José Saramago: Prophet of Doom
Pessimism is our only hope. The gospel according to José Saramago
by Adam Langer

Photograph by Christina Fallara
Emerging from an elegant luncheon held in his honor into a clear, sunshiny afternoon, Nobel Prize–winning author José Saramago says there is only one word to convey his emotional state: "Boredom."

"I don't see people walking," he says through an interpreter when asked if he's enjoying his brief trip to the States, where he's meeting with his American publisher about his forthcoming novel, The Cave. "I only see cars. I cannot understand why. I do understand the physical part of it, but I don't understand the human part of it, why people don't walk.... To travel in a car all the time is like being in a spaceship that protects you from everything. But if Americans are happy with this way of life, that's up to them."

This sort of statement is not out of character. Saramago, a devout communist and a self-described pessimist, is given to making sweeping pronouncements. You ask him a basic question and, more often than not, you get a fable or a metaphor in response. The only odd thing about this particular jeremiad against America's automotive culture is where the author has made it: in Manhattan in the middle of the day, after striding nimbly past a crowd of pedestrians who seem through the author's wise, oracular gaze to be invisible. Sometimes you get the impression that Saramago is speaking from an alternate reality, one that only he can see. But what do you mean nobody walks, you ask him—look at all the people on the street. You asked him about America, he says with a sly, toothy and vaguely disquieting grin. "New York is not America."

Saramago, for his part, was born in Azinhaga, Portugal, to a peasant family in 1922—his grandparents were swineherds, his father was a policeman and a World War I artillery officer, and he himself trained to become an auto mechanic and a metalworker. He came to international fame late, near the age of sixty, having begun his career as a civil servant before working in the Portuguese publishing business as a production manager, translator and editor. He did publish a novel in 1947 (The Land of Sin), but he didn't publish another (Manual of Painting and Calligraphy) until 1977. "I had nothing worth telling, therefore I remained silent," he has said on more than one occasion.

Over the past twenty-five years, though, Saramago has moved speedily to become the most famous author Portugal has ever produced, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature. He is not only our "strongest living European novelist" but one of the world's few living geniuses, according to author, critic and professor Harold Bloom, whose latest book is, appropriately enough, Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds. Saramago now lives on the Canary Islands with his wife, Spanish journalist Pilar del Rio, and their dogs, animals who figure prominently in the author's work as seers, caregivers and creatures more sympathetic and perceptive than humans. He moved there to the island of Lanzarote in 1992 after a feud with the Portuguese government, which, along with the Vatican, denounced his controversial novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ.

His books have "a rare largeness of vision," says his English translator, Margaret Jull Costa, who first became aware of the author after reading The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. Costa, who has translated Saramago's two most recent novels (All the Names and The Cave) and will translate his next work, The Duplicated Man, after it is published in Portuguese this fall, says she "was bowled over by [The Gospel's] intelligence and humanity and by its sheer imaginative power." When it comes to addressing moral and political issues, there is perhaps no one since Franz Kafka—one of the writers with whom Saramago is most often compared—who has been able to do it with such great humor and irony. And Saramago arguably surpasses Kafka in terms of his humanity, his ability to render heartbreak in a single sentence. His characters, he has said, are always "wiser and better than myself."

Speaking to Saramago, though, there is a sense of doom that permeates his speech, a feeling that every sentence he utters has to fairly ooze with philosophical rigor. At the luncheon held to celebrate the publication of The Cave, Saramago darkens the collective mood by decrying human behavior, invoking the words of famed Austrian animal behaviorist and fellow Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz: "I have found the link between animal and civilized man; it is us." He repeats the quotation that evening at a speaking engagement with Bloom at the New York Public Library. While sitting in his publisher's office, he observes grimly that "language is dying almost every day; culture is dying every day."

"You may disagree with such a pessimistic vision," he says. "But if there is a way for the world to be transformed for the better, it can only be done by pessimism; optimists will never change the world for the better."

For more on José Saramago, his unique brand of pessimism and The Cave, read the complete article, "José Saramago: Prophet of Doom," in the November/December 2002 issue of BOOK. Call 1-800-317-BOOK to subscribe or to order a back issue.
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