José Saramago, ca. 1986

 

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.