Jose Saramago: Death Interrupted (Extended Version)

Jose Saramago

In September of 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 bestseller 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 musing, 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 U.S., 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 David 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.
JOSE 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.
In Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, 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 being 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 six 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.

It’s not that I’m laughing at death, because no one can laugh at it. But why take it so seriously? Death becomes a person, a woman, and that woman falls in love with a cellist. Apparently some readers, but mostly critics, have reached an easy conclusion that Love defeats Death. First of all, no one, nothing can beat Death. And the proof is that the last phrase of the novel is exactly the same as the first: “The following day, no one died.” Which means that Death can be very happy as the woman, they’ve made love and all that, but the next day, everything is repeated. Death has to be accepted, period.

You said that there is an element of comedy in this novel. It is, one could say, a bit more lighthearted than some of your books, maybe the most lighthearted since The History of the Siege of Lisbon, which also has this element of, let’s say, romantic comedy to it.
It’s completely different because in The History of the Siege of Lisbon, two people are experiencing, in terms of their emotions, what many others have lived through before. They fall in love and they want to be happy, like everyone else. In this case it’s completely different because he doesn’t know who she is. She has never told him, “I am Death.” It is an ambiguous relationship, let’s say, but it’s understood that it is something we should doubt or that makes him doubt. Independently of the fact that everything will be repeated the following day, at some point Death could tell or concede to the cellist that she is Death. If she did tell him, it is possible he wouldn’t believe her. Because in front of him is a woman, a pretty, beautiful woman. Death for him is something completely different to that.

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.

Yet these divine characters who pass through your novels are presented with a kind of humanity, or, you could say, a grace. It’s the earthly agencies constructed around them, be it the church or the funeral industry, that distort them.

If you believe Jesus Christ is a divine character, we must agree to ask at what point is He conscious that He is a divine character. And that’s why I wrote The Gospel According to Jesus Christ.

Jesus is a person like any one of us and happily meets simple human beings. He finds himself in a situation he didn’t expect. Curiously enough, in the Bible, in the Gospels, the first — I won’t say person because he’s not a person ­— but the first person, for lack of a better word, to call Jesus the son of God is the devil. The first person.

When Jesus shows up to expel the demons inside the man who has a legion of demons inside him — his name is Legion — he says, “No, don’t torment yourself, son of God.” The question is, how did the devil know Jesus was the son of God? And why is it a miracle when the demons are expelled and then enter into the pigs and then the herd of pigs rushes headlong down the steep bank into the Sea of Galilee and drowns? What kind of miracle is that? They are legends, ancient tales, as when we read, for example, The Arabian Nights.

The origin becomes clear. Religion is a plague. And then with time, it changes into other, smaller religions or sects that confirms my thesis that man is sick, man is mentally insane.

And this is something that I think is in many of your books, a kind of, I don’t know if surprise is the right word, that in the 20th century, in the 21st century, man is still living in the shadow of these Middle Age superstitions.
I’m not guilty of that. I denounce it, I show it, I put it in my books, but changing one’s consciousness is, in the first place, difficult, then, secondly, one’s place in society. ... The most difficult thing of all is to create a critical consciousness. Fundamentalism pushes everything apart. Including the United States.

Maybe more there than anywhere else. It’s quite possible that the next vice president of the United States will be a woman who believes in creationism.
That doesn’t surprise me. Many years ago in Barcelona I was at a meeting of Nobel Prize winners, in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature. There were two of us from literature present, [Wole] Soyinka and I. At a certain point, a Nobel laureate for physics got up to speak and say a few words and left all of us shocked. He said that creationism should be taught at the same time as evolution. These two are contradictory. But this is what the Nobel laureate for physics was saying. We were all quiet. No one said a word and things continued as though nothing had happened.

The week it took to create the world, the universe, wasn’t six days, it was six very long periods that were later turned into days. Man is always more stupid than he appears to be.

