Satellite Review / Literature

José Saramago: “Writers are no longer authors, but content providers”

Croatian journalist Adriana Piteša interviewed the Nobel Prize-winning novelist shortly before his death in 2010. He didn’t pull any punches.

José Saramago (Presidencia de la Nación Argentina via Wikimedia Commons)

“I don’t know how we can talk about democracy when we elect undemocratic politicians.”

Saramago arrived for the interview right on time. For the first hour of the conversation the lean 86-year old didn’t seem conscious of either my presence or that of the interpreter Bruno Henriques. He listened to the questions, gazed thoughtfully into the middle distance, and delivered his answers in a tone of total calm. There were no pauses, no lapses in concentration, and certainly never any need to remind him of what the question was. As the conversation veered from serious reflections on politics to questions of literature, love and death, however, our interviewee gradually became more hesitant and pensive.

To recap, José Saramago was born to poor agrarian parents in 1922. Two years later the family moved to Lisbon, a city whose combination of Mediterranean light and melancholy became a major presence in many of his books. Saramago joined the Portuguese Communist Party in 1969, embracing a cause to which he remained faithful until the end of his life. A supporter of the Carnation Revolution of 1974, he was disillusioned by its drift away from civic radicalism and towards bourgeois liberal democracy.  He didn’t start publishing serious novels until he was almost sixty years old, subsequently emerging as one of the most prolific of major authors. A writer of great invention (few of his twenty or so novels are alike), he cultivated a mannered, melodious prose style that takes a long time to get to the point - but never tires the reader on the way there. 1982’s Baltasar and Blimunda, and 1984’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis won him major international success. His 1991 anti-church novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ was met by a vicious conservative backlash in Portugal, after which Saramago went to live on the Spanish island of Lanzarote. Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, Saramago continued to churn out books at a rate of almost one per year, until his death, aged 87, on June 18 2010.

So how do you account for the rise of the right in Europe?

The left has lost its historical and ideological terms of reference. It hasn’t come up with alternative answers for the world’s needs. The right doesn’t need ideas, only power; and as soon as it comes to power it can hold on to it indefinitely because it has the complete machinery of support. It is far more interesting for me to talk about democracy, as I don’t know how we can talk about democracy when we elect undemocratic politicians.

Is there an alternative to democracy?

There is no alternative to democracy – at least not that I’m looking for – but if people like Silvio Berlusconi win elections [right-wing populist and media tycoon Berlusconi was well into his third stint as Italian prime-minister at the time of this interview], are we able to talk of respect for democratic principles? We need to work out how democracy actually functions, but even this becomes pointless when we know that what we see now is not actually democracy.  Economics hold the real power, and economic power has its own rules – or a lack of them. Democracy has been reduced to throwing pieces of paper in a box – we have become vote-throwers.

In your 2004 novel Seeing, voters throw blank pieces of paper into the ballot box. Do you think that’s a solution?

When that book was published in Portugal, people accused me of undermining democracy. This is what I was accused of by the former prime minister and socialist leader Mario Soares, a man of great democratic responsibility. It didn’t occur to him to ask whether we were undermining democracy every time we grant legitimacy to elections in which less than half of the electorate turn out. Why wouldn’t the casting of an empty ballot be a democratic act? Have you ever noticed any demonstrations or general abhorrence towards certain political decisions - such as participation in the war in Iraq - having any effect? The message would be far clearer.

”Democracy has been reduced to throwing pieces of paper in a box”.

What’s the role of a writer in awaking the conscience of the public? How do you feel when your colleagues treat environmental pollution as the number one problem in the world?

