Tag Archives: José Saramago

Just Another Lover

“[…], and normality, needless to say, means, purely and simply, dying when our time comes. Dying and not getting caught up in arguments about whether that death was ours from birth, or if it was merely passing by and happened to notice us.”
—José Saramago, Death With Interruptions (79)


Poor death, she just can’t get it right. But in José Saramago’s lyrical book Death With Interruptions she is a character with whom the reader can not help developing a feeling of deep sympathy. The novel opens when she impulsively decides to suspend killing people which causes endless chaos and palpitations within the government and religious institutions, not to mention the undying and living. The philosophers are the only ones that get any satisfaction from the predicament, as is usually the case, I think.

“It’s called metamorphosis, everyone knows that, said the apprentice philosopher condescendingly, That’s a very fine-sounding word, full of promises and certainties, you say metamorphosis and move on, it seems you don’t understand that words are the labels we stick on things, not the things themselves, you’ll never know what their real names are, because the names you give them are just that, the names you give them,” (76)

Saramago takes his time describing the consequences of death’s whim. The story is told from a narratorial voice of an omniscient we. It’s unnerving. And so it shouldn’t be surprising that when death finally makes a personal appearance as the protagonist heroine of the story, the reader, or at least this reader, is happy for the intimacy.

When death comes to understand the complications that have ensued from her decision to put an end to her work, she resumes her defining job, but with the small added curtesy of notifying each individual with a week’s notice of their impending end. Her endearing attempts to be polite and get it right are not appreciated, alas. But what does death know of the livings’ attachment to life?

“Meanwhile, in her hotel room, death is standing naked before the mirror. She doesn’t know who she is.” (229)

How death comes to be in a naked body standing in front of a mirror is the second half of the story. And it is a love story. Death’s awkwardness and insecurity as a lover is pure Saramago genius, speaking to the awkward insecure lover in us all. Saramago’s scenarios are Borges-like, but his temperament is his own: gentle, unassuming, and heart-achingly sweet.

Death With Interruptions is a tender and moving tale which centers life—life which we of course understand is always already a sort of dying—on love. It is love, Saramago whispers into our ears, that interrupts death.

Out of the Deleatur

What torments people have to go through when they leave the safety of their homes to become embroiled in mad adventures.
—José Saramago, All the Names, (88)


Anyone who is familiar with the writing of José Saramago will know that he has a distinct style and tone. All the same, as I read All the Names I was struck by the very strong similarity to a children’s book of his that I read to my youngest son a few years back, The Tale of the Unknown Island. The stories are of course different, but the phrasing and word choice is very like. I became convinced that they must have been written in proximity to each other and, how exciting! I was right—as it turns out, Saramago wrote both stories in the same year—1997.

That’s what has happened to me, he added, inside my head, and probably inside everyone’s head, there must be a kind of autonomous thought that thinks for itself, that decides things without the participation of any other thought (52)

Saramaga eschews quotation marks altogether, marking a change of speaker by a comma and a mid-sentence capital letter. His prose come practically paragraph-free (a typesetter’s dream my good friend and typesetter tells me—now that I think of it, he is the one who suggested I read this book—we share a love of Saramago). Saramago’s books take place in the interior of his character’s minds and standard punctuation has no place there. Once you are in his books there is an undisturbed flow to it all—you are next to the narrator, falling in love with his patient, wry, and kind voice.

“It is well known that the human mind very often makes decisions for reasons it clearly does not know, presumably because it does so after having travelled paths of the mind at such speeds that, afterwards, it cannot recognise those paths, let alone find them again” (12).

Both The Tale of the Unknown Island and All the Names deal with the same subject in the same way. In All the Names the protagonist is a man named José. He works in the kafka-esque atmosphere of the register’s office in all its magisterial pettiness and labyrinthical paper trails. Rather than embarking on an escapade to the unknown island, José is led, by himself—by the unfathomable mystery of his own mind’s logic— on an investigative search for the unknown woman. Why? he hardly knows. Why search for the unknown island when everyone knows it doesn’t exist? Why find the unknown woman when her existence is merely a clerical matter?

