Saramago wins Nobel Prize

The N.Y. Times article [on Saramago] is correct, except on a couple of minor details.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that social and political issues are indeed present as background on all Saramagos's novels. And they have center stage at one of my favourites - "Levantado do Chćo" -, a historical saga of the struggles of the rural proletariat in Alentejo (in the South of Portugal).

Saramago is a nice character if, somehow, also a reclusive man, which was aggravated by the petty intrigues of the Portuguese literary and political milieu. I have met him a couple of times. He is a longtime CPer and fought well, on his assigned trench (at the editorial board of "Diįrio de Notķcias", the then leading Portuguese daily) during the revolution. More recently - late 80's - he sided with a reformist rebellion within the party. The protagonists of the episode were expelled but he remained, cultivating a personal friendship with the old patriarch Alvaro Cunhal. He is considered "patrimony" of the PCP, though his political statements are somehow heterodox (and, sometimes, frankly puzzling).

I recommend his reading, with the caveat that Saramago's writing is kind of baroque and verbally excessive, not at all fit for the standards of American prose. Most anglo-saxonic editors would, no doubt, say that he "overwrites".

Joćo Paulo Monteiro


Hello all, and JPMonteiro in particular!

I was very pleased to learn that J Saramago was awarded the Nobel prize. Not that this prize is very worthy as of itself, but from time to time "suena un tiro para el lado de la justicia" (a gunshot sounds that does justice). This is one of those times. The other one I always remember was with Faulkner, and the most outstanding one was when no Nobel prize was ever awarded to that pseudo-intellectual known as Jorge Luis Borges!

I have read something by Saramago years ago, and I found his prose excellent.

There is a relationship between the artform and the "structures of feeling" it gives expression to. Societies of violent contrasts can be fully expressed in Baroque art. That is what Iberoamerican societies are today (Spain, maybe, is becoming more "European", and thus losing the Baroque gist). And that is why Saramago, Garcia Marquez or Carpentier chose the Baroque to write their great novels.

So that whoever would say that the Baroque prose of Saramago is "overwritten" is just showing to be "belowstanding", and not "understanding".

Cheers, will try to profit of the long week end to settle my debts with the list.

Nestor Miguel Gorojovsky


I wanted to write at some length about Saramago but I'm not sure I'm qualified enough. One thing I haven't mentioned about him, however, is this: he is not only a fine man and a good comrade, he is also a great writer. He has a powerful, relentless, marvelously subtle and bewitching imagination. His prose is like a chant from the earth: magical, udder, abounding.

I'm not quite sure how his prose stands in English. (For some reason he has won most critical acclaim in Brazil, Spain and Italy.) But I strongly recommend "Baltazar and Blimunda" for whoever wants to make first acquaintance with him.

Joćo Paulo Monteiro


Doug Henwood wrote: "You also wrote the other day that English speakers might find his stuff overwritten. Is literature in Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese free of the spare, ironic style so fashionable in English, that of Martin Amis and Lorrie Moore?"

No, not at all. Here in Portugal, we have a fine young writer - Mario de Carvalho (also a CP'er) - that excels in that style. I would bet his prose can stand translation very well.

Saramago's is too embedded in a particular ethos. He is a first generation intellectual, or, as he likes to put it, was brought up in a house without books. In fact, the house where he was born didn't even had a window. His father was a rural worker (he would appear every morning on the central square of his village, where laborers were pick up by the landlords). Later he moved to the capital and became a police officer. Saramago dropped out of high-school after two years and learned the art of locksmith. At 18 he was a manual worker.

Much time is wasted, on the Portuguese literary circles, whispering maliciously about Saramago not having a "stable culture". Of course, he is a learned and erudite man. But his imaginary is indeed anchored in the fertile soil of folksy tales and myths. He is a force of nature, a kind of tellurical phenomenon. Rude and gentle. He expresses himself like village sorcerer. He embodies that magical, feminine force of a dry field in the summer. These things you cannot learn at "creative writing" academies. You have to breath them.

It's these kind of things I also fear might get hopelessly "lost in translation". Or, worst still, be seen as "exotic".

Joćo Paulo Monteiro


Doug is pointing here to a very complex matter, that I unwantedly brought to the debate. It is the matter of the relationships between the structure of artforms as such and the societies where they are created.

