Interviews

Jose Saramago, The Art of Fiction No. 155

Interviewed by Donzelina Barroso

On October 8, 1998, after several years on the unofficial short list, José Saramago was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature—the first Portuguese writer to be so decorated. Asked his thoughts on receiving the prize, he said, “I will not take on the duties of the Nobel as would the winner of the beauty contest, who has to be shown off everywhere . . . I don’t aspire to that kind of throne, nor could I, of course.”

José Saramago was born in 1922 to a family of rural workers of modest means from the central Ribatejo section of Portugal. When he was two years old, the family moved to Lisbon, where his father worked as a policeman. In his teenage years, economic hardships made it necessary for Saramago to transfer from a regular high school to a vocational school—he would later work at a variety of jobs, including as a mechanic, before turning to writing full time.

In 1947, at age twenty-four, Saramago published his first novel, Land of Sin. Originally titled “The Widow,” it was renamed by the publisher in the hope that the racier title would sell more copies. (Saramago later commented that at that age he knew nothing of widows or sin.) He did not publish again for nineteen years. In 1966 his first collection of poems, The Possible Poems, appeared; and in 1977 he published a second novel, Manual of Painting and Calligraphy. During the sixties and seventies Saramago also was active in journalism, working as assistant director of Díario de Notícias for a short time; during particularly lean times, he supported himself by translating from the French. In 1969 he joined the Portuguese Communist Party, of which he has remained a committed member—his writing is linked intricately to social commentary and politics.

With the publication of Raised Up from the Ground in 1980, written in the wake of the 1974 Carnation Revolution, Saramago at last established his voice as a novelist. The story of three generations of agricultural laborers from the Alentejo region of Portugal, it received wide attention as well as the City of Lisbon Prize. The publication of Baltasar and Blimunda in 1982 catapulted his career internationally—in 1987 it became his first novel to appear in the United States. His next novel, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, received the Portuguese PEN Club Prize and Britain’s coveted Independent Foreign Fiction Award. His success continued with The Stone Raft, a fantastical criticism of Europe’s struggle to assert its Europeanness, in which the Iberian Peninsula breaks apart from Europe and sails down the Atlantic Ocean in search of its Latin American and African roots. In 1989 The History of the Siege of Lisbon appeared. Saramago acknowledged in a recent article that there is a lot of him in the protagonist of that novel, Raimundo Silva, a middle-aged, isolated proofreader who falls in love with his boss, an attractive, younger editor who saves him from emotional mediocrity. The novel is dedicated to his wife (as are all his subsequent books), the Spanish journalist Pilar del Rio, whom he married in 1988.

In 1991 Saramago published The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, which received the Portuguese Writers’ Association Prize and a nomination for the European Union literary contest Ariosto. However, the Portuguese government, bowing to its conservative elements and pressure from the Catholic Church, banned the book from the competition. “It was totally unjustified,” Saramago complained, “for something of this nature to have occurred with democracy fully in place in Portugal. Is there any government that can justify such a barbaric act? It was very painful for me.”

Soon after the controversy, Saramago and his wife left Lisbon, where he had lived for most of his life, and moved to the island of Lanzarote in the Spanish Canary Islands, where they still live with their three dogs—a terrier and two medium-sized poodles, Camóes, Pepe and Greta—in a house they built next door to his sister-in-law. Since moving there Saramago has published two novels: Blindness, a chilling parable of modern man’s folly and his ability to inflict harm on his fellow man, and All the Names; as well as five volumes of his Lanzarote Diaries.

The interview took place on a sunny afternoon in March of 1997, at his home in Lanzarote. (He was in the process of becoming an adoptive son of the island.) His wife gave a quick tour of the house, including his study: a rectangular and orderly room lined with books, a desk with his computer, which he pronounced “an excellent machine,” in the center. A larger office—with a wall of windows providing a view of Puerto del Carmen, the nearby island of Fuertaventura, the beach and the metallic blue sky of Lanzarote—was being built on the second floor. Occasionally interrupted by the sounds of construction and the barking dogs, who dragged Pilar around entangled in their leashes, the conversation was marked most by Saramago’s sharp sense of humor as well as his efforts to put his guest at ease—minha querida (my dear), he often reassured me as we talked.