But it’s an interesting story because it shows that you can make words mean whatever you want them to. Six days, six periods.
Well, words have their limits. And we don’t have enough available to us to express everything. And what would it mean to say it all? To say what you know? And what use is that?

There is a question that has no answer, or I, at least, haven’t to this day found it. And this is it: Why do we think what we think? Why do we think what we think? When we say “my ideas,” “my opinion,” does that really mean they are your ideas and your opinion? The fact is that they are inside you. What does that mean if you don’t share them?

You express an opinion, declare it, but what is the consciousness of all that? What is really a part of a person? And what is external to a person?

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.

I couldn’t help but notice that when Death writes her letter to the newspaper in the book, she writes a bit like Saramago. She uses lowercase letters and not much punctuation.
In order to describe Death’s handwriting, I had to invent my own handwriting.

It’s a way of asking how you came to develop this style of writing, because in Manual of Painting and Calligraphy it seems that you’ve almost arrived at this style but not quite.
In that period, time passed. I wrote Manual of Painting and Calligraphy on a normal manual typewriter. I now write on a computer. They are two different worlds. An important advantage that I find writing on a computer is that there is something artisanal about writing on a computer. The same way the potter takes a piece of clay and has an idea in his head and goes to work on that clay, he puts it on the pottery wheel.

Writing on a computer is exactly the same. When you write with a typewriter or with a pen, you have to think of the phrase so that when you put it on paper, there is little left to correct. What happens when you write on a computer is completely the opposite. You have an idea, you put it, more or less, on the screen, and then, as the potter does, you work it. You add things, you remove things; in fact, you can make it to the very end without preserving a single original word. You have corrected it, amended it, until you say, “That’s how I like it.”

I guess I’m interested in going back even before this book, in a way. I’m thinking about how, when you go to school, there are certain rules they teach you about writing: This is how you write a sentence, this is the subject, this is the verb. And there are many writers who write many books more or less by these rules. And then there are writers — of course, we know all the great names, Shakespeare, Joyce, Pessoa, I could list a hundred more — who make their own language, their own rules. So I’m interested to talk to you about how you arrived at your language, your style. For example, if we were to read your novel that you wrote in 1947, The Widow (Terra do Pecado), how would that seem by comparison to the books of yours that ...
How can one compare the person I am today with who I was back then?

That’s what I want to know about.
That first novel, Terra do Pecado from 1947, was written by someone who had no life experience. And it’s a novel that deep down was the product of books. A writer learns to write by reading, and the books that I had read at that time were undoubtedly by important authors, a type of consensus on what good writing was. That’s not a great novel, on the contrary; but it is not badly written. I wrote another novel that remained unpublished. And then I spent almost 20 years without writing and in the end, in 1976 or 1977, I wrote Manual of Painting and Calligraphy.

What had happened in the intervening years? I had no ideas, only that I wanted to start a career as a writer. I have accepted the fact that I stopped writing at the beginning because I was conscious that I had nothing to say. That I had nothing that was worth taking the time to say. When one has nothing to say, the best thing is to keep quiet. And so the question becomes, were you preparing all that time to be a writer? I wasn’t preparing anything. At the end of the 1960s, there rose in me a need to express myself poetically. And that resulted in three books: Possible Poems (1966), Probable Joy (1970) and From This World and the Other (1971). The book from 1973 [The Traveller’s Baggage] is a transitional one.

You also wrote, in 1975, a book-length poem called The Year of 1993.
In a certain way, it announces the fiction that will be born. From then I realized that I had something to say and I started to say it. When I was 19 or so, I remember I wrote a poem which said:

Whoever has fallen silent
the way I did
cannot die
without saying it all.

This was a sort of dumb idea because what did I have to say at 19? When we’re 19 we have a huge number of things to say but we don’t know how to say them. You have to wait. Time will be your teacher.

When you wrote Manual of Painting and Calligraphy did it come easily to you? I mean, you felt you had something to say and then, when you actually sat down to do the writing, did it come easily?
Well, there are critics that consider Manual of Painting and Calligraphy one of my best novels.

