Jose Saramago came into my life at a time after college when I thought all new discoveries in literature were over. I thought that I would no longer see new books that thrilled me the way they did before. I was out of the loop, and no longer in the know on good new authors.
I hadn’t read very much Portuguese literature, I had read Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet and several of his volume’s of poetry in the nineties for some of my classes in modernism at MSU. I really liked the Book of Disquiet. It is a book that everyone should read even if they only worked one day in an office. But I was walking through borders in 1998 and saw a table full of Saramago’s books, and I saw the title The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. I got all excited by the title being a Pessoa fan. By that slight turn of fate I began reading almost all of Saramago’s work. I was fortunate enough at the time to be running the Literary mag Turtleneck.net with my mate Josh Messer and we decided to do a piece on Saramago, I was fortunate enough to have Harvest send me several review copies of Saramago’s other books. I’ve read almost everything at this point, though I haven’t finished, (ironically death with interruptions).
Saramago’s writing is so unique, and so ahead of the curve it defies imitation. His values as a writer and a human being seem clear to me after having read so many of his books, but when you think about them they are beautiful in their simplicity.
- Respect for one another as individuals regardless of class. Each one of Saramago’s books dealt with class and how it shapes our place in this world despite the fact that each of us has some greatness in us. Most of his characters came from relatively humble beginnings, though some of his stories certainly involved royalty. (Baltasar and Blimunda, The History of the Siege of Lisbon). But for the most part relatively simple lives led his stories, the Doctor’s Wife-Blindness, Senhor Jose-All the Names, Silva-The History of the Siege of Lisbon
- Beware simple answers to complicated questions. Blindness still haunts me to this day. Some parts of it are so terrible, but so well written that I would like to reread it soon. I never saw the movie because I loved the book so much. The idea that Blindness could be a plague that affected a whole nation is pretty genius, but the country’s reaction to it in the story to lock everyone up who was afflicted is par for the course in his novel’s where governments and institutions leap to very simple conclusions to very complicated phenomenon they don’t understand and to me this is the big take away. If Saramago had written a novel about BP it might come off sounding a little too much like reality.
- Don’t let your leaders lead you to your doom. Same as above, but Seeing, Blindness, and the Stone Raft, leave you with the feeling that trusting people merely because they are in charge is a foolish, foolish, thing to do. There are some very talented and smart people in government, but for everyone one of those, there are 100 knuckleheads collecting a paycheck.
- Life presents beauty in simple things. The idea that the iberian peninsula could break off and float around the Atlantic is a clever idea and one that any author worth their salt wishes they thought of first, but what pulled it off was the five middle aged guys in the rickety car driving further inland who found companionship, and love despite the unrooting of the laws of physics, the same was true in Blindness with the Doctor’s wife, who bearing witness to all of those atrocities managed to remain both sane and human.
Saramago’s contribution to humanity and literature can’t be underestimated. The fact that he won the Nobel Prize was a validation of his work that was well deserved. In the words of Shakespeare, “we won’t look upon his like again, I fear.” I can only hope that his ghost, like Pessoa’s in the Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis visits us occasionally through the ether.