 

INTERVIEWER

Do you miss Lisbon?  

JOSÉ SARAMAGO

It is not exactly missing or not missing Lisbon. If indeed missing, as the poet said, is that sentiment—that chilling of the spine—then the truth is that I do not feel that chilling of the spine.

I do think about it. We have many friends there and we go there once in a while, but the sensation I have in Lisbon now is that I don’t know where to go anymore—I don’t know how to be in Lisbon anymore. When I am there for a few days, or for a week or two, of course I go back to my old habits. But I am always thinking about coming back here as soon as possible. I like this place and the people here. I live well here. I don’t think I will ever leave. Well, I will, after all we all have to leave one day, but I will only go against my will.  

INTERVIEWER

When you moved to Lanzarote, away from the surroundings in which you had lived and written for so many years, did you accustom yourself immediately to this space, or did you miss your previous work space?  

SARAMAGO

I adapted easily. I believe myself to be the type of person who does not complicate his life. I have always lived my life without dramatizing things, whether the good things that have happened to me or the bad. I simply live those moments. Of course, if I feel sorrow, I feel it, but I do not . . . Let me say it another way: I do not look for ways of being interesting.

I am now writing a book. It would be much more interesting for me to tell you the torture I endure, the difficulty in constructing the characters, the nuances of the complicated narrative. What I mean is that I do what I have to do as naturally as possible. For me, writing is a job. I do not separate the work from the act of writing like two things that have nothing to do with each other. I arrange words one after another, or one in front of another, to tell a story, to say something that I consider important or useful, or at least important or useful to me. It is nothing more than this. I consider this my job.  

INTERVIEWER

How do you work? Do you write every day?  

SARAMAGO

When I am occupied with a work that requires continuity, a novel, for example, I write every day. Of course, I am subjected to all kinds of interruptions at home and interruptions due to traveling, but other than that, I am very regular. I am very disciplined. I do not force myself to work a certain number of hours per day, but I do require a certain amount of written work per day, which usually corresponds to two pages. This morning I wrote two pages of a new novel, and tomorrow I shall write another two. You might think two pages per day is not very much, but there are other things I must do—writing other texts, responding to letters; on the other hand, two pages per day adds up to almost eight hundred per year.

In the end, I am quite normal. I don’t have odd habits. I don’t dramatize. Above all, I do not romanticize the act of writing. I don’t talk about the anguish I suffer in creating. I do not have a fear of the blank page, writer’s block, all those things that we hear about writers. I don’t have any of those problems, but I do have problems just like any other person doing any other type of work. Sometimes things do not come out as I want them to, or they don’t come out at all. When things do not come out as well as I would have liked, I have to resign myself to accepting them as they are.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you compose directly on a computer?  

SARAMAGO

Yes, I do. The last book I wrote on a classic typewriter was The History of the Siege of Lisbon. The truth is, I had no difficulty in adapting to the keyboard at all. Contrary to what is often said about the computer compromising one’s style, I don’t think it compromises anything, and much less if it is used as I use it—like a typewriter. What I do on the computer is exactly what I would do on the typewriter if I still had it, the only difference being that it is cleaner, more comfortable, and faster. Everything is better. The computer has no ill effects on my writing. That would be like saying that switching from writing by hand to writing on a typewriter would also cause a change in style. I don’t believe that to be the case. If a person has his own style, his own vocabulary, how can working on a computer come to alter those things?

However, I do continue to have a strong connection—and it is natural that I should—to paper, to the printed page. I always print each page that I finish. Without the printed page there I feel . . .  

INTERVIEWER

You need tangible proof.  

SARAMAGO

Yes, that’s it.  

INTERVIEWER

After you have finished those two pages per day, do you then make alterations to your text?  

SARAMAGO

Once I have reached the end of a work, I reread the whole text. Normally at that point there are some alterations—small changes relating to specific details or style, or changes to make the text more exact—but never major ones. About ninety percent of my work is in the first writing I put down, and that stays as is. I do not do what some writers do—that is, to write a twenty-page abstract of the story, which is then transformed into eighty pages and then into two hundred fifty. I do not do that. My books begin as books and grow from there. Right now I have one hundred thirty-two pages of a new novel, which I will not attempt to turn into one hundred eighty pages: they are what they are. There may be changes within these pages, but not the kind of changes that would be needed if I were working on a first draft of something that would eventually take on another form, either in length or in content. The alterations made are those needed for improvement, nothing more.  