It’s a problem that we have to solve. But, if we pollute the environment and cause global warming, and at the same time, at least as some experts claim, a new ice age is coming, what on earth can we do about it? The ice will, sooner or later, reach as far as Paris. Concern for the environment is a fashionable theme, and as such it’s quite normal that it attracts intellectuals, writers; it has become part of modern media folklore. Let’s be fair, there’s so much that’s superficial in these demonstrations. The question of the environment is important, but what really concerns me is that people in Africa are dying of hunger, that people across the world are dying of curable diseases, and that wealth is so unequally distributed. These things to me are obscene. Part of the responsibility lies with the media, it’s so easy to fasten on to the hook of environmentalism. It’s an important problem, but is totally out of proportion with other problems. What’s new about the fact that people in Africa die of hunger? We all know that, but there is no new interest in it from the media. What will you say to the anesthetized viewers when they ask how many have died? 500, 5000 or perhaps 50000? The viewer will wake up when they see pictures of an earthquake in China or the effects of a tsunami, because they love to see spectacular images. Nobody will mourn the deaths of these people as individuals. The media ought to establish a hierarchy of themes that would show more respect for what’s really relevant; that would probably force them to accept that the main theme across the world is that millions of people die in obscene and humiliating circumstances.

Are you still faithful to Marxist ideals?

I remain a communist and I continue to pay my membership fees to the Portuguese Communist Party.

To what extent are those ideals still relevant?

They are more relevant than ever. We can now see with perfect clarity everything that Marx foresaw about the destructive character of capitalism. And it will get worse. If Marx is right, and I believe he is, it is more necessary than ever to return to his texts. Not in order to treat them as a historical textbook, but to try and adapt them to the situation we find ourselves in today.

And how do we reconcile the need for collectivism with the freedom of the individual?

Capitalism never disappoints anybody because it gives no promises; communism gave promises to everyone and that’s why people became disillusioned. And rose up against it. So I find it rather difficult to accept that a cannibalistic system like capitalism, especially in its neoliberal version, doesn’t provoke general revolt. Capitalism has united us, we have all become the same. Still nobody complains that capitalism has reduced people to the level of machines. Similar things happened under communism too, of course, and in a very cruel way. But capitalism is much worse. It is capitalism that has reduced us all to just one thing – consumers. In the language of the multinationals, writers are no longer authors, but content providers. And if we begin to talk of Camoes or Shakespeare as being content providers, then something is very wrong.

“You need a special breed of religion in order to create someone as atheistic as I am.”

You mentioned the crimes committed under communist regimes. Hasn’t that ever led you to doubt your faith?

The quickest and most efficient answer to that is to ask but what about religion? Terrible murders and massacres have been committed in the name of God, and yet we remain unconcerned. We have accepted it and moved on as if nothing really happened. I’m an atheist. And you need a special breed of religion in order to create someone as atheistic as I am. The fact that other people believe doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is that they can accept things that contradict the essential messages of heir faith. How can one continue to accept a form of Christianity that produced something as monstrous as the Inquisition? And what was the Inquisition other than a criminal organization that “interpreted” the message of love in a particularly cruel way? I am aware that communist regimes were responsible for crimes and exploitation, and those things fill me with deep disgust. But I remain faithful to the principles, and those principles were never called into question. You can now ask me whether that means that, in the name of the principles, I accept the very things that contradict them. It would be a legitimate question. But what is my alternative option – to believe in nothing?

You only started writing regularly in your late Fifties?

The position of the writer is not something I have ever romanticized. And I never mystify the act of writing as some others do, convinced as they are that they are somehow better, indeed higher, than everyone else. I am aware now that whatever I write will end up being published. It wasn’t always like that; but then the things that never got published probably didn’t deserve to be published. And when I wasn’t writing, the reason why I didn’t write was that I didn’t have anything to say. When I finish writing something, I close the door and begin waiting for what will come next. Sometimes weeks pass, sometimes months. I don’t worry, ideas will always come.

But isn’t there still a difference between writing and other jobs?

No, there is no difference. I don’t recognize what some people call the “pleasure and pain” of the creative process. For me, writing is a job, a job for which I have somewhat better working conditions than many others. And at every moment I am conscious that I am a long way away from the major talents, the great writers who came before me.

And the theory that your books are basically the chapters of a much bigger book that you gave up writing?