I’m one of them.
There are critics that allow themselves to be seduced by the experimental aspects of fiction, and that novel has something experimental about it. I have to recognize that it was not done consciously. At that time, I was feeling a little like the Molière character [in Le bourgeois gentilhomme] who was astonished when he found that he had been writing prose since the time he was born. He asks himself, “I write prose?” Let’s say that was a bit like the situation I found myself in. I believe deep down this happens to all writers. I was searching for my own voice, and when I found my voice, I was already a writer. If you find your own voice, then you express yourself according to that. This small territory that is yours and no one else’s, it’s your voice.

This idea of somebody who doesn’t think they have anything to say realizing that they do indeed have something to say recurs in several of your books. It’s true of the painter H. in Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, it’s also true of the proofreader Raimundo Silva in The History of the Siege of Lisbon and, in a way, I felt that something similar was happening with the cello player in Death With Interruptions, because he thinks of himself as a not particularly good cello player, but Death sees in him the ability to be better than that. So you seem interested in this moment of self-discovery.
We would be doing very badly if women only fell in love with geniuses. The cellist is a cellist like many others. He is not trying to find his genius. What the cellist is searching for is the person he can’t get. This character did not have to be a cellist, he could have been a store employee, but that’s not so romantic. Now if it’s a cellist who wants to play Bach ... the reader loves that.

I guess what I’m saying is that many of your characters are looking for a way to express themselves.
My characters are normal, everyday people. The fact is, as can happen or not, they sometimes find themselves in situations in which they have to make a decision. For example, in All the Names, the clerk in the registry is not a cellist. At a certain point, life challenges him. It’s as though life is saying, “Now what are you going to do?” When he takes the record of a woman whom he knows nothing about, he doesn’t realize at that moment that life is challenging him. And at the moment he becomes conscious of what is happening — that he wants to meet this woman whom, as I said, he knows nothing about — that is the beginning of a new life for which he is unprepared. And the reader comes to realize that, without knowing it, the clerk was actually prepared to take on all that he would come to face.

I was asking before, and maybe I wasn’t asking in the best way, about the element of fantasy in your books.
That which you call fantasy, deep down, is simply something that we do not understand or something that has not yet happened.

The unexplained.
For example, in One Hundred Years of Solitude García Márquez writes that the girl ascends to the heavens on a sheet and disappears. What matters is not if that is true. What matters is whether or not it is believable within the context, believable to imagination. At the moment when something becomes believable to your imagination, it is justified.
In my latest book, The Elephant’s Journey, there are a number of events that could not have occurred. But in the telling of the story, they become, I wouldn’t say believable, but something that works, something justifiable in the context of the book. What matters most is that the reader feels good reading. That he feels happy reading, with or without fantasy. That’s what matters.

Fantasy must be used in a homeopathic way. In small doses.

Are these kinds of fantasy stories in any way related to the stories that your grandfather told you when you were a little boy?
No. My grandfather would tell me stories about things that had actually happened. My grandfather had a lot of experience but not a lot of imagination. He didn’t need it. Or he believed he didn’t need it. Who can know what was going on in his head? When I say he didn’t need it, perhaps I’m talking nonsense.

The critic Harold Bloom, who is 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.

Harold Bloom has been very critical of me, when I said what I did about Israel. So I would also say that Israel is not living in the real world. Israel is living a fantasy which makes it try to reach what they themselves have termed The Great Israel.

And I also sometimes say that in my books I am often more right than I am myself in life. That is possible.

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.

What I mean, for example, is the way that Raimundo Silva, the proofreader hero of The History of the Siege of Lisbon, by changing a word, stops the Crusades from happening.
A historical truth doesn’t exist. Doesn’t exist. Everything is an interpretation. A fact can be understood, interpreted in different ways. What Raimundo has done in the face of that supposed historical truth is limited to repeating it, repeating it, repeating it. So when he adds the word “not” and the Crusaders never returned and the Portuguese never reconquered Lisbon, that means the story should change drastically.

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.

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.