INTERVIEWER

So you begin writing with a concrete idea.  

SARAMAGO

Yes, I have a clear idea about where I want to go and where I need to go to reach that point. But it is never a rigid plan. In the end, I want to say what I want to say, but there is flexibility within that objective. I often use this analogy to explain what I mean: I know I want to travel from Lisbon to Porto, but I don’t know if the trip will be a straight line. I could even pass through Castelo Branco, which seems ridiculous because Castelo Branco is in the interior of the country—almost at the Spanish border—and Lisbon and Porto are both on the Atlantic coast.

What I mean is that the line by which I travel from one place to the next is always sinuous because it must accompany the development of the narrative, which might require something here or there that was not needed previously. The narrative must be attentive to the needs of a particular moment, which is to say that nothing is predetermined. If a story were predetermined—even if that were possible, down to the last detail that is to be written—then the work would be a total failure. The book would be obliged to exist before it existed. A book comes into existence. If I were to force a book to exist before it has come into being, then I would be doing something that is in opposition to the very nature of the development of the story that is being told.  

INTERVIEWER

Have you always written in this way?  

SARAMAGO

Always. I have never had another way of writing. I think this way of writing has permitted me—I am not sure what others would say—to create works that have solid structures. In my books each moment that passes takes into account what already has occurred. Just as someone who builds has to balance one element against another in order to prevent the whole from collapsing, so too a book will develop—seeking out its own logic, not the structure that was predetermined for it.  

INTERVIEWER

What about your characters? Do your characters ever surprise you?  

SARAMAGO

I don’t believe in the notion that some characters have lives of their own and the author follows after them. The author has to be careful not to force the character to do something that would go against the logic of that character’s personality, but the character does not have independence. The character is trapped in the author’s hand, in my hand, but he is trapped in a way he does not know he is trapped. The characters are on strings, but the strings are loose; the characters enjoy the illusion of freedom, of independence, but they cannot go where I do not want them to go. When that happens, the author must pull on the string and say to them, I am in charge here.

A story is inseparable from the characters who appear in it. The characters are there to serve the structure that the author wants to create. When I introduce a character, I know that I need that character and what I want from him; but the character is not yet developed—it is being developed. I am the one developing that character, but in a sense it is a kind of self-construction of that character, which I accompany. That is, I cannot develop the character against itself. I must respect the character or it will begin to do things of which it is not capable. For example, I cannot make a character commit a crime if it doesn’t fall within the logic of that character—without that motivation, which is necessary to justify the act to the reader, it wouldn’t make sense.

I will give you an example. Baltasar and Blimunda is a love story. In fact, if I may say so, it is a beautiful love story. But it was only at the end of the book that I realized I had written a love story without words of love. Neither Baltasar nor Blimunda speak any of those words to each other that we would consider words of love. The reader may think that this was planned, but it was not. I was the first to be surprised. I thought, How could this be? I have written a love story without a single amorous word of dialogue.

Now let us imagine that at some time in the future, in a re-edition, I were to give into a whim to alter the dialogue between these two and insert a few words here and there—it would completely falsify those characters. I think the reader, even without knowing the book in its current form, would notice that something about this didn’t work. How could these characters, who have been around each other since page one, suddenly say “I love you” on page two hundred and fifty?

That is what I mean by respecting the integrity of the character—not making him do things that would fall outside of his own personality, his internal psychology, that which the person is. Because a character in a novel is one more person—Natasha in War and Peace is one more person; Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment is one more person; Julien in The Red and the Black is one more person—literature increases the world’s population. We do not think of these three characters as beings who do not exist, as mere constructions of words on a series of sheets of paper that we call books. We think of them as real people. That is the dream, I suppose, of all novelists—that one of their characters will become “somebody.”  

INTERVIEWER

Which of your characters would you like to see as “somebody”?  

