José Saramago came from the poorest of backgrounds – his grandparents, on both sides, were illiterate agricultural workers, and his father ‘rose’ in the world to become a policeman in Lisbon, where the family lived in cramped and insalubrious lodgings, and where, given scant schooling, Saramago virtually taught himself to read. He grew up, too, in the repressive Portugal of President António de Oliveira Salazar, and saw, at first hand, the effects of that regime on ordinary working people; under Salazar, the rich, needless to say, continued to flourish. Those early experiences informed all of Saramago’s writing, his unvarying theme being the ordinary man or woman pitted against an indifferent or hostile authority. If that sounds desperately dull and worthy, I should perhaps add that it is hard to think of a more imaginative novelist, one whose books are so full of humour and humanity and invention.

It is usually said that Saramago did not write his first novel until he was in his late fifties; in fact, he had already written two neo-realist novels: Terra do Pecado [Land of Sin] in 1947 and Clarabóia [Skylight] in 1949. Terra do Pecado was published, not to any great acclaim, but Clarabóia, for reasons that remain unclear, never was. When the manuscript came to light years later, Saramago chose to leave it unpublished during his lifetime. When I read Clarabóia for the first time recently (it is due to be published in Portugal in November), it occurred to me that perhaps Saramago chose not to publish it simply because the book is so at odds with his mature style. It is a good and very involving novel about various struggling working-class families or middle-class families fallen on hard times, who all inhabit the same rather run-down apartment building in Lisbon. The classic Saramago theme is there, then, but the novel is entirely orthodox in its use of punctuation and sentence-length and seems, somehow, curiously old-fashioned and entirely un-Saramago-like. It made me realise how oddly constraining conventional punctuation can seem, compared with the freedom of those adventurous, sometimes page-long sentences we expect in a Saramago novel.

I’ve just finished translating Levantado do chão (Raised from the Ground), published in 1980 and hitherto untranslated into English. It was in this novel, as he himself commented, that Saramago first found his unique style and voice. The book charts the changing fortunes of a family of landless peasants in the Alentejo from the early part of the twentieth century until Portugal’s 1974 Carnation Revolution, as well as the role of the Communist Party in fighting for workers’ rights. Saramago said in an interview:

I was already at the twentieth section of the book and not very happy with it, when I realised how it could be written. I saw that I would only be able to write it if I did so as if I were actually telling the story. That could not be done by putting so-called oral language into writing, because that’s impossible, but by introducing into my writing a mechanism of apparent spontaneity, apparent digression and apparent disorganisation in the discourse. I say ‘apparent’ since I am only too aware of how much work it took to ensure that it turned out like that.

Here’s a brief example of that new style. What follows is the prelude to a description of a brutal attack on a political prisoner by two PIDE agents (Salazar’s secret security police). Having lingered outside the prison, we now go inside:

We have missed the preliminaries. We lingered to look at the landscape, to play with the little boy who so loves to play in the sun, however often his parents call him indoors, and to ask questions of Cesaltina, whose husband is not involved in these troubles, he works for the council and is called Ourique, but all these things were merely excuses, delaying tactics, ways of averting our eyes, but now, in between these four whitewashed walls, on this tiled floor, notice the broken corners, how some tiles have been worn smooth, how many feet have passed this way, and look how interesting this trail of ants is, travelling along the joins as if they were valleys, while up above, projected against the white sky of the ceiling and the sun of the lamp, tall towers are moving, they are men, as the ants well know, having, for generations, experienced the weight of their feet and the long, hot spout of water that falls from a kind of pendulous external intestine, ants all over the world have been drowned or crushed by these, but it seems they will escape this fate now, for the men are occupied with other things.

In reducing punctuation down to commas and full stops, in letting a sentence follow the natural digressions of thought, Saramago cuts himself free from the straitjacket of conventional realistic literature, allowing himself, as narrator, to carry the reader along on the wave of those thought processes, those digressions. And by using ‘we’, Saramago not only abandons the guise of omniscient, God-like narrator, he also involves us, the readers, in the whole experience, and then goes still further, to give us an ant’s-eye view of this incomprehensible act of brutality, which makes it seem even more absurdly brutal. In this and later novels, dialogues (each new utterance signalled only by a capital lettter), descriptions, and the narrator’s own interpolations and speculations become part of the great wash of prose, and we, carried along on the swell, are made to feel part of what is being revealed.