Perhaps I sounded excessively taxative. When I established a relationship between Baroque art and violently contrasted societies, I did not mean that only Baroque art would be created here, nor that other artforms would be impossible.

There are many examples of excellent absolutely non-Baroque artistic expressions in Iberian art and literature that prove this. But the fact still remains that writers like Saramago, rooted in the common people's traditions, tend to be Baroque. This can also be explained by other means, since social constituency is not the devastatingly implacable explanatory variable some believe to be. You have the particular artistic and literary tradition of the country, etc. But, so far as I know (and I am far from being even the faint shadow of the ghost of an expert), the best that was written or painted in Spain (at least) is Baroque or has a strong Baroque touch in it. And the same tends to run true for Spanish America.

But.

The fact that the -so to call it- "general trend" tends to lean to Baroque does not mean it will always be so.

Take for instance Argentine, more specifically River Plate, literature. Our literature as such is a young one, like that of the United States. It began during the 19th. century, although there are some forerunners. Among these, the one I prefer is a Neoclassic, Enlightenment poet, who wrote some very decent poetry in the early years of the 19th. Century (Manuel de Lavarden: he was also an economist, and a journalist, and his circle was one of the main nests for the creation of a revolutionary, later independentist, thought in our land). But Argentine literature as such only begins with Jose Hernandez and Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, between 1845 and 1875. The first one was the national poet, and the second the national novelist.

Politically, they were on opposite sides. Sarmiento was, out of despair at the savage situation of the country he loved, the standard bearer of European colonialism. In fact, he wrote to President Mitre once, while the generals of Mitre were slaughtering Argentine folkspeople and the Paraguayans: "No ahorre sangre de gauchos, es lo unico que tienen de humano" (Do not save Gaucho blood, that's their only human feature). But though he hated the Argentines, he loved Argentina. Now, his masterpiece is "Facundo: civilizacion o barbarie" (Facundo: Civilization or Barbarism, does this opposition ring to anyone's ears?).

The _Facundo_ -as it came to be known- is a novel-essay full of lies and exaggerations (even his political friends knew him as "el loco", the madman), but beautiful in its violent contrasts. It is the beginning of good Argentine Romanticism, and it is absolutely Baroque. The novel begins with these magnificent words: "Sombra terrible de Facundo, yo te convoco!" (Terrible shadow of Facundo, I summon you here!), and immediately falls into a description -mythical, though in some cases excellent- of the geography of the country at the time the novel was written.

Jose Hernandez was another kind of man. He was on the opposite party to Sarmiento, and in fact as a journalist he wrote some kind of "anti-Facundo", the "Vida del Chacho", a biography of the popular leader and mass caudillo Angel Vicente Peńaloza, the man whose blood Sarmiento was claiming for. By the way, the armies of Mitre, once they caught Peńaloza, killed him, cut his head and displayed it on a spear in the square of Olta, the village where Peńaloza, a Riojano like Facundo Quiroga, had been born and had lived all of his life... Videla had good predecessors, in fact. "Civilizacion", indeed.

Hernandez took the popular cause as his own. The popular cause meant, by those years, the cause of the gauchos, of the Argentine folks that were subject to social murder by the "liberal" governments of Mitre and Sarmiento. I will some day tell the story of how was our national poem created, because it is very instructive as to the ways the stories of the poor and the wretched may from time to time be registered by Great History, but now I would only focus on the Baroque / non Baroque question.

Hernandez wrote for the gauchos. His poem was the first best seller in Argentine history. The pulperos (owners of countryside "general stores") commanded "Martin Fierros" together with gin, yerba mate or matches. The illiterate would sit in a circle, listen to one of them reading aloud the _Martin Fierro_, or most probably reciting it by heart: Hernandez resorted to a poetic form (the so called Hernandian sextina and the decima) that would perfectly fit in with the ways and manners of the gaucho bards, the "payadores". Recitation would be generally accompanied by guitar playing.

The poem was published by the mid-1870s, and some elderly peon in Entre Rios was reported to exclaim "Martin Fierro, ese era un gaucho!" (Martin Fierro, that man was a true gaucho!) by the 1930s/1940s. The poem was soaked in political allusions (Hernandez resorted to this form in order to make politics, in fact, under heavy expressive restrictions and after he was allowed to return from exile), allusions that were transparent for the gauchos of the day. But the poem also sang the almost inevitable disappearance of the "gauchaje".

