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Parables of Irony: Jose Saramago
by Dr. Binoy Kampmark
2010-06-23 08:26:08
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A world of blindness that reduces those of civilized sight to barbaric sightlessness; a world where death ceases to reap, leaving the living unmolested.  These were just a few visions put to print by the Portuguese writer and Nobel Laureate José Saramago, who died at 87 earlier on June 18 at his Lanzarote home in the Canary Islands.

Irony is a currency worth its weight in gold, and Saramago mastered it with a certain genius.  The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991) to take one example, produced the desired double-effect, enraging some members of the pious creed while enchanting others for its deeply ‘religious’ theme.  Portraying Jesus as a figure who questions God’s sacrificial proclivities and dabbling in sex with Mary Magdalene was bound to provoke a reaction.  The Portuguese authorities, erring on the side of Catholic orthodoxy, prevented the book’s entry into the European Literary Prize in 1992.  Saramago left his native land in a huff for self-imposed exile in the Canary Islands.

His poor background was aptly captured by the muddling of his family name (de Sousa) at the hands of an inattentive village clerk.  His birth certificate, on being presented on his first day at school, reflected the transformation – de Sousa had become Saramago, or the rather pejorative ‘wild radish’, symbol of lean times and a scrapping existence.  Then came the vocational life of a car mechanic and metal worker before he embraced the world of fiction when he was already in his 50s.

The novel which catapulted him into an English orbit was Baltasar and Blimunda, originally the Memorial of the Convent (1982), a tale of love between a clairvoyant and a maimed soldier that takes place in Inquisition-rife Portugal in the 18th century.  Perhaps his most famous work remains The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1984), the only one of his works, commentators have noted, to deal with the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar. 

The novel features the journey of a doctor and poet who returns to a fascist Portugal on the death of his friend Fernando Pessoa.  Pessoa, one of Portugal’s greatest modernist poets, incidentally employed the pseudonym of Ricardo Reis in his works.  In the novel, Reis plays the absurdist, innocuous figure who is economical in the activities he engages in, whether it be reading the newspaper or getting involved with a chambermaid.  His exterior world is far from economic with deeds, certainly in terms of brutality, be there the excesses of Mussolini in Abyssinia, Germany’s move into central Europe, and the triumph of Franco over Spain’s Republican government.

Saramago left no one in doubt about his political stance.  A steadfast communist, he condemned globalization as a revised and edited version of totalitarianism.  The rise of the multinational corporation had crippled accountable democracy.  In an interview with The Guardian (Nov 22, 2008), he explained that he was making no ‘excuses for what communist regimes have done.  But I have the right to keep my ideas.’  He courted controversy with a certain relish, likening Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians with the Holocaust while visiting Yasser Arafat’s besieged compound in 2002.  ‘What is happening in Palestine is a crime that we can compare to what occurred in Auschwitz.’  The Israeli writer Amos Oz reacted with fury, charging Saramago with ‘incredible moral blindness’.

Saramago’s last work, The Elephant’s Journey, will feature a lively account of an animal keeper’s trip across the Europe of the Reformation era with a host of characters, among them Archduke Maximilian II and his pet elephant. May it continue that rich tradition of mischievous writing, where paragraph breaks or quotation marks are avoided in constructing, to use the Nobel Committee’s words, ‘parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony.’ 


Binoy Kampmark
was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

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a2010-06-25 06:00:55
His last complete work is Cain though (released after The Elephant's Journey - which had a factual historic basis, an elephant offered as a gift from Portugal to Austria, centuries ago, which crossed Europe in a caravan with its keepers and horse riders, stopping here and there and leaving the europeans, who had never seen such an animal, astonished - the elephant works in the book as a metaphor for other different men).
But his last work was on the topic of arms traffic - left unfinished due to his disease.

a2010-06-25 06:06:02
ps. Saramago was a car mechanic for a short period in his youth, after that he became a civil servant for quite some time, then a journalist, editor and translator for decades (before publishing more seriously his own work, he had already translated dozens of fundamental and original foreign authors).

a2010-06-25 06:14:40
ps2. I think it's important to clarify: in spite of declaring himself a communist, Saramago was almost as critical of real communist regimes as he was of capitalism - and that includes the soviet union, china, the disagreements with cuba, etc. thanks

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