Sunday, September 26, 2010

Jose Saramago - The Notebook

Jose Saramago, the Nobel-laureate Portuguese novelist, died earlier this summer at the age of 87. Fernanda Eberstadt wrote an obituary in The New York Times which also does a good job of surveying his major works. I have not read "The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis" and "The Gospel According to Jesus Christ", the two works that are considered his masterpieces but did read the more recent "Death with Interruptions" which continued the trend of his later, more allegorical writings. In "Death with Interruptions" he imagines a country where Death decides to take a break and give humans an idea of what it would mean to have eternal life. After the initial euphoria the unbearableness of unending life and the desirability of death begins to dawn on people for reasons big and small. James Wood wrote a typically perceptive review in The New Yorker called "Death Takes a Holiday". As Wood writes in his review:
“awkwardnesses”—metaphysical, political, pragmatic—soon re├źnter. The Catholic Church is the first institution to sense a danger. The Cardinal phones the Prime Minister to point out that “without death there is no resurrection, and without resurrection there is no church.” For the Cardinal, life without death is tantamount to God’s willing His own demise. Life without death abolishes the soul. A panel of philosophers and clergymen is convened, and both sides agree that religion needs death “as much as we need bread to eat.” Life without death is like life without God, one churchman says, because “if human beings do not die then everything will be permissible.” (This is a version of the Dostoyevskian fear that without God everything is permitted.) One philosopher, sounding like the slyly secular Saramago, suggests that since death was “clearly the only agricultural implement god possessed with which to plough the roads that would lead to his kingdom, the obvious, irrefutable conclusion is that the entire holy story ends, inevitably, in a cul-de-sac.”

However what prompted this blog entry is that I am currently reading Saramago's collection of blog / journal entries that he wrote for a year between September 2008 and August 2009 and were published this year under the title "The Notebook". These small pieces reveal a man of luminous intelligence, acute perception, deep commitment to fairness, justice and left-wing politics and a visceral disgust for power that tramples on the dignity of human beings. Saramago never forgot the dirt poor, rural background that shaped him. Even at 86, the fire burned brightly for the man who was a member of the communist party in the darkest days of Portugal's fascist government and chose exile to the Canary Islands in 1992 on principle when his novel was blocked for a European prize by the Portuguese government under pressure from the Catholic Church.

Here are some excerpts from "The Notebook". I couldn't help read many of his observations and relate them to my own obsessions. His love letter to Lisbon would resonate with anyone who feels a similar connection to their personal Lisbon. (I substitute "Lahore" for "Lisbon" in this essay)

September 15th, 2008: Words for a City

"But in 1147, when the Moors were defeated after a three-month siege, the name of the city wasn't changed right away;---When did Lisboa start being Lisboa in law and in effect?---
One might think these historical minutiae uninteresting, but they interest me a great deal: not just knowing but seeing - in the precise meaning of the word - how Lisbon has been changing since those days. If cinema had existed at the time, if the old chroniclers had been cameramen, if the thousand and one changes through which Lisbon has passed over the centuries had been recorded, we would have been able to see Lisbon growing and moving like a living thing across eight centuries, like those flowers that we see on television opening up in just a few seconds, from a still, closed bud to a final splendor of shapes and colors. I think I would love that Lisbon above all else.

In physical terms we inhabit space, but in emotional terms we are inhabited, by memory. A memory composed of a space and a time, a memory inside which we live, like an island between two oceans - one the past, the other the future. We can navigate the ocean of the recent past thanks to personal memory, which retains the recollection of the routes it has traveled, but to navigate the distant past we have to use memories that time has accumulated, memories of a space that is continually changing, as fleeting as time itself. This film of Lisbon, compressing time and expanding space, would be the perfect memory of the city.

What we know of places is how we coincide with them over a certain period of time in the spaces they occupy. The place was there, the person appeared, then the person left, the place continued, the place having made the person, the person having transformed the place.

October 9th, 2008: God and Ratzinger

 As I once wrote during a spell of vain metaphysical inquiry, a good fifteen years ago, God is the silence of the universe and man is the cry that gives meaning to that silence.

October 23rd, 2008: Do Torturers Have Souls?

Through my will I can determine to do or not to do something, and liberty renders me free to determine mysef one way or another. Since language has accustomed us to consider the will and liberty as inherently positive concepts, we are suddenly aware of an instinctive fear that the sparkling medals that we call liberty and will can show the complete and utter opposite on their reverse sides. It was through the use of his freedom (shocking though the use of this word might seem to us in such a context) that General Videla became, through his own will - I insist on that, through his own will - one of the most loathsome participants in the bloody and seemingly unending world history of torture and murder.--

Knowing whether or not they have souls does not matter much. In fact, the person who should know most about this subject is the Argentine Catholic priest Christian von Vernich, who a few months ago was sentenced to life imprisonment for genocide. His service record shows six murders, the torture of thirty-four people, and forty-two cases of kidnapping. And if I might be allowed a tragic irony, it is even possible that at some point he gave one of his victims the last rites....

November 7th, 2008: Words

Just as kindness should not be ashamed of being kindness, so justice should never forget that above all it is restitution, the restitution of rights. All of them, beginning with the basic right to live in dignity. If I were asked to put charity, kindness, and justice in order of precedence, I would give first place to kindness, second to justice and third to charity. Because kindness already dispenses justice and charity of its own accord, and because a fair system of justice already contains sufficient charity within it. Charity is what is left when there is neither kindness nor justice. (emphasis mine)

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