José Saramago, at the gates of the centenary

Tall, lean, serious and always calm, Jose Saramago (1922-2010) seemed the very incarnation of the saudade Portuguese. There was, however, a spark of irony in his myopic eyes. He did not speak, rather he whispered. Perhaps to calm the restless, who were almost everyone around him. He also laughed, sometimes. He also gave himself time to oppose wars and injustices. And with his hardened worker’s hands he wrote to enclose the world in his books. He could do it in the form of utopia or dystopia or, better still, he completed with fiction what eluded the “objectivity” of historians. Last month the first novel he wrote (The widow, published in Portuguese in 1947 under the title Land of sin), which had not been translated into Spanish, and the event became the beginning of a series of events to celebrate the centenary of the author’s birth, mainly in Lisbon and Lanzarote, but which will continue over a period of time. year (November 2021 to November 2022) by various cities around the world.

It was ten o’clock in the morning on Tuesday November 16, the day on which Saramago would have turned 99 years old, when students from several primary schools in Portugal and the Canary Islands carried out a simultaneous reading of “The largest flower of the world ”, a children’s story full of energy and hope. That same day, at six in the afternoon, fragments of different books by Saramago were read in various libraries in Portugal, and at eight in the evening the Lisbon Metropolitan Orchestra gave a concert at the Municipal Theater in honor of the son of illiterate peasants. of a lost village at the tip of Europe, who in his adolescence dropped out of school due to lack of money, who was able to buy books until he was 18 years old (with borrowed money) and who, despite all this, was able to reach the top of the literature.

“José’s centenary is a good excuse to advance in the knowledge of ourselves and of the possibilities that each human being has and contributes. As he said: we must stop being statistical data and be more human beings, with reason, conscience and heart. José Saramago succeeded and demonstrated it by sharing his life and works with many people. And that is what we want to show throughout a year full of various celebrations that, by the way, will end in Mexico, at the FIL in Guadalajara in 2022 ”, he says Pilar del Rio, his widow and translator into Spanish.

“Celebrating a writer is promoting his work, reinforcing the reception movements that he enhances, looking at and anticipating the future of his reading,” he adds. Carlos Reis, professor of contemporary Portuguese literature, expert in Eça de Queirós and in Saramago and curator for the Centennial of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature. “That future, forgiving the obvious, is in the young, that is, in those who now and in the coming decades are and will be readers of Saramago. That is why we have started in schools ”.

Reis and the entire team of the José Saramago Foundation, headed by Pilar del Río herself, have prepared a program of activities divided into four axes: biography, reading, publications and academic meetings. In this way, they hope to emphasize the formative and civic trajectory of the writer, his literary production, the understanding between old and new readers, as well as the study and university discussion of the legacy of the author of The duplicate man. For the latter, in addition, the Saramago Chair will be created at the University of Tras-os-Montes and Alto Douro (UTAD), focused on teaching, research and cultural action.

But the event will also involve other arts: three dance productions made from texts by Saramago, such as Essay on Blindness and Convent memorial, adapted by the Contemporary Dance Company of Évora and the group Danza en Dialogues, respectively, and a ballet inspired by the Saramaguian literary universe by the Ballet de Paulo ribeiro. “In these shows we will see how the gestures and body movements, the interaction between the dancers and their relationship with music and other scenic devices are capable of recounting the love affairs of Baltasar and Blimunda, and the construction of the catwalk or the wandering of the blind in a harsh and hostile environment. Perhaps dancing to Saramago will be one of the most daring, fruitful and transcendental events of the centenary ”, emphasizes Carlos Reis. There will also be operas, concerts and exhibitions, such as I go back to the steps that were taken, a “journey” through the paths traveled by the author, both in his life and in his work, or Stone Raft Writers, with photos of Daniel Mordzinski. And 100 olive trees will be planted, each one named after some of the characters created by Saramago.

“José died, Saramago is alive,” adds Pilar del Río. “Writers live with us, we carry them in our hearts and in our ability to reason. Or we just ignore them, which can also happen. But José Saramago is not ignored by the number of readers he has around the world. There are even people who, not having read a book he wrote, followed his public speeches and felt represented in what he said ”.