SARAMAGO

Probably, I am committing the sin of presumption, but to tell the truth, I feel that all my characters—from the painter H. in The Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, to Senhor José in All the Names—are really somebody. I guess this is due to the fact that none of my characters is a mere copy—or imitation—of a real individual. Each one of them adds himself or herself to this world to “live” in it. They are fictional beings who lack only a physical body. This is how I see them, but we know that authors are suspect to being partial . . .  

INTERVIEWER

For me, the doctor’s wife in Blindness is a very specific person. I also have a specific visual image of her, as I do for all the characters in Blindness, despite the fact that there are no detailed descriptions of them.  

SARAMAGO

It pleases me that you have a very exact visual image of her, which most certainly is not the result of physical descriptions of her, because there are none in the novel. I don’t think it is worth explaining how a character’s nose or chin looks. It is my feeling that readers will prefer to construct, little by little, their own character—the author will do well to entrust the reader with this part of the work.  

INTERVIEWER

How did the idea for Blindness develop?  

SARAMAGO

As has been the case with all of my novels, Blindness emerged from an idea that suddenly presented itself to my thoughts. (I am not sure this is the most precise formula, but I cannot find a better one.) I was in a restaurant, waiting to be served lunch, when suddenly, without any warning, I thought, What if we were all blind? As if answering my own question, I thought, But we really are blind. This was the embryo of the novel. Afterward, I only had to conceive the initial circumstances and allow the consequences to be born. They are horrific consequences, but they have a logic of steel. There is not much imagination in Blindness, just the systematic application of the relation of cause and effect.  

INTERVIEWER

I liked Blindness very much, but it is not an easy read. It is a hard book. The translation is very good.  

SARAMAGO

Did you know that Giovanni Portiero, my longtime English translator, died?  

INTERVIEWER

When?  

SARAMAGO

In February. He died of AIDS. He was translating Blindness, which he finished, when he died. Toward the end, he himself started to go blind as a result of the medication his doctors gave him. He had to choose between taking the medication, which would sustain him for a bit longer, and not taking it, which would create other risks. He chose, shall we say, to preserve his vision, and he was translating a novel about blindness. It was a devastating situation.  

INTERVIEWER

How did the idea for The History of the Siege of Lisbon come about?  

SARAMAGO

An idea had been with me since about 1972: the idea of a siege, as in a besieged city, but it was not clear who was besieging it. Then it evolved into a real siege, which I first thought of as the siege of Lisbon by the Castilians that occurred in 1384. I joined to this idea another siege, which occurred in the twelfth century. In the end, the siege was a combination of those two historical ones—I imagined a siege that lasted some time, with generations of besieged as well as generations of besiegers. A siege of the absurd. That is to say, the city was surrounded, there were people surrounding it, and none of this had a point.

In the end all of this came together to form a book that was, or that I wanted to be, a meditation on the notion of the truth of history. Is history truth? Does what we call history retell the whole story? History, really, is a fiction—not because it is made up of invented facts, for the facts are real, but because in the organization of those facts there is much fiction. History is pieced together with certain selected facts that give a coherence, a line, to the story. In order to create that line, many things must be left out. There are always those facts that did not enter history, which if they had might give a different sense to history. History must not be presented as a definitive lesson. No one can say, This is so because I say it happened this way.

The History of the Siege of Lisbon is not a mere exercise in historical writing. It is a meditation on history as truth or history as a supposition, as one of the possibilities, but not as a lie even though it is often deceitful. It is necessary to confront official history with a no, which obliges us to look for another yes. This has to do with our own lives, with the life of fiction, with the life of ideologies. For example, a revolution is a no; that no is converted into a yes, either quickly or over time; so then it must be presented with another no. I sometimes think that no is the most necessary word of our times. Even if that no is a mistake, the good that could come from it outweighs the negative. No to this world as it is today, for example.

In the case of this book, it is far less ambitious—it is a small no, but it is still capable of changing one’s life. By inserting a not in the sentence—the official history—that stated that the crusaders did assist the king of Portugal to reconquer Lisbon in 1147, Raimundo was not only led to write another history, but he also opened the way to changing his own life. His negation of that sentence is also a negation of his life as he was living it. That negation took him to another level of being; it removed him from his daily routine—from the grayness of his every day, his melancholy. He moves to another level and to the relationship with Maria Sara.  