Slaughtered in the civil wars, or in the Paraguayan swamps (another expression of the civil wars), or in the Frontier and its "fortines" (miserable local garrisons in the vast extension where Argentine Christian formation confronted with the Indians, another kind of civil war I hope I can extend on some day), the gauchos were doomed. A few of them would finally become stable peones in the estancias or chacras of the Argentina that was built after 1880. Most of them ended up as a mass of people deprived of future, eking out a miserable life as all-purpose temporary peones (changarines), roaming around the small villages and little towns of the countryside. Others managed to enter the Police, the Army or the Navy. This was not hard for them to do: they had always been requested to fight and get nothing for it. In the new country, these institutions would at least pay some wages to the lower ranks of the military hierarchy, where they would be accepted (of course, never as anything more than a sergeant, higher ranks were reserved to the middle classes until the 1945-1955 period, when the War Academy was open to lower ranks for a while: in this, you can see the action of the host of Peronist colonels and generals who were children of lower ranks: Sosa Molina, Lucero, and many others).

But the fact is that Hernandez chanted a human group and a particular type that was being wiped away, physically in most cases, of the country. They had been the soldiers of the independence armies, they had been the soldiers of the civil wars, they had made up the social fabric of the old Argentina, and the Europeist project of Mitre and Sarmiento spelt death to them.

The artform Hernandez chose, and wrote, was not Baroque. On the contrary, it is a very measured and almost Classical poem. It has a journalistic wind flowing through it, once the -for non-gaucho readers- "local color" is sifted away.

It has sometimes been compared with Homer's poems, and whether this comparison be an exaggeration or not, it certainly has the popular bard's economy of expression. It simply tells things. It resorts to synthetic comparisons and metaphors (this was in fact something Hernandez strove to do, because he wanted his poem to be read by people who made exactly this kind of art), it has none of the grandiloquence of Baroque, it sometimes sounds as if composed in, say, minor chords.

But this artform expressed a very violent social development. Only that, and perhaps because Hernandez did not attempt to synthesize the violence of the situation in order to establish an uncontested "model" (as Sarmiento tried to do in the _Facundo_), the violence would be known by those who would suffer it and watch themselves in that looking-glass, the _Martin Fierro_. Baroque looking-glasses may be misleading.

Well, I went a long stretch away of my original posting, but I think I have made it clear that, though I believe that Baroque artforms may be easier to generate in Iberian countries, they are by no means the only ones.

Nestor Miguel Gorojovsky


The English translation of this ["Baltazar and Blimunda"] is actually pretty decent. It's quite a good story, a wonderfully understated tale of the 17th century and a love story to boot, all from a rocksolid Marxist perspective (with some terrific jabs at the Church). If Walter Benjamin had written novels, they probably would've read like Saramago.

-- Dennis Redmond


I'm very glad to hear this. "Baltazar and Blimunda" ("Memorial do Convento" on the original Portuguese version) is the best known novel of Saramago and perhaps justly so. It is conceived around the building of the monumental convent of Mafra, a pharaonic enterprise financed with the gold from Brazil. It also recreates the story of an unconventional portuguese priest - the fray Bartolomeu de Gusmćo - and his eccentric flying machine. The novel has recently been adapted for an opera by a very accredited contemporary Italian composer (whose name I don't have present; unfortunately, I don't dig much into contemporary music).

The PCP, based on a position of rigorous republican secularism, has a long history of appeasement and conciliation with the hierarchy of the Church. Curiously enough, Saramago, who is very much attuned with the folksy paganist pantheism, has, by that way, a reputation of anti-clerical. He is two times the devil (as a communist atheist and as, nonetheless, a researcher of certain paths of free spirituality). "L'Osservatore Romano" (the pope's mouthpiece) has made very ugly remarks about this years Nobel prize (well, after Dario Fo nothing worst could have come their way really), which Saramago has very fittingly retributed in kind and with interests.

This business of the Portuguese Nobel prize has a curious history. The only one awarded so far was for medicine, attributed to the neuro-surgeon Egas Moniz in 1949, and for the most odious of motives: he conceived and performed the first pre-frontal lobotomy.