José Saramago was a “late” but forceful writer. He grew up in an austere peasant home in Azinhaga, a village 120 kilometers northeast of the Portuguese capital, and began earning a living as a teenager. First as a locksmith, then as a mechanic, clerk, editor, and columnist. His articles in newspapers and magazines, as well as his membership in the Communist Party, were subject to censorship and persecution, but this did not prevent the written and spoken word from continuing to be his main working instrument.

After the Carnation Revolution, which restored democracy in Portugal, he returned to dedicating himself to literature and soon found a voice of his own that began to attract readers. His literary style was based on the elimination of some punctuation marks, the separation of sentences by the way they are said or heard (“so that it is the reader himself who say in your mind what go when reading ”) and in the full integration of the dialogues in the flow of the narrative. Thus, he said, “the author does not guide the reader. He leaves him free to build his own novel with the elements provided by him or, in other words, the author forces the reader to become active and even to be a creator through reading ”.

In the coming months, as part of the Saramago Year, Alfaguara will reissue about twenty of its books, with a new design (“covers with doors and windows that help to enter each work”), and will publish a special edition of Trip to portugal, with unpublished photographs taken by the writer and recently found by Pilar del Río in a suitcase. The journalist and writer Juan Cruz He was the one who “signed” Saramago when he became the director of that publishing house in the 1990s. “It was not based on checks with many zeros. Simply, Saramago felt that his cycle in Seix Barral had ended. At Alfaguara we brought him very close to Latin America and perhaps that was what he liked the most. From 1993 I was in charge of recovering his books and editing all the new ones. I remember him in Frankfurt, when he was awarded the Nobel. He was about to get on the plane back to Spain and suddenly a flight attendant told him: ‘Mr. Saramago, they are looking for you because they have given you the Nobel and they want you to return to the book fair.’ Well, he didn’t get on the plane, and when he returned to the fair, it was abuzz with people. Everyone excited about the news and Saramago, on the other hand, had absolute serenity, “Juan Cruz says with a half smile.

That serenity is what this former editor remembers most of his friend. “Saramago presided over demonstrations, letters of solidarity support, he was the champion against many penalties that still wound today, such as the Palestinian situation or what is happening in the Sahara, to which its legitimate inhabitants cannot return, and he did everything with a calm that he disarmed his adversaries, those who understood his positions and respected them and those who, like the Vatican, did not give him a truce even at the moment of death ”, explains the also author of books such as It is worth continuing in this profession.

“Now that he is gone, he remains in my memory, among so many metaphors of his struggle to put that word at the top of life”, continues Juan Cruz, “that day in 1993 when he had just left for Lanzarote, furious with the government of his country, which prevented him from presenting for a European award because in The gospel according to Jesus Christ it could offend the Vatican, not God. He told me: ‘They can take everything from me, but they won’t take my air.’

While José Saramago supported various social movements in the world (such as the EZLN in Chiapas or the opposition to the military intervention in Iraq), and after the publication of The gospel according to Jesus Christ, his prestige as a writer became international. In 1998, the Swedish Academy awarded him the Nobel Prize for Literature for “making an elusive reality understandable, with parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony”, being the first Portuguese-language author to receive it (and the only one so far ). “From now on there will be a Saramago myth, as it exists around Fernando Pessoa, which, like all myths, has not so much to do with the value of the respective works as with the void that they fill in our national imagination, in search of universal recognition “, the Portuguese philosopher wrote then Eduardo Lourenço.

On the morning of June 18, 2010, José Saramago had a quiet breakfast at his home in Lanzarote (Canary Islands). When he finished, he chatted with his wife for a few minutes, but then he said he felt a little weak and went back to bed. The writer suffered from leukemia and by then he had been battling it for almost three years. He spent the last days of 2007 and the first of 2008 in hospital, fearing the worst, but he came out and found the strength to write again. Published (and featured and promoted) Cain in 2009 and immediately began Halberds, a novel about the human and moral ins and outs of the arms industry. He had three chapters written but, around one in the afternoon that day, he managed to say goodbye to the loved ones around him and died. He was 87 years old.

Before being transferred to Portugal for his funeral and cremation, the lifeless body of José Saramago was veiled in the library of his home in Lanzarote. His ashes were deposited at the foot of an olive tree in front of the headquarters of the José Saramago Foundation in Lisbon. “And there”, says his partner, Pilar del Río, “we put the epitaph that he chose himself: ‘He did not rise to the stars because he belonged to Earth’, a phrase from his novel Convent memorial”.


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José Saramago, at the gates of the centenary