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REVIEW: Blogs, novelists and Saramago’s notebook

January 27, 2013

Reviewed by Asif Farrukhi

DEATH does not seem to have been much of a deterrent for Jose Saramago, who even today continues to amaze his admirers and even gain new ones. The Portuguese novelist and Nobel laureate is best known for his novel Blindness, a startling fable about those who can see and those who will not, which is sometimes described as his best work. However, I am reluctant to speak of him with reference to any single work. My great admiration for Blindness notwithstanding, the book which mesmerised me was The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis; I have been unable to forget its enigmatic opening line: “Here the sea ends and the earth begins”. It was this book which made me search for his other novels in English. The comparatively short and powerful novel, The Elephant’s Journey, was translated into English just as the news of Saramago’s death was slowly being absorbed by his ardent admirers the world over. But it was not the only fruit of his last few years. The Notebook also comes from the last years of Saramago’s life and is a different book from his previous ones, made up of pieces originally written for his blog but no less compelling than his novels.

As if writing these rich and multi-layered novels was not enough, Saramago undertook the adventurous expedition of writing a blog. What impact this news must have generated can be gauged from the introduction to The Notebook penned by Umberto Eco, no ordinary writer and interpreter: “And here he is keeping the blog in which he takes a pop at more or less everyone, attracting broadside and brickbats from many a quarter — not, in most cases, because he says things that shouldn’t be said, but because he doesn’t mince his words. And perhaps he actually infuriates readers on purpose.” This seems to be an accurate description of what Saramago had set out to do and powerful writer that he was, he made it a worthwhile effort which could stand beside his memorable fiction. For some strange reason, publishers have labelled the book a memoir. With disarming modesty, Saramago called the blog his personal space and in the preface, which is only a page long, credited his sister and brother-in-law for helping him manage it. A working journalist for many years, he used it to record his opinions and his views on public affairs, and comment on books and sometimes on personal matters which, for a writer of his calibre, cannot remain personal. This is how Saramago used the freedom offered by the Internet and in one entry, defended himself against the charge that he is not really a blogger.

Blogs are written in Urdu too, but on a smaller scale and the few I have seen are focused more on political themes than cultural issues. These issues are still within the domain of the regular columns of creative writers in Pakistan, best exemplified by Intizar Husain (his Urdu columns, not the English ones which are rather different), Kishwar Naheed and Masood Ashar. Saramago the blogger was closer in spirit to these writers, but what set him apart was his astonishing range and breadth of vision. He moved from one theme to another but never missed any occasion to vent his fury and did not mince his words when expressing his opinions. George W. Bush was one of his favourite subjects and one can say that the very mention of his name moved Saramago to eloquence. On September 18, 2008, he wrote: “This man, with his mediocre intelligence, abysmal ignorance, confused communication skills and constant succumbing to the irresistible temptation of pure nonsense, has presented himself to humanity in the grotesque pose of a cowboy who has inherited the world and mistaken it for a herd of cattle.”

The first piece in The Notebook is a tribute to Lisbon, and Saramago linked it with a memory: “In physical terms we inhabit space, but in emotional terms we are inhabited, by memory. A memory composed of a space and time, a memory inside which we live, like an island between two oceans — one in the past, the other the future.” In another piece he proclaimed: “I don’t think I have ever divided my identity as a writer from my conscience as a citizen. I believe that where one goes, the other should go, too.” His sense of outrage as a citizen was apparent when he focused on themes closer to home. He attacked the role of religion in the world. Another issue which he brought up is the dispossession of the Palestinians and he wrote movingly about the poetry of Darwish.

Not surprisingly, some of these issues have a Hispanic or Iberian focus and readers from other countries need to contextualise them. Then there are others that we may not have paid attention to but Saramago has made them accessible and interesting for us. One such lucid example is when he proclaimed that “Baltasar Garzon is one of the most influential people to have emerged from Spanish society in the second half of the 20th century”. If the name does not ring a bell immediately, you can simply read on to understand that he is the judge who fought the battle for the legal process against Augusto Pinochet, the former dictator of Chile, and the investigation against the war crimes of Franco’s regime in Spain. These “illuminatingly democratic moments” are better illustrated through Saramago’s informed comments, and for this one must give him credit that here too, like in his novels, he has opened up zones of experience which were not otherwise available to us.

The Notebook

By Jose Saramago


Published by Verso

ISBN 184467701X

284pp. $16.50