The Books Interview: A name to conjure with

Jose Saramago, the Portuguese peasant boy who won the Nobel Prize, still fears oblivion.
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It's a truism to say that writing, like life, is a journey. In Jose Saramago's case, it seems increasingly like a personal quest. He has pursued it across the media - writing drama and poetry, travel and essays, but above all in his journalism and novels - and across an extraordinary imaginative and political range. He plays with history and geography, creating legends and fables that are very much for our world and our time.

"If you don't write your books, nobody else will do it for you," he says. "No one else has lived your life. That is why it is entirely pointless for there to be envy between writers." So what of the unseemly jostling from some of his Portuguese countrymen after the award of the Nobel Prize last autumn? Saramago would prefer to see things the other way about, and extend the accolade to his fellow Portuguese-language writers. He mentions the Brazilians Drummond de Andrade and Jorge Amado, in a list of Portuguese authors with Miguel Torga and Melo Neto at the top.

Perhaps more surprisingly, he goes on to include his own ancestors. "Being at the age I am, I feel very close to my roots. Quite literally: I come from a peasant family and when the time came for my uncle to die, he sat down among his fruit trees and wept to bid them farewell. The Nobel Prize is a form of respect for men like him, and for writers of humble origin like me."

Any reference to the notion that Saramago might have followed the example of Jean-Paul Sartre (fellow Communist Party nominee with proletarian sympathies) and turn down the Nobel is met with crisp rejection. "I was not awarded the Prize for my communism but for my books. And no one ever asks if another author is accepting the Prize in the name of capitalism."

It's not a distinction that either the Pope or the Portuguese Ministry of Culture has been inclined to endorse. The Vatican deplored yet another "inveterate communist with anti-religious views" receiving the plaudit, after Italian playwright Dario Fo. A former culture minister denounced Saramago's The Gospel according to Jesus Christ as "anti-Portuguese" for its representation of popular faith. The irony was that allowing Jesus a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene, as it did, was probably the least novel ingredient in a book crammed with philosophical extemporising.

In particular, there is the resounding final argument between the all- too-human Christ and the less-than-divine God concerning the Problem of Evil. Needless to say, sanctimonious justifications do not provide an answer, and the problem persists. It is one Saramago has continued to raise on every occasion where his acceptance of the pounds 600,000 award is discussed. He does so again, not only during our interview but during a talk to a packed, mainly Latin American audience in London.

"There is nothing pious about it," he explains. "I no longer experience hunger but I can still feel the hunger of my fellow man... Already there are 1.5 bn people in the world living on under a dollar a day. That's a form of cruelty that demands we invert our priorities." If evil is aligned with exploitation and poverty, then it follows that "we have to redefine our priorities and accord a minimum standard of living to all".

His latest novel All the Names (translated by Margaret Jull Costa; Harvill, pounds 10.99) is a different search for authenticity. After his millennial parable Essay on Blindness (Saramago insists on the Portuguese title, which in English lost its first two words, since "I am really just an essayist who happens to write essays the length of novels"), he has opted for a radical departure. Here he chooses a protagonist in search of a character of whom he at first knows no more than a name.

Jose is a humble clerk in the Registry of Births and Deaths. It is his task to compile dossiers on the living and the dead. His responsibility for "all the names" gives him illusions of grandeur almost akin to an author's; and his moment of triumph lies in being permitted to reunite the living and the dead through their files.

Jose's quest begins when he determines to make use of the fact that the door to his house opens into the archives. Always an avid collector of cuttings about the rich and famous, he starts entering the Registry at night. He intends to add to the "official version" by compiling his own collection of Registry data: the actual number of celebrities' divorces, offspring and the rest.

By chance, he accesses the files of an unknown woman. He gleans only her name; address; place and date of birth; and the fact that she is divorced. We are drawn into his hermetic pursuit of a woman so real in his mind that he can stalk her on the streets.

It's a story of obsession that had its brief parallel in the life of Jose the author. Saramago never forgot the mourning into which his family was plunged when his older brother, Francisco, died suddenly aged four. Saramago was only two at the time, and over 70 years passed before he decided to investigate the death. He wrote to the City of Lisbon, who had no record. He then contacted the hospital, where he believed his brother had died of whooping cough. They too failed to trace any evidence.

The Town Hall inadvertently supplied only his own records, eerily implying that Jose had substituted for the missing Francisco. Finally, he contacted an acquaintance who searched the records of the city cemeteries and eventually came up with a burial site for the lost brother. "Cemeteries are the repositories of names. They are where names come to rest." This proved the starting point for Saramago's recent article in El Pais on "The Fragmented Cemetery".

It cannot but recall the city Saramago had in mind: Kafka's Prague, with its Jewish cemetery, a cluster of toppling tombstones zigzagging across the centuries. Yet Kafka - to whom Saramago frequently finds himself compared - he regards less as an influence than a visionary. "Yes, of course there is a way in which art anticipates life," he says. "Kafka foretold a world in which total bureaucracy ruled supreme and this spelt chaos. It's the world we live in now."

Bureaucracy is where the fictitious