The Portuguese are not very gifted to the hard sciences. This is kind of a stereotype but (for whatever reasons) has firm grounding on the available figures (the number of quotes of Portuguese scientific works in the specialized periodicals his outrageously low). But they are indeed very gifted for literature. And then there is Brazil and the former African colonies (both Angola and Mozambique have fine literatures and at least two clearly nobelizable authors: the novelist Pepetela and the poet Jose Craveirinha). But the fact is that no Nobel prize of literature had ever been awarded to an author of Portuguese expression. Of course, this reflects the peripheral statute of the Portuguese language and culture, a condition assigned to them by economic reasons, more than anything else. But it was indeed kind of unjust and was hurting the patriotic feelings of the land's notables.

So, for some six or eight years now, we have been hearing constantly (on politico-cultural circles) this same pungent lament for the Portuguese Nobel prize. It was becoming kind of a joke. Worst still, an obscene lobby was mounted for it, led by former Portuguese president Mario Soares, in his quality of recognized elderly statesman and "man of letters".

Soares (a long time CIA contact and the American's man in the "Socialist International") has many friends in high places throughout the world. He is also a firm believer in the power of "friendship" to achieve things. So he set himself the task of assuring a Nobel prize of literature for one of his courtiers.

He had two foremost in his mind: 1) Vergilio Ferreira, a Sartrean existentialist and staunch anti-communist. A fine writer indeed but a loathsome character, dr. Ferreira died a couple of years ago without his long cherished Nobel prize. Peace to his tormented soul. 2) Miguel Torga, the old mummy. He writes these "profound" (horribly dull and soporific) elegies on the national soul. His "diary" must be now on its CCCLIIIth volume.

As luck would have it, the most internationally recognized contemporary Portuguese authors are Saramago and Antonio Lobo Antunes, two mavericks (each on his own style) who would have absolutely nothing to do with Soares' maneuverings or the intrigues of the Portuguese literary milieu. Saramago, in fact, has thrown some powerful jabs at him.

Anyway, with dr. Ferreira's unfortunate passing (too much excitement, I would say) things were beginning to calm down a bit. This year, for once, the media weren't with all eyes and ears on Stockholm.

Did the Swedes retain something of that campaign for the Portuguese Nobel. I would like to think not. But, for whatever reasons, the prize landed on Saramago. Not that I care about it a little bit, but it landed well. Let us hope it'll be instrumental in the divulgation of a fine oeuvre, one of the most refined and excellent products of the history of Portuguese class struggle.

Joćo Paulo Monteiro


The Portuguese government freighted a plane to go get Saramago at the island of Lanzarote (in the Canarias islands), where he lives with his Spanish wife Pilar del Rio, for a national homage. He had left Portugal some years ago following some clashes with the government cultural authorities.

Yesterday he arrived at Lisboa in triumph, received the keys of the city and all official honors. He behave himself courteously and with modesty.

Today, on the Terreiro do Paēo (in front of the government offices), he participates in a vigil organized by the leftist unions confederation (CGTP-IN) against the villainous project of revision of the labour laws.

That's our man.

Joćo Paulo Monteiro


Joćo Paulo Monteiro: The general tone and purpose of the WSJ article is hardly worth a comment. Is it the global financial crisis putting such stress on this quintessentially bourgeois mouthpiece that it now sees fit to resort to this kind of violent, primary and persecutory anti-communism? The days of confident and euphoric "end of history" seem to be definitely over. That's a good sign, no doubt. The WSJ seems to be saying to the Swedish Academy: "Stop acting like romantic fools, this is time to close our ranks".

Some clarifications on factual matters are perhaps due here, nonetheless. Schwartz has visibly had some collaboration from a Portuguese source but his facts are all wrong. (I would very much like to know who the son-of-a-bitch is. He is certainly not showing his face now here in Portugal. Just whispering his impotent rage to the outside.)

WSJ: On Nov. 25, 1975, the Portuguese Communist Party, under its hard-line boss, Alvaro Cunhal, attempted a coup in Lisbon, using leftist Portuguese army paratroops as its cat's-paw."

