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Jose Saramago: the dissident voice in fiction

  • Published at 04:27 pm August 11th, 2018

A tribute

Speculative fiction has been around for a long time, quietly shaping the literary world, and the cultures surrounding it. Be it a meditation on the inequitable power of the state (1984, Fahrenheit 451), or the ethics of man playing God (Frankenstein), the genre has captured the imagination of readers and writers alike, decade after decade. It spawned some of the greatest works of literature, encompassing diverse genres, schools of thought, traditions, and outcomes of a cultural phenomenon. Speculative fiction covers a wide range of genre, from utopian/dystopian science fiction to supernatural/fantasy to horror fiction, boasting some of the biggest names in Literature: Harlan Ellison, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Ray Bradbury, Margaret Atwood, and countless others. Belonging to this tradition is one of the most trailblazing authors of his time: the Portuguese born Jose De Sousa Saramago, a Nobel laureate, novelist, staunch communist, and devout atheist. 

Born in 1922, Golega, Portugal, Saramago has left behind an illustrious body of work: 15 novels, plus short stories, poetry, plays, memoir, and a travelogue. His journey has been a long and challenging one. Being born into an underprivileged family, literature was a rather luxurious path to take, and not a rewarding option for writers who hailed from poorer families. Saramago, who died at the age of 88 in 2010, started out as a car mechanic, but went on to work as a translator, and in newspapers as a literary critic for much of his life, sporadically writing essays, prose, and fiction, venturing into novels much later in life. He worked as a deputy manager of a local newspaper, where his political views led to his firing in 1975. This incident is cited by Saramago as a landmark in his journey as a writer, as it would afford him some time to slow down and pull life back into perspective. To ponder, and then act. It would catalyze his fourth novel, Balthasar and Bimunda, originally Memorial of the Convent (1982) that would prove to be a breakthrough at the age of sixty. 

Throughout his career, Saramago took deep dives with his fiction into the realm of “what if”s. What if Death herself took a holiday? What if all humankind went blind on a single day? Blindness (which was also adapted into a feature film in 2008 starring Julian Moore and Mark Ruffalo), follows an outbreak of contagious “white blindness” in a city, sparing none. The city spirals into pandemonium, as the blind are confined to a medical facility. All hell breaks loose in this elegant meditation of moral degradation in the face of calamity. Another work of Saramago which was successfully turned into a film is The Double, adapted as the 2013 cult classic psychological thriller Enemy by Jake Gyllenhaal, following a man who finds a spitting lookalike of himself on the cast of a movie, curiously tracking the person down and being dragged into a downward spiral which becomes a compelling reflection on identity, and what makes us who we are. 

Saramago challenged readers to see realism in ideas that were vastly unrealistic. His works brimmed with a compassionate portrayal of a simple life, harkening back to his humble beginnings in a family of peasants where his grandparents “took sick piglets to bed because the whole family depended on the survival of those piglets.” 

His adulation for the lesser characters of any backdrop is highlighted in The Elephant’s Journey. A humorous and entertaining, yet perilous fairytale journey of an elephant named Solomon, a present from one king to an Archduke, on his way from Lisbon to Vienna.  

His ironic tales and allegorical parables engage, immerse, confuse, and even infuriate readers to this day. He sparked quite a controversy with his political and religious leanings, prompting the Portuguese Government to veto the nomination of his seminal 1991 classic, The Gospel According to Jesus, for the EU Literary prize (an action carried out under pressure from the Vatican). The Gospel is cited as a skeptic’s take on the life of Christ, an ironic meditation on the nature of existence. The creative liberty taken by Saramago to portray Jesus as a flawed, human character led to his demonization by the Catholic Church. Considering his strong views on religion, all that talk never held back the author, as he would go on to write another slightly more parodic re-telling of the Old Testament in his final novel Cain, right before his death (debatably his final act of revolt against a religious system he was devoutly opposed to). Cain would explore the son of Adam, the murderer of Abel, Cain, in a journey through time and space to important events of the scripture, ranging from the war at Walls of Jericho, to the ark of Noah, sometimes as a spectator, sometimes as something more. Cain is also a polarizing meditation on the nature of what we perceive God to be, and whether what we are told is warranted. 

A common critique of Saramago's works is an apparent lack of punctuation which often confuses readers. His books read like a solid wall of text, and it is often confusing for new readers to figure out who is speaking, and when. In his major works, he limits any punctuation to commas and full stops without any dashes, dots, colons, semicolons, interrogation, or exclamation marks. The author has always defended this seeming eccentricity with his leaning towards a more oral style of writing, one that is meant to be heard rather than read, with a focus on loudness, and length of pauses. Saramago argues that traditional use of colons, semicolons, or dashes would disrupt the continuous flow with which he expects his readers to experience his work. 

Saramago was a thinker who wrote for thinkers, an author who loved to challenge perspectives, and broaden them. His illustrious body of work garners him well deserved comparison to the likes of Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, and many other internationally acclaimed authors.  

Shoumik Muhammed is a metalhead, an avid reader, a fiction writer, and a reviewer.

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