One cannot help but see this egalitarian approach to both punctuation and narration as an expression of Saramago’s declared anarcho-communism and atheism, as cocking a snook at orthodoxy and authority, be it God or Government, and as a way of privileging the spoken voice, the ordinary human voice. Saramago’s dense pages of prose may look daunting, but once you step in, you are immediately swept along on that seamless flow of thought and utterance, all the while chivvied and cheered on by a genial and garrulous narrator, eager to involve you in the narrative process, and occasionally confessing to certain narratorial misdemeanours – like jumping ahead of the plot – or apologising for not being able to spend more time with certain secondary characters, about whom he could tell us more, if only he had the time . . .

Saramago was overtly political in the themes of his novels: the dangers of ignoring the rise of Fascism (The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis); the rise of mindless consumerism (The Cave); what would happen: if the Iberian peninsula broke away from the rest of Europe (The Stone Raft), if a plague of blindness was visited on a country (Blindness), if people refused to vote (Seeing), if people stopped dying (Death at Intervals). The books, however, do not read like political or polemical tracts, far from it, because Saramago gives equal (and possibly more) weight to human relationships. It is how we relate or fail to relate, it is love (in all its varieties), that makes the difference, that makes the individual willing and able to stand out against some, often anonymous, Authority intent on trying to deny or destroy the individual. In the unrelenting grimness and inhumanity of Blindness what shines out is the tolerance and kindness of the doctor’s wife and the group of people whom she, quite accidentally, gathers around her. In The Cave it is the little family unit – father, daughter and son-in-law – who form the warm, substantial human opposition to the shadows on the cave wall, which is all that is on offer from the Centre with its myriad entertainments and distractions. In Death at Intervals, even Death herself is vanquished by love.

As well as dispensing with inverted commas, semi-colons, colons, question marks and exclamation marks, Saramago had also abandoned the use of capital letters for some proper names as far back as The Cave. In his last novels, The Elephant’s Journey and Cain, no proper names are capitalised (unless they appear at the beginning of a sentence or utterance); kings and elephants, gods and nations, prophets and outcasts, secretaries and archdukes are thus all made equal. An example from The Elephant’s Journey:

Meanwhile, the king had received the scroll from his master of the horse, and had himself unrolled it, once he had untied the ribbons sealed with the archduke’s coat of arms, but a quick glance was enough for him to see that it was written in latin. Now dom joão, the third king of portugal to bear that name, although not entirely ignorant of the latin language, for he had studied it in his youth, knew all too well that his inevitable stumblings, prolonged pauses and downright errors of interpretation would give those present a wretched and erroneous impression of his royal self. The secretary, with the agility of mind we have noted before and equally quick reflexes, had already taken two discreet steps forward and was waiting. In the most natural of tones, as if the scene had been rehearsed, the king said, My secretary will read the letter, translating into portuguese the message in which our beloved cousin maximilian is doubtless responding to our offer of the elephant solomon, it seems to me unnecessary to read the whole letter now, all we need, at the moment, is the gist, Of course, sir. The secretary ran his eyes over the super-abundance of polite salutations, which, in the epistolary style of the time, proliferated like mushrooms after rain, then read further on and found what he was looking for. He did not translate, he merely announced, The archduke maximilian of austria gratefully accepts the king of portugal’s gift.

Saramago wrote The Elephant’s Journey after having survived a near-death-dealing bout of pneumonia. As you can see he still has a spring in his step and remains spryly true to his egalitarian principles, which, as we have seen, he extended even to punctuation and proper names, thus setting himself and his readers free to see and hear anew both world and language, untrammelled by convention.


Raised from the Ground published by Harvill Secker.

Further reading: The Novels of Saramago: Echoes from the Past, Pathways into the Future by David Frier (University of Wales Press, 2007).

Photograph © Observer

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