The worst thing that can happen to a writer is one wrong sentence. We want to say something marvellous, and end up uttering the kind of pure banality we never intended. That’s probably where I ended up when I said that, but I don’t actually transfer thematic preoccupations from one book to the next. That’s work. When you finish one task, you go on to the next. And when it comes to inspiration, maybe something of that nature does exist, but it would be a mistake to give it some kind of special significance. What we have is a brain. We can feed it through writing, through a host of other stimuli, but in the end everyone does what they can and what their brain decides.  It is the brain that is responsible for everything, not us.

There’s a clear difference between the novels you’ve been writing in the last 15 or so years and the ones you wrote earlier.

Yes there is. Up until The Gospel According to Jesus Christ I tried to attract as many readers as possible, and after Blindness [published in 1995] I tried to narrow them down. Before, I chose big themes. After Blindness, in which there are still a lot of characters, I began to be more interested in individuals. I wrote a text called From the Statue to the Stone for a symposium in Italy. Up until The Gospel… I was describing statues, their surface. After Blindness I tried to get inside the statue, the bit in which the stone doesn’t actually know that it’s a statue. I think I succeeded.  I wanted, as did so many others before me, to find an answer to the question of what lies within a human being.

“Death is a simple thing, now you’re here and then you aren’t.”

Why do the characters in your novels fall in love so easily?

I was tired of books in which the act of love was portrayed in such difficult and complicated ways. I asked myself why should falling in love be so complicated. Blimunda can look at Baltasar (from the novel Baltasar and Blimunda) and think: I like him. I believe in small gestures, much more than in grandiose, melodramatic rush.  Literary is full of wonderful examples of melodramatic, tragic scenes, just look at Shakespeare. But what move me are the small gestures – a scene in which someone places their hands on someone’s arm can bring me to tears. We have to be ready, desirous of love happening to us… Although there are hormones as well..

You mean hormones in the sense of sexual attraction?

What else? I am not saying that love necessarily leads to sex, but they are closely related. 

Have you become more sentimental with age?

People who get old do become sentimental.

And you?

Yes, I am more sentimental.

One of your most recent novels deals with the tragedy of a situation in which no-one dies. You were seriously ill. Were you afraid?

I am not afraid, although I don’t know whether I will be afraid when death really comes. Maybe I should have been afraid, but I wasn’t. I was seriously ill, I was saved by outstanding doctors. When I was ill, as if I was in some kind of limbo, I saw a deformed reality, I was neither here nor there. Death seemed like a real possibility and I accepted it calmly. Not without resignation. I remained rational, a little angry, but I wasn’t in a rage. Death is a simple thing, now you’re here and then you aren’t.

In Lisbon there was a big exhibition devoted to your life and work. Did it represent some kind of symbolic reconciliation? [In 1992 the Portuguese government had intervened to prevent Saramago’s nomination for the Aristeion Prize, on the basis that his book The Gospel According to Jesus Christ was offensive to Catholics. The ensuing furore was one of the reasons why Saramago left Portugal to live on Lanzarote]

It’s not a reconciliation. We were never lovers, so we can’t be reconciled. We didn’t have any rings or locks of hair to return. I was censored, but it was the government that censored me, and the government is not Portugal. Even when I left Portugal, I came back whenever I wanted, whenever I was invited by someone and whenever I thought it was appropriate. I was never on bad terms with my country. I had enemies, but then who doesn’t? Politicians, who are disgustingly hypocritical the world over, are equally hypocritical in Portugal. When they find it convenient, they make an attempt to solve old conflicts, put right their mistakes, even though they solve nothing, they tried to smooth over that episode. And I took part in that comedy myself. However there are some Portuguese people I will never forgive. I will never forgive Aníbal Cavaco Silva [the prime-mister responsible for blocking his nomination for the Aristeion Prize]. And some more, who I won’t name on this particular occasion. But despite these people, I have normal relations with my country. I come from a peasant family, I was brought up by people who didn’t know how to read and write. In one interview I said that I appreciated what Portugal had made of me. This country did not prevent me from achieving what I achieved.

ADRIANA PITEŠA is a Croatian journalist and critic who lives in Zagreb. She is currently fiction editor at the Profil publishing house.

This Interview was first published in Jutarnji list in June 2009.