The phone book’s in there, I don’t feel like going into the Central Registry just now, You’re afraid of the dark, Not at all, I know that darkness like the back of my hand, You don’t even know the back of your hand, If that’s what you think, then just let me wallow in my ignorance, after all, the birds don’t know why they sing, but they still sing, You’re very poetic, No, just sad (55).

Thusly, José conducts conversations with himself throughout the story. The Tale of the Unknown Island is of course a tale about Love. Love is the unknown island that others scoff at and hold snide doubts about its very existence. The unknown woman of All the Names is the object and subject of Love. Saramago touches on the universal quality of Love that strikes like lightening individually. All the names of the unknown hoards of people deserve, want, and need Love. To deny that fact is to perform a depraved sort of deletion. Some delete themselves. And then, institutions, even those of record keeping—in their maniacal effort to keep track of individuals—erase the actual individual.

It doesn’t seem a very good rule in life to let yourself be guided by chance, Regardless of whether it’s a good rule or not, whether it’s convenient or not, it was chance that put that card in his hands, And what if the woman is the same one, If she is, then that was what chance offered, With no further consequences, Who are we to speak of consequences, when out of the interminable line of consequences that come marching ceaselessly towards us we can only ever distinguish the first (34)

In my lunch hour at my summer internship at the Met this past week, I happened upon one of the smaller shows that is currently on exhibit, About Face: Human Expression on Paper. The photo above is part of the exhibit. The photograph was taken by Hugh Welch Diamond in the mid-1800s. It is of a patient of the Surrey County Lunatic Asylum. At the time it was thought that insanity somehow presented itself in the physiognomy of the face and all manner of strange experiments, sometimes involving electrodes applied to various muscles of the face, were rather callously conducted. I find the photograph to be quite beautiful. Given the early-photgraphic era when it was taken, it is perhaps strange that she has a smile on her face, but if we didn’t know she was in an asylum one could invent entirely different circumstances around her life.  She is an unknown woman to me. But the connection that crosses the decades from the smile on her lips to mine is what makes us all feel alive to one another—it is Love writ large. That smile is not unknown to me. One of the most meaningful qualities of art and literature is that it fosters a feeling of human connections to one another. Art stands witness to our longing to connect and for not deleting ourselves or our desire to Love.  For the briefest moment I know and love that unknown woman. And, I know that I too am the unknown woman.

* title from p. 13: “it would not be the first time in the history of the deleatur that this had happened.”  Deleatur, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the proofreader’s mark that looks like a drunken Y and is from the Latin meaning “let it be deleted.”

On Board the Lovey

They banged the bronze doorknocker again to summon the cleaning woman, but the cleaning woman wasn’t there, she had turned and left, with her bucket and her broom, by another door, the door of decisions, which is rarely used, but when it is used, it decidedly is.
– José Saramago, The Tale of the Unknown Island (17)


The Tale of the Unknown Island, is a sweet book, wonderfully illustrated by Peter Sis. I did not find it in the children’s section of my library, but it could just as easily have been cataloged there. Saramago’s fable of a man who asks the King for a boat in which to go searching for the unknown island is a tale for all ages. What is this island that no one believes exists? Well, that is the delicacy of the tale, which was not lost on my ten-year-old son, to whom I read the book.

Of course, the hero is dismissed, no one thinks he will find one, because there are no more unknown islands, no one even wants to try. No one except the King’s cleaning woman.

My son puzzled over the door of decisions for quite a while. I suppose he has not yet encountered any, so he had to think about what that might mean to the cleaning woman who, as he put, “basically had to do everything!”