INTERVIEWER

Throughout The History of the Siege of Lisbon, both Raimundo and Maria Sara are presented as strangers—outsiders inside their own city. They even call each other Moors.  

SARAMAGO

Yes, that’s it. That is it. In the end, I believe that is how we all are.  

INTERVIEWER

By we you mean the Portuguese?  

SARAMAGO

Yes, but not only the Portuguese. All of us have to live in the city—I mean the city to be understood as a mode of living collectively—but at the same time, we should be outsiders, Moors, in that city—Moors in the sense that the Moor is simultaneously physically within the city and an alien to the city. It is because he is an outsider that he can effect change. The Moor, the other, the stranger, the strange one, shall we say, the one who despite being within the city walls is outside it, is the one who can transform that city—we hope in a positive sense.  

INTERVIEWER

In the past you have been outspoken about your concerns about Portugal. What do you think about the present state of Portugal and its plan of integration into the European Union?  

SARAMAGO

Let me give you an example. In an interview, Joao Deus de Pinheiro, who was our commissioner to the European Union, was asked by a Portuguese journalist, Don’t you think that Portugal is in danger of losing much of its national sovereignty? His reply was, What do you mean national sovereignty? In the nineteenth century a Portuguese government did not take office because the admiral of the British fleet stationed in the Tagus River would not permit it. With that, he laughed. Should a country have a commissioner to the European Union who believes this historical episode to be amusing, and further that Portugal should not preoccupy itself with the loss of sovereignty because he believes we never actually had it?

If the European Union goes forward, then the responsibility of our politicians, as that of politicians of other countries, will diminish. From there they will become what fundamentally they already are—mere agents, because one of the great fallacies of our age is democratic discourse. Democracy is not working in this world. What is working is the power of international finance. The people involved in these activities in effect govern the world. The politicians are mere proxies—there is a kind of concubinage between so-called political power and financial power, which is the negation of true democracy.

People might ask me, What do you propose instead? I propose nothing. I am a mere novelist, I just write about the world as I see it. It is not my job to transform it. I cannot transform it all by myself, and I wouldn’t even know how to. I limit myself to saying what I believe the world to be.

Now, the question is if I had to propose something, what would it be. I would propose what I have sometimes called developing backwards, which appears to be a contradiction, because one can only develop in a forward direction. Developing backwards means, very simply, this: the level we have reached—not the rich, but those in the upper middle class—allows us to live comfortably. Developing backwards would be to say, Let us stop here and turn toward those billions of people who have been left behind. Of course, all this is utopian. I live in Lanzarote, an island with fifty thousand inhabitants, and what happens in the rest of the world happens in the rest of the world. I do not aspire to be the savior of the world, but I live with the very simple belief that the world could be a better place, and it could very easily be made a better place.

This belief leads me to say that I do not like the world in which I live. The worldwide revolution I envision—please pardon my utopian vision—would be one of goodness. If two of us woke up and said, Today, I will harm no one, and the next day said it again and actually lived by those words, the world would change in a short time. Of course, this is nonsense—this will never happen.

All this leads me to question the use of reason in this world. This is why I wrote Blindness. This is what has led me to a type of literary work that concerns itself with these issues.  

INTERVIEWER

You have said that Blindness is the most difficult novel you’ve written. Is this because, despite the overt cruelty displayed by man toward his fellow man under the epidemic of white blindness, and the discomfort involved in writing about this behavior, you are ultimately an optimist?  

SARAMAGO

I am a pessimist, but not so much so that I would shoot myself in the head. The cruelty to which you refer is the everyday cruelty that occurs in all parts of the world, not just in the novel. And we at this very moment are enveloped in an epidemic of white blindness. 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.  

INTERVIEWER

The Stone Raft also deals with social issues.  

