to dogma – between the literary and the political, the world of the arts and the world of everyday human struggle: an interrelation of which Portugal's Nobel laureate has become, through his labour as a writer and his practical activity, a supreme exponent for our hard times.

He always stood by the underdog and berated those who did vespers at the altar of unbridled consumption. He made god human and gave him all the follies humans have; he severed and floated nations down the sea noticing their weaknesses and cataloguing their traumas; he remade history by just inserting a single word; he stopped death in its endless tracks for months and took account of its absence narrating the spiritual and political upheaval its absence brings and, in one of his last works, sent an Indian elephant Solomon from Lisbon to Vienna, journeying humorously and meditating on society's oddities. In his public life, as in his books, Saramago never pulled his punches and strongly opposed globalisation and its attendant problems.

For Saramago, democracy was in need of regeneration, since economic power determines political power. “I'm doubtful of democracy”, he says. “Participation in political life is insufficient. People are called in every four years, and in between, the government does what it wants. That's not specific to Portugal”. Yet, even he is heartened by Barack Obama's election. “It's a beautiful moment, democracy in action, when millions were mobilised - including people who had never voted before - for a new candidate, and a black candidate at that. It's a kind of revolution”. But alas, all the expectations this Nobel laureate had for the recent Nobel Peace prize winner, were belied and one need not harbour any doubts that if Saramago lived a little longer, he would have used his pen to denounce the present day imperial actions of the US led by president Obama.

Literature on its own will not save the world, but it is made out of multiple human experiences and sufferings and as a certain weapon, if properly used, serves its role in changing the world and making it a better place to live. The Nobel laureate eloquently denounced today's neo-liberal society, in which to be born confers no inherent rights, as a world which is absurd; indeed Kafkaeseque, thanks to the 'contamination of relationships by the perversion of the human'. He concluded by affirming the crucial humanist vocation of the writer: “The profession of the writer is the profession of being a man or a woman, a human being”.

This thread of humanism is found in all his writings, even when they deal with illusionary subjects. Commenting on the various reviews of his Death at Intervals, published in Britain earlier this year, Saramago says “I don't see it as a love story. Some people read it as love winning over death, but to me, that's pure illusion”. In his view, “the Church tried to find an explanation for the creation of the world, and they've been defending that idea ever since – with violence. It's a murderous intolerance, like the Inquisition burning people who are seen to be different. The new Pope wants rigid dogma to be respected and not questioned. I'm against that. We can't accept truth coming from other people. We must always be able to question those truths”. In fact the story of this novel was inspired by the idea of “what would happen if death took a holiday”. In this novel, when people in a landlocked country stop dying, a clandestine mafia in league with a crisis government takes the moribund across the border to be buried. Death, here personified as a woman, is being kept from her job by a love affair with a cellist. Unfortunately, death kept its time with Saramago and robbed him from us, thus ending his love affair with humanity.

His novel The Elephant's Journey, which is stated as a “brilliant comedy about the stupidity of humankind”, traces the travels of Solomon, an Indian elephant. It was “99 per cent pure invention”, Saramago says. “I was fascinated by the elephant's journey as a metaphor for life. We all know we'll die, but not the circumstances”. This is indeed true even for him, as it is for all of us. He was 40 pages into the book when he was rushed to hospital last winter with a respiratory illness, he recalls: “They were reluctant to take me because I was in such a serious condition”. Chuckling, he adds: “they didn't want to be the hospital where José Saramago died”. Allowed home, he immediately resumed writing. “What I find surprising and strange is that there's a lot of humour in the book - it makes people laugh. No one would guess how I was feeling”.

José Saramago’s vast, remarkable, and unique literary work will remain a milestone in the history of Portuguese literature, in which his is one of the most prominent names. He was the only Portuguese writer to receive the Nobel Prize in the field of literature in 1998 for the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.

José Saramago was a member of the Portuguese Communist Party since 1969 and his death represents a loss for the entire Communist movement – more for the Party which he chose as his own until his final days. He helped to build the April 1974 Revolution as an active participant in the resistance to fascism. He continued this activity after the Day of Liberation with his engagement in the revolutionary process that profoundly transformed Portugal. As with his novels, refusing to be restrained within traditional boundaries, Saramago was never afraid to express his political views. His opposition to the European Union is well documented, as his commitment to the Palestinian cause and opposition to Israeli Zionism.

Saramago said, “We’re not short of movements proclaiming that a different world is possible, but unless we can coordinate them into an international movement, capitalism just laughs at all these little organisations.” Saramago was an inspiration. His death matters to millions. The real tribute to Saramago, thus, should be by strengthening the movements against imperialism on a global scale.