You said it was your boat, Sorry about that, I only said it because I liked it, Liking is probably the best form of ownership, and ownership the worst form of liking. (25)

Anyone who is familiar with Saramago’s work may be used to his preference for commas in the place of quotation marks. I appreciate the visual continuity and implied flow of natural conversation, but it is a little tricky to read aloud and I am glad I put in my years of reading Dr. Seuss  aloud in intense practice.

The flame [of the candle] took, grew slowly like the moonlight, lit the face of the cleaning woman, there’s no need to say what he thought, She’s lovely, but what she thought was this, He’s obviously got eyes only for the unknown island, just one example of how people can misinterpret the look in another person’s eyes, especially when they’ve only just met. (41)

At the book’s end I felt a quieter version of what I felt when I finished Saramago’s  Baltazar and Blimunda, my hand on my heart I turned to look at my son. “It’s kind of lovey dovey,” he said. “Augie, lovey dovey is where it’s at,” I told him. “I’m just a kid,” he reminded me. “Well, I’ll lovey you until some nice girl comes along and gives you some dovey,” and I kissed his face as we laid on the bed giggling thinking about the unknown island.

The fact that there was no gunpowder in the gunpowder locker, just a bit of black dust in the bottom, which she at first took to be mouse droppings, did not bother her in the least, indeed there is no law, at least not to the knowledge of a cleaning woman, that going in search of an unknown island must necessarily be a warlike enterprise. (29)

*translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa

Wrong Again

I know, I alone
How much it hurts, this heart
With no faith nor law
Nor melody nor thought.

Only I, only I
And none of this can I say
Because feeling is like the sky –
Seen, nothing in it to see.
Fernando Pessoa

DSCI0012I hope if there is ever a cocktail party in the afterlife I will find myself seated next to Herodotus. I just finished Book Two of The Landmark Herodotus The Histories which is edited by Robert B. Strassler and translated by Andrea L. Purvis.

The enthusiasm with which he collected as much information in the form of fact, “fact,” anecdote, eye-witness report or opinion is highly engaging. Book Two focuses on Egypt and all things and matters Egyptian. It’s all very interesting and entertaining.

I have to say that I am enjoying the interplay between Herodotus’s text and the footnotes most especially. In a description of Lake Moeris, Herodotus is, as usual, very thorough in his account:

Its circumference measures 397 miles, equaling the length of the coast of Egypt itself, but in this case extending from north to south. Its depth is 50 fathoms at its deepest point. This is clearly a man-made lake… (section 2.149 page 187)

What I haven’t put in are the numerous footnote annotations. Along with converting, for instance, a fathom into feet, (1=about 6 feet) and that sort of thing,  is very helpful information such as – Herodotus is wrong about the origins of the lake. It is clearly a natural lake. That one made me burst out laughing because there is a “Herodotus is mistaken” on nearly every page. In fact he is wrong about the circumference as well, it’s actually 170 miles. But the subtle cheek of the retort “It is clearly a natural lake.” Well, I found it very funny.

Okay, so I might need Mr. Strassler seated on my left to keep the information on the up and up, but that’s okay, it’s a party! Champagne cocktails for all! What fun it would be to listen to all the fantastic stories Herodotus gleaned.

He is the father of history just figuring it out the best he can as he goes. It is his passion for it that is so attractive to the reader.

Today I was thinking all day about a discussion (maybe too strong – an exchange of comments more like) I had on an excellent literary blog in which my question was whether or not it really mattered if one possessed all, or at least a lot of the knowledge that was referred to in any given book. I had read the book in question  The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis almost 2/3 through before I found out (by happenstance) that Reis was a heteronym*  of the poet Fernando Pessoa (who was a character in the book, along with Reis – it’s a really good novel by the way).

I was put out at the time- it seemed pretty relevant information. How the hell was I suppose to know?- I had swiped the book from one of my kid’s bookshelf after all, I didn’t know anything about it! But then I calmed down, after all, I had been enjoying the book all along, so it didn’t really matter. Did it?