SARAMAGO

Well, it wasn’t exactly the same, but people preferred to see it that way. People preferred to see it as the separation of the Iberian Peninsula from Europe. Of course, that is part of the story, and in fact that is what happens: the Iberian Peninsula separates itself from Europe and sails off down the Atlantic Ocean. But what I was getting at is not a separation from Europe, because that makes no sense. What I wanted to say and continue to say is what I believe to be the reality: Portugal and Spain have roots that are not exclusively European. I was saying to readers, Listen, we have always been Europeans, we are Europeans and we will always be Europeans—there is no other way of being. But we have other obligations, obligations of an historical, cultural and linguistic nature. And so, let us not separate ourselves from the rest of the world, let us not separate from South America, let us not separate from Africa. This was not meant to reflect any neocolonial desires, but the Iberian Peninsula, as was the case in The Stone Raft, comes to rest between South America and Africa, and that happens for a reason. It is because we spend our lives speaking about the south, the south, the south, and the south has always been that place of exploitation, we could say, even when that south is located in the north.  

INTERVIEWER

In your Lanzarote Diaries you write about your last trip to New York and say that in that city, the south is in northern Manhattan.  

SARAMAGO

Yes, that south is located in the north.  

INTERVIEWER

I have to tell you that I enjoyed your description of the Chelsea Hotel in the Diaries!  

SARAMAGO

Oh, it was horrible. My publisher put me up there, but I still don’t know exactly whose idea it was. They thought I had said that I wanted to stay there—but I never did say that. I knew the hotel from the outside, and I thought it was very attractive, but I never said, Put me up at the Chelsea Hotel, please. I guess they put me there because it has a lot of history, but if I had to choose between an uncomfortable hotel with history and a comfortable one with no history . . . I kept saying to myself, But what is this, I’ve never seen such a place.  

INTERVIEWER

You have a wide readership in Europe and Latin America yet a small audience in the United States.  

SARAMAGO

Things of too serious a nature don’t really appeal to American readers. It is curious, however, that the reviews I receive in the United States are very good.  

INTERVIEWER

Are the opinions of the critics important to you?  

SARAMAGO

What is important to me is that I do my job well, according to my standards of what a good job is—that the book is written in the way I want it written. After it is out of my hands, it is just like everything else in life. A mother gives birth to a child and hopes the best for it, but that life belongs to the child, not the mother. The child will make of its life, or others will make of its life, something that most certainly will not be the life of which the mother dreamed. There is no use in my dreaming of magnificent receptions for my books by multitudes of readers because those readers will receive my books however they wish to.

I will not say that my books deserve to please readers because that would mean that the worthiness of a book depends on the number of readers. We know this to be untrue.  

INTERVIEWER

During that trip to the United States, you also went to Fall River, an area of Massachusetts that has many Portuguese communities.  

SARAMAGO

Yes, I had some contact with immigrants, those who for whatever reason were interested in my work. Surprisingly, I always had a good crowd, even though I am less and less interested in speaking about literature these days. I guess that would appear to be a contradiction because I write, and if I write books, what else should I speak about? Well I do write, but I was alive before becoming a writer and I had all the concerns of anyone else living in the world.

I was recently in Braga, Portugal, for a conference on my literary works, but we spoke about many other things—the situation in Portugal and what to do about it. I tell people that the history of the human race appears to be very complicated but actually it is extremely simple. We know that we live in a violent world. Violence is necessary to our species’ survival—we have to kill animals, or someone has to kill them for us, in order for us to eat. We pick fruit; we even pick flowers to decorate our homes. These are all acts of violence carried out against other living beings. Animals behave in the same manner: the spider eats the fly, the fly eats whatever it is flies eat. However, there is one tremendous difference: animals are not cruel. When the spider wraps up the fly in its web, it is merely putting tomorrow’s lunch in the refrigerator. 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? Because we speak? Because we think? Because we are capable of creating? Even though we are capable of all these things, it is not enough to stop us from doing all the negative and cruel things in which we engage. 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.

Sometimes I think to myself, I hope we are never able to leave this planet because if we ever do spread out into the universe, it is not likely that we will behave differently there than we have here. If we could in fact inhabit the universe—and I do not believe we will be able to—we would infect it. We are probably a virus of some kind that fortunately is concentrated on this planet. I was recently reassured about all this, however, when I read about a supernova that had exploded. The light from the explosion reached the earth about three or four years ago—it had taken a hundred and sixty-six thousand years to arrive here. I thought, Well, there is no danger, we will never be able to go that far.