Tuesday, June 29, 2010

José Saramago, 1922-2010

Speaking of blindness... the great Portuguese novelist and controversial polemicist José Saramago died on 18 June, and if the announcement of his departure shocked me it wasn’t because of his age—he was 87—but his sheer productivity right up to the end. How many examples in literature do we have of authors who created such a bold, challenging and prolific body of work at an age as advanced as Saramago’s during his last two decades of robust busyness? (I’m sure Borges would have an answer.) Like many Anglophone readers I discovered Saramago with his Nobel Prize-winning
Blindness, published in translation in 1997 and written when the author was already a septuagenarian. I’ve read everything since, which is a lot, and not much that was written beforehand, something I look forward to remedying. Blindness concerns a plague that renders nearly all of humanity blind, and its sentences that go on for pages, with several exchanges of dialogue mounting atop one another so that it can become difficult to discern who’s speaking, struck me as a brilliant way of making the reader almost feel as blind, in some sense, as the characters. When I first read Blindness I hadn’t yet realized that pretty much all of Saramago’s fiction is written in the same style. Yet this style lends itself to a seemingly infinite number of uses.

Saramago’s prose, exalted in structure, colloquial in word choice, seem simultaneously carved in stone and transcribed from the most intimate conversations. His ongoing critique of consumer culture, which was perhaps most eloquent and compelling in
The Cave, which will forever change how you look at West Edmonton Mall, was often aligned directly with his mercurial Marxism, and his fantastical conceits were often regarded, or at least marketed, as allegories. Yet Saramago’s best stories were far too humane, spontaneous, organic, and mysterious to be neatly summed up in any sort of one-to-one metaphorical framework or reduced to didacticism. My experience with his novels has usually gone like this: I enter immediately engrossed and fascinated; halfway through, the seemingly endless digressions are wearing me out; by the end, the grand conclusion arises as though from a fog, my mind is sufficiently blown, and I treasure every page, even the ones that frustrated me, and feel like I’ve genuinely been through something, something that has caused me not to feel closer to Saramago’s world view, but to rigorously question my own. As our world continues to rumble forth his contentious, often poetic voice will be missed, but his texts remain, and thanks to the inherent sluggishness of translation, it seems we still have some new ones to look forward to.

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