I used my embarrassing ignorance to illustrate the larger point that the story is that good. Good enough to stand on its own, unhinged by prerequisite knowledge.  But, as the other blogger commented,  (and pointed to another excellent literary blog as example) the knowledge adds layers. And that is absolutely true, hence my irritation.

The interesting thing to me however, is that knowledge, on its own, is merely pedantic (and sadly, often is, in the hands or words of the “educated”). It is the joined force of knowledge and passion in both the  writer and the reader that raises the meaning to the correct level. Like many people I am intimidated by really smart people, and yet knowledge is no mystery: it can always, and fairly equally be acquired. Passion is different.

Letting yourself really love something almost demands that you don’t think yourself away from the feeling. They are opposites in a way: knowledge is full, facts you can see and point to, but there is nothing to point to when it comes to feeling. It’s a funny sort of balance, but trying to get it right is half the fun I suppose. Maintain the boundless wonder while accumulating the facts, that’s the trick.

Herodotus may get some of the knowledge parts wrong, okay, more than some, but his passion and love of collecting and sharing as much information as he can is wonderfully inspiring. His opinions and insights are very enjoyable to read. I suppose there is the possibility that he might turn out to be a complete bore of a blow hard after a few drinks, but I doubt it.

*Heteronym is a concept of Pessoa’s invention, it is a term he used to name the characters that he sometimes wrote as. He wrote many poems, for instance, as Ricardo Reis, and there were others as well that even “knew” each other and had exchanges. As Wiki explains, these are not pseudonyms, merely false names, they are fully realized characters with individual writing styles.  See? Knowledge – it’s all good.

**Herodotus Book One
Herodotus Book Three

Ready to Read

“For money does not always keep its value, unlike mankind, whose value is always the same, everything and nothing.”
José Saramago Baltasar and Blimunda

I came to the last paragraph late at night. I shut the the book and wept, opened the book again, reread the last paragraph, closed it, held it my hands for a moment and went straight to bed. I fell into a deep sweet sleep.
There are some books that move you to remember the time in your life when you didn’t even ask the question, “is it all just bullshit?” never mind the time when you answered it. Baltasar and Blimunda is such a book. It is kindness, innovation, mystery and love captured in a story of the Portuguese Royal Court, peasants and priests. A wonderful book.

I had previously read The Radetzky Waltz which was also a very good book: the pace and expression of monotony in the repressed and fading lives of the multi-generational Von Trotta family within the fading Austro-Hungarian Empire. Told with tenderness and written with humor – like  Zweig, Roth has a sophisticated understanding of the humor and sense of the absurdity that touches all aspects of life (see They Shoot Readers Don’t They?). But Baltasar and Blimunda touched me deeper.
Sometimes it is hard to know whether one is ready to start another book. Almost like drinking a gulp of water too soon after enjoying the lingering flavor of  something delicious in your mouth. But I was working today and so brought along A Visit From the Goon Squad. I was assigned to a boy who was actually absent. I had to go to his classes and take notes and write down his homework assignments. As it turned out I spent half the day in teacher’s room because “he” had gym or was reviewing for a quiz (Spanish), or watching the film Powers of Ten (science), so the teachers told me I didn’t have to stay as there were no notes to take.

I felt a little rejected because I didn’t have anywhere to go and also I wouldn’t have minded sitting in a Spanish class or watching a science film, although I have already seen Powers of Ten, (a Charles and Ray Eames film that is very cool, a few years ago my daughter and I got a little obsessed and watched a whole series of their short films).

Powers of Ten

The point is, I ended up having a lot of time to read. I am half way into the book now. Maybe it was the atmosphere of where I was reading, but I left work flat out exhausted from sitting on my ass all day in a windowless room reading a good but depressing book.

I don’t read as much modern literature as I do classic or period works, maybe the emptiness and sadness of our current world is a tad too in my face for me to seek it out in novels. Or maybe it is only because I was too recently affected by Baltasar and Blimunda: swept away in a feeling of something lovely and good in the world (which is of course just as sad then as now, and likewise probably just as good and beautiful now as then). But the gratuitous crassness of a lot of modern fiction often leaves me feeling icky.

I can’t decide if it enhances or disturbs (maybe both) the story by  reading it in an atmosphere where the sentences on the page are interspersed with bits and pieces of the conversations that surround me: “bread bowls of chili,” “fire killed the whole family,” “calories.” “going to the gym,” ” one more whopper” “the weather!” ” ice cream cake because that’s what I want.” Sometimes it all fits too perfectly. I thought I was worn out for the day, but I took a walk and the silly puffiness of the clouds cheered me up. I’m ready for the next 100 pages. Bring it on.

They Shoot Readers, Don’t They?

I was trying to work out what to read next as I came to the excellent end of Scarlet and Black (Stendhal). A friend of mine and her husband had just read A Visit From the Goon Squad and recommended it. I went to the online library catalogue to see if they had it. They did, but it was out and there was already a hold on it. I  put myself in the queue figuring I would have it in a few weeks. I started surfing around looking for more immediate prospects, and landed on an interview with the author Lars Iyer.

I was interested enough to look for his book Spurious, but no library in the state had it. I found it on Amazon and as the shipping cost more than the used copy, I purchased it. I figured I’d have it in a week or so. In the interview Iyer mentioned a scathing review of Stephan Zweig’s writing (and his rather strange desire to be critiqued in a similar meme). This past fall I had read some of  Zwieg’s books: The Royal Game and other short stories, Beware of Pity, Journey Into The Past, so I clicked on the link to the London Review of Books to see what it said. Scathing is a kind word for the complete evisceration of Zweig and his work. It was so intense it drew my attention away from the victim toward the denouncer. Who is this guy and what is his problem? I had quite enjoyed Zweig’s books. He was very unfavorably compared to his contemporaries, one of which was Joseph Roth. I had read Roth before I fell in with Zweig, and although I liked The 1002nd Night, I moved on to other authors.

Here in this anti-Zweig diatribe was a fevered insistance that Roth was obviously a genius but why he even bothered to be friends with the horrible writer Zweig was beyond the comprehension of the reviewer. Well, it was quite enough to put one off writing altogether. Life is painful enough without  having to endure such withering ad hominem attacks. Luckily Zweig is dead, so I needn’t worry on his account.  However, I was curious to revisit Roth now.  There was a copy of The Radetzky March at a nearby library, so I went to get it:

As I pick it off the shelf, having my choice of two copies (I choose the hard cover with no picture and a handy ribbon to mark one’s place), my eye snags on the “S” section. José Saramago. Damn it. I had forgot that I really wanted to read another one of his books (I had read The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis this past summer and really loved it), and there right in front of me is a very pretty copy of Baltasar and Blimunda. No, I tell myself, no no no, you have enough to read. But my hand picks it up anyway and then my feet just start to walk toward the circulation desk. I stop myself in the middle of the room and contemplate the weight of the pages in my hand. Oh all right, just move: you look ridiculous frozen on the middle of the floor.  I check them both out.

The next day I got an email from the library, The Goon Squad book is in. That was quick. When I got to the library I was surprised to see that there are actually two books waiting for me. I pick up the very hefty 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. When did I request that? I search my memory. I had just read a short story of his in The New Yorker, and I do remember that I then thought about his book The Savage Detectives, which I liked; I even recalled the memory of thinking about a good review I had read of 2666, but I had absolutely no memory of actually requesting it.

I searched my mind and there was nothing there. I really am a ghost in my machine, and as it turns out, my machine, like all others I use, runs its own programs mysteriously deleting and eating bits of information. Where do they go? Surely they must be on the hard drive, somewhere, but they are un-retrievable.
When I request a book I feel almost contractually bound to read it. It would be rude not to as the library has so kindly pulled it for me. So I brought them back to my abode and made a large pile on my desk – the due dates shout out at me. The next day Spurious came in the mail.