Joćo Paulo Monteiro: Absolute nonsense. There was a disorganized movement from the military left at the early hours of that date. It was a rebellion against some conservative military commands and did not aim at political power. Of all forces, the PCP definitely had nothing to do with it. It was dominated by the far-left military sector gathered around Lieutenant-Colonel Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho.

This unwise movement was the pretext for a long planned, full fledged military coup by the right (anticipated by a terrorist bombing campaign) that practically ended the Portuguese revolution.

WSJ: The adventure failed, but the party had laid the foundation for the coup by a wide-ranging campaign against freedom of the press, a months-long effort that closely resembled the assaults on press freedom that accompanied Fidel Castro's rise to power in Cuba."

Joćo Paulo Monteiro: More nonsense. Unfortunately (in my view) the PCP never planned any coup. To link Saramago's work in the "Diario de Noticias" with any insurrectional or coupist strategy of the PCP is complete paranoia (or, much more probably, bad faith).

WSJ: Mr. Saramago, who was then assistant editor of the Lisbon paper Diario de Noticias, played a major role in this provocative strategy. The future Nobel laureate was a strident promoter of "true socialism" against "bourgeois democracy," overseeing the saneamento or "purges" of so-called fascist elements from the Portuguese media.

Joćo Paulo Monteiro: There was no "bourgeois democracy" (let alone freedom of press) in Portugal. There was fascism. And the 'Diario de Noticias' was the very officious organ of the Portuguese fascist government. It's true master's voice. After the coup of April 1974 (that deposed the fascist regime), as in many other fascist organs, the workers took control of "DN" and demanded changes in it's editorial line. It was in this context that Saramago, in April 1975, accepted the post of sub-director. Sure he was a party man. The "DN" became very close to the PCP at this time.

WSJ: As chaos deepened in Portugal, Mr. Saramago's colleagues began protesting that they were being forced to report according to the Communist Party line and that their articles were subjected to a censorial "fine-toothed comb" by Mr. Saramago. Verbal complaints continued, followed by the "Manifesto of the 24," in which a group of journalists working under Mr. Saramago denounced the internal climate at his newspaper. Twenty-two of them were fired.

Joćo Paulo Monteiro: On the good style of that epoch, the group of 24 complainers (fascist journalists turned democrats) was suspended by the workers' plenary of the enterprise, on August 18, 1975.

Saramago had absolutely no excuses to present for this episode. Leaving aside politics (he was a good soldier of the revolution), from a poetic perspective his passage through the editorial body of "DN" was quintessentially saramaguian.

Saramago was and remains proud to have been a pen at the service of the workers. At that time, the "DN" was, for once, ruled by it's true makers. Saramago was the voice of the typographers, of the printers, of the sellers on the streets. He was the servant of that cry on the streets of Lisbon, the voice of the people.

No excuses for that.

This week, Saramago was invited to visit the installations of the "DN" (which is now a very mainstream organ of the serious press). Someone asked him to leave a message on a computer. He wrote:

"Search the truth".

WSJ: Mr. Saramago, questioned about this incident in 1991, commented: "The newspaper had a certain line and could not be turned into a kind of free tribune where everybody could say whatever they pleased."

Joćo Paulo Monteiro: Any objections?

WSJ: With the failure of the Communist coup, Mr. Saramago was forced to leave journalism.

Joćo Paulo Monteiro: This should read: after the right-wing coup of November 25, 1975, Saramago was fired and barred from making journalism. He was forced to earn a living with translations (48 books, in all). But then, for him personally, this may also have been a blessing in disguise. It was during 1976-7 (he was 55 years old) that he operated the interior revolution that turned him into the author he is now. We lost the revolution, won a great artist.


On a sports pavillion in Porto, some 8.000 people gathered yesterday night on a meeting against the Cuban blockade. There was a distant expectation that Fidel would attend. Shame on me, I didn't believe he would.

He appeared, hand in hand with Saramago. Saramago said he was with the Cuban revolution. Fidel spoke for two hours to a delirious crowd, ending at 3 o'clock in the morning. He spoke of Marx and the present financial crisis (got to find that speech somewhere).

My discrete home town is being swept by a true fidelmania. The battle of the streets is not even worth that name. Thousands of people (true, many Spaniards among them) defiled in support of the Cuban revolution; some twenty students of the Catholic University protested against the presence of the "dictator".

Joćo Paulo Monteiro