At Interval, A Death: Jose Saramago 1922 - 2010

on Saturday, June 19, 2010
Jose Saramago, the great porcupine of modern literature, has died and I'm not quite sure how to feel. I have written previously about my struggle to separate the man from his work. He was cantankerous, opinionated and, unfortunately, ill-informed on a number of issues with which he chose to so passionately engage. While I kind of admire the first two traits in a public intellectual (and in fact share his left leaning ways), the third produced some cringeworthy moments that peppered the latter part of his life. Why, then, do I choose to be wilfully blind to these personal inadequacies? I like to think it's because he never let his politics seep into what he wrote. He might have been an angry man off the page, but between those covers he was more akin to the great fabulists of yesteryear. His books are humane, warmhearted, quirky and challenging and will undoubtedly stand tall long after everyone has forgotten what a total shit he was.

I am embarrassed to admit that my first encounter with Saramago was in 1998, when he won the Nobel Prize. I make a point of reading at least one book by each year's winner, a practise that for the most part has seen me throw my hands up in exasperation at the crap those numbskulls at the Swedish Academy choose to recognise (Elfriede Jelinek anyone?). But when it came to Saramago I instantly fell in love. I adored Blindness, even if it borrowed a little too heavily from Camus's The Plague, and felt I had to read as much as I could by this wonderful writer. Luckily, Saramago was prolific and became ever more so as he got older. Barely a year would pass without a new novel appearing which, for me, was a cause for celebration. I ordered each one long in advance and would drop whatever I was reading the day it arrived. Even as I write, I have The Elephant's Journey on order and can't wait until it is released in September. Naturally, Saramago suffered the usual post-Nobel slump, churning out a few lesser works (The Cave, The Double, Seeing), but seemed to have just regained his powers. His most recently translated novel, 2005's Death At Intervals, was as good as anything he produced in his early days.

This year has already seen the publication of two non-fiction books. I wrote about Small Memories, Saramago's disappointing memoir of his youth, a few months back. Sitting on my bookshelf is the other work, an assortment of brief, reflective, polemic musings called The Notebook which I am scared to start. I have no desire to confront his prickly all-too-human quills again. Thankfully, I won't be forced to read The Notebook as his last will and testament. He has two novels that have yet to be released in translation, the aforementioned The Elephant's Journey and Cain (which, upon its publication in Portugal massively irked the local clergy, and caused a furore that would have been funny had Saramago not thrown in some spiteful anti-Semitic comments in his attempt to defend the book). There are also another ten or so early works that never appeared in English and that I hope come out - one each year - so that I might have the privilege of continuing to hear his gentle voice. It's sad he's gone, but at least he can no longer piss me off.


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