In September 2008, on assignment for this newspaper, I traveled to the Canary Islands to interview the man whom, until June 18 of this year, I regarded as the world’s greatest living writer: José Saramago. For nearly two years, I had been courting the Portuguese Nobel laureate through his American publisher and British publicist before finally winning his consent, just prior to the U.S. publication of Death With Interruptions, a magnificently wry fable about the unforeseen complications that arise when the Grim Reaper treats herself to an extended holiday (and ends up falling in love with a cello player).
It was, one might suggest, an unsurprising subject for a writer who, then 85, had recently survived a near-fatal bout of pneumonia. Except that death and Saramago were bedfellows as far back as his second novel, Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, written when he was nearly 60. Death, too, is everywhere in Blindness, the 1995 international best-seller in which an unexplained epidemic of sightlessness reduces the human race to a primitive, animalistic state; and in his masterpiece, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, which observes the final months in the life of an exiled doctor returning to his native Lisbon. Among other things, that book anticipates Saramago’s own life of exile in the Canaries, where the devout atheist lived for the two decades following efforts by the Portuguese government to censor his controversial 1991 novel, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ.
Yet if Saramago sensed he was on borrowed time, it stirred in him not despair but rather an extraordinary prolificacy. When we met in 2008, he had just published a new novel, The Elephant’s Journey (now available in English translation) and, most unexpectedly, launched a daily blog of political and literary musings, which have been collected in the recently published anthology The Notebook (take that, Nicholas Sparks!). He had also begun work on another novel, Cain, which was published in the fall of 2009, shortly after the author announced on his blog that he was taking an extended hiatus to devote himself fully to yet another new novel.
A private audience with Saramago was a rare opportunity, not to be taken lightly. Yet, despite my repeated requests to his agents for a seasoned Portuguese-English translator, I arrived at the author’s stately private library, high on a winding Lanzarote road, to discover that our interpreter would be a well-intentioned young man on Saramago’s staff, who spoke not a word of Portuguese (requiring Saramago to speak in Spanish) and only limited English. To state the obvious, this led to an awkward session during which I could tell that some of my questions were being mistranslated to the author, while no more than half of Saramago’s long, considered replies were coming back to me in comprehensible English. Somehow, we muddled through, and upon returning to the States, I handed off the recording of the interview to another translator (the invaluable David Barba), in the hope that he might make some sense of it. By the time I had the results in hand, Death With Interruptions was already in bookstores and — writerly neuroses having gotten the better of me — I had come to regard my time with Saramago as a giant missed opportunity.
Like the patient who hopes to forestall illness by not returning his doctor’s phone calls, I couldn’t quite bring myself to look at that transcript until the news arrived a few weeks ago that Saramago was dead at 87. At that point, I retrieved my proof copy of Death With Interruptions from the bookshelf — my invoice from the Hotel Los Fariones still pressed between its pages — and excavated the interview from the darkest recesses of my laptop. To my happy surprise, I discovered that while the language barrier was undeniably present that day in Lanzarote (as annotated by Barba when he was putting the pieces back together), the majority of our dialogue was more lucid than I recalled. Moreover, much of what Saramago had to say — about his work, the failings of capitalism and, above all, about death — was as bracing as if he had said it only yesterday.
Saramago talked the way he wrote, with the certainty of an enlightened man — one who has rejected dogma in favor of contemplating, in his own inimitable terms, the state of the world and man’s place in the cosmos. In the remarkable final passages of The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, the protagonist accompanies the ghost of another great Portuguese writer, Fernando Pessoa, on his journey to a place “where the sea ends and the earth awaits.” Now Saramago has joined them in that abyss, leaving behind a shelf of literature that is nothing if not immortal.
L.A. WEEKLY: Death is present in many of your books.
JOSÉ SARAMAGO: Death is present every day in our lives. It’s not that I take pleasure in the morbid fascination of it, but it is a fact of life.
Specifically, in Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, the painter H. tells us that he’s been obsessed with death since he was a teenager.
Yes, there is a passage where the narrator specifically says that he had his father’s skull in his hands. That was me. My father fought in World War I. In Lisbon, there is a section in the cemetery, in all cemeteries, intended for the remains of soldiers who fought in World War I. My father’s remains were put in a small box and put away. They are in Lisbon right now. I can’t say where they are exactly, but at that moment, I remember I picked up a skull as Hamlet did with Yorick’s skull. This is not a philosophical reflection, it was simply my father.
I suppose this is a long-winded way of getting to the question: Why now make Death the main character in a novel? How did you come to this decision? After the presence of Death in many of your novels, now she is the star, so to speak.
Well, that’s the joke, because none of us likes the idea of dying. But the truth is that we all have to die. To continue living, we have to die. That’s the story of humanity — generation after generation — that we are going to die. There’s nothing dramatic about death except that one loses one’s life. In the world, in a planet that has 6 billion inhabitants, it’s just one moment and it’s over. What is truly strange is that death should be something sinister or grim; disturbing at least. My novel looks at the humor in that, the irony of it.
Somebody might wonder why an atheist is always writing about religious subjects like the life of Jesus, the personification of death, and things that we might call acts of God, like a plague of blindness or the Iberian Peninsula breaking apart from the rest of Europe.
This is the question they always ask me. Why do you write about this? Because it’s there, it’s present in society. Even though I’m an atheist, I’m a product, from the point of view of morality, of this religion, from Greco-Christian principles. I am writing about something that has, in part, made me the person I am today. It’s part of the world, I breathe religion in the air.
Even though, as we were saying, this book [Death With Interruptions] is something of a comedy, there is also a more serious idea at work, which is that the world is perched on the razor’s edge of fascism.
Yes, of course we are. I feel that I don’t need green or gray clothes to know that fascism is there, latent. And the U.S. must answer for that too. For example, when one travels to the United States and goes through immigration, if you have a personal laptop computer, the [immigration officials] can copy the hard drive of your computer. This is being done in the United States in the name of democracy. Where is the right to privacy?
They have a wonderful name for this: “The Patriot Act.”
Oh, it’s called “The Patriot Act”? That’s great! [laughs] You have a good sense of humor. That’s called black humor. I haven’t been to the U.S. in many years and I won’t return. To go through immigration and customs and to have everything about my life known is unacceptable to me. The U.S. lives very well without me, so I too can live stupendously well without it. And the United States is a great country, no one denies that. Americans are a great people, no one denies that. The fact is, there is a deep well of latent (or manifest) reactionary-ism, which can change. The appearance of Obama, whether he wins or not, is a sign. It’s a sign because it’s not easy for him. He’s black, he has no support, and that he becomes the candidate for president for the Democratic Party, that’s like a revolution. That is a revolution. Even if he loses, it is already revolutionary, because this can be repeated in the future.
The critic Harold Bloom, a champion of yours, has said that to be a Portuguese Stalinist today means you’re simply not living in the real world.
Perhaps, perhaps. We have to allow for everything. We don’t want to contradict people, especially someone called Harold Bloom. The real world, the world of the neocons, of America, seems like the most real world you can imagine. It would seem that, after that, nothing would happen. But look at the situation we’re in now. The world’s superpower, the United States, is in a financial crisis.
On the other hand, I’m not just a communist, I’m a lot of other things. First of all, I am not responsible for the crimes committed by what was called “real socialism.” Secondly, I’ve never been a Stalinist. I’ve had some ideas through reading Marx, and I would say that Marx has never been so right as today. The time we are living in now is proving Marx right.
While you were speaking just now, I was reminded of how, today, the meanings of certain words have become distorted or altogether lost. Like “communism” or “socialism.” In America, these are bad words, but fewer and fewer people seem to know what they really mean.
They don’t know what they really mean. Misunderstood, misapprehended, and then people’s behavior becomes completely irrational. On the other hand, they have every right not to like it. I also don’t like American fundamentalists. I also dislike the absolute power of the great capital of the United States. I don’t defend the idea of universal love. It has never existed and will never exist.
Yet in many of your books, maybe even in all of the books, there’s a yearning or desire for love.
Not universal love, no, no, no. Love is something highly personal. You’re not saying that everybody acts as if they were like Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who deep down was really not preoccupied with people’s lives but more so with people’s souls? There are some slightly erroneous ideas of love. With Mother Teresa of Calcutta, to continue that example, twice she was offered hospitals that were completely equipped and ready for use. And she rejected them. What she liked was finding a dying man with his soul bared and saying a prayer for him. For her, that was love. Of course, I love my wife, but I could never imagine that love I have for her being subsumed in a universal love for everyone. Everyone has love.
But this doesn’t strike me as pessimism exactly, and you have often been described as a pessimist. Maybe it isn’t optimism, but it also isn’t pessimism.
I am absolutely a pessimist. That is your opinion, my opinion is different. The human species is a disaster. That’s why we find ourselves where we do today. With millions of people dying of hunger, suffering from diseases that can easily be cured, with a criminal distribution of wealth.
And the Crusades are still going on.
It doesn’t even compare. The executives of those financial corporations, in the depths of the crisis, receive multimillion-dollar bonuses. They have done a terrible job and are being paid for that terrible job.
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That’s the error of capitalism: When it is assumed that capitalism was the answer, when that happens, anything goes. And that’s what has happened. Everything is allowed within the neocon framework of the economy. And in the case of the United States, the country of private initiative and free-market competition, these companies’ large debts will be paid by the American people. Now the taxpayers are paying for the crisis.
Doesn’t this all come back to the idea of people’s fear of death? All these things that we are talking about — money, power — are the ways in which people try to grant themselves immortality.
If one could be immortal when you are 40 or 50, that could perhaps be an interesting experience. What happens is that immortality would be like eternal old age. The years pass and the immortal person gets older until they can no longer move, but they’re still immortal. That’s the problem that this book represents. Immortality would be a nightmare, a terrible nightmare. Dying is okay, it’s necessary. You already know I just went through a very grave illness. I could have died. Death was standing right next to me. But it will happen one day with this illness or another and I will have to leave this world, my library, no more interviews. It’s over.
When death finally comes, what will you say to her? [NOTE: This question was translated to Saramago as “When do you think death will come definitively?”]
At any moment. I hope I have another two years. But a writer’s definitive death is when no one reads his books anymore. That’s the final death.
I think you don’t have to worry about that. Unless they burn all the books.
I’m only worried about the time I have left to live. The rest is not in my hands. I’m not going to torment myself with wondering whether my books will be read or not. I have no control over that. My responsibility is to write the best I can. I attempt that every day in my work.