Which Way Jose? (A Rant About Repugnant Authors)

on Thursday, January 7, 2010
A couple of years ago, I was browsing in London's wonderful Daunt bookstore when I stumbled across a new novel by one of my favourite authors Jose Saramago. There had been no pre-press. No pomp and ceremony. The novel just appeared in stores, a paperback original. It was a pleasant surprise, all the more so because I was about to catch a flight back to Australia and knew that I would now be in the company of an old friend. As it turned out, Death at Intervals (or, as it is sometimes known, Death With Interruptions) is one of Saramago's greatest works, brimming with pathos, humour and a charming philosophical whimsy. Sitting next to me on the way across the Indian Ocean was an author of note who was visiting my shores for the Melbourne Writers' Festival. I foisted the book upon her and she too loved it. We chatted about all things Saramago for the remaining hours.

The "Unexpected Saramago Phenomenon" happened again this week, with the unexpected appearance of his new memoir Small Memories. Unlike several of his fellow Nobel Laureates (Canetti, Lessing and, in a quirky fictional sense, Coetzee spring to mind here) he has resisted the reflective bug and stuck to producing powerful, life-affirming literary fiction of the highest order... with the exception of a few stumbles - I'm looking at you Seeing, The Cave and The Double (Dostoevsky ought to have his boots licked for that one). Safe to say, overall I love Saramago's work. Blindness, The Stone Raft and Baltasar and Blimunda are modern masterpieces. But here's the thing. Jose Saramago, the person, is by all accounts a repugnant human being. Indeed, the Nobel Laureate that he might most resemble is Knut Hamsun, not only because of their similar love of nature and its wonders, or the fabulist air to their work, but also the unsavoury likelihood that he is a dyed-in-the-wool racist. Hamsun's affinity for Nazi ideology has been well documented. He admired Hitler. He chummed up with Goebbels. His legacy has been tainted accordingly (and let's face it, Hunger isn't THAT good, although Mysteries is...). Saramago is a slightly more complex case. I take no exception to his membership to the Portuguese Communist Party. I like that he is a fearless agitator. I have no problem with his criticism of Israel's treatment of Palestinians, except when he resorts to easy (and uninformed) cliches about modern Nazism. However, I fear that his critical zeal has spilt over into outright anti-Semitism, something I cannot abide. He has made odd statements in the past, but his recent comment when launching his latest novel Cain pretty much sealed the deal for me. After calling the bible a "catalogue of bad morals" (to which, again, I take no exception), he went on to say that "it might offend the Jews but that doesn't really matter to me."

What can I make of the fact that the humanity expressed in the work of one of my favourite writers is not reflected in him as a person? Does this schism add a layer of falsity to his writing? There is a great book on this topic called Intellectuals by Paul Johnson in which the author explores the personal views of some of the greatest writers that have ever lived. Tolstoy was plain scary. Hemingway, Bowles, Mailer and Sartre were misogynist pigs. And don't get me started on Martin Amis (not that he ranks as one of the world's greatest but I needed to stick someone contemporary here). Hamsun was a willing accomplice to Nazism. Brecht was a heartless opportunist and party lackey. Dostoevsky was a drunken gambling fiend whose addiction served to destroy not only him but also those who loved him. Ditto Poe. The list goes on. Does this make them unreadable? Obviously not. As my older brother used to joke, "Do as I say, not as I do". But it does make me read them in a jaded light.

As I worked my way through Small Memories I searched for signs of what made him so contrarian. At 87, one would think that he is well-equipped for critical reflection. But this slight book reveals very little, and will unfortunately go down as one of his minor works. Aside from an older brother who died at age four and a domineering father, there was nothing to glean. I once asked a Portuguese friend what they thought of him. He said that people in his country are torn. He is undoubtedly one of literature's greats but he is well known for being a thoroughly dislikable person. Which is strange... Life has been long and, for the most part, good to Saramago. Oh well, I guess he was just born a douche.


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