This man, with his mediocre intelligence, abysmal ignorance, confused communication skills, and constant succumbing to the irresistible temptation of pure nonsense, has presented himself to humanity in the grotesque pose of a cowboy who has inherited the world and mistaken it for a herd of cattle.
It seems a long time ago now I read The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, over the top of which I struggled for a good long while before I broke through the prose into a rich and sumptuously described Lisbon. Most of Saramago’s translated books followed Ricardo Reis and each did their bit to elevate him to the position of my favourite author. His unique style, delightfully described by Umberto Eco in his foreward, ‘This man who is so careful with punctuation that he makes it disappear altogether’, propelled him up above Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Jorge Amado amongst others.
After his death in 2010 I have two or three novels of his left to read and so to postpone the impending end of the line (unless my three words of Portuguese miraculously expand to envelope the fullness of the language) I picked up The Notebook, which Started as a blog, and which chronicles the last year of Saramago’s life. In it he lays down on the page his personal and political thoughts in his usual articulate manner, but while his novels are beautifully crafted stories with the almost-but-not-quite omniscient narrator, The Notebook is the sharp end of Saramago’s wit, an all too human author whose thoughts and feelings pour out onto the page, yet are still well thought out and reasoned. There is vociferous condemnation of Israel, reasoned tirades against religion, a sad despair at the state of the world along with brilliantly crafted and funny jibes at George W Bush (including the quote at the top of this post, if you hadn’t already guessed) and Berlusconi (What is to be done about the Italians?), while maintaining hope for Barack Obama.
It is not just weary anger that Saramago posts, there are generous tributes to Joao Pessoa, Carlos Fuentes, Federico Mayor Zaragoza, Mahmoud Darwish and Maria Joao Pires amongst others and he modestly highlights the work that the foundation set up in his name does. He clearly takes on the responsibility of posting with energy and relish, as highlighted towards the end, when he stops to concentrate on his final novel, before returning to post just eleven days later.
While not as absorbing as the novels, It’s a pleasant change to read small chunks of Saramago in this manner, particularly now he is no longer with us, The Notebook gives a chance to know and understand a little more the man behind the pen.
I could see in the seriousness if their expressions, even when their faces broke into a smile, and by the light in their eyes, and the gravity with which they responded to questions, confirmation of an old theory of mine, that happiness is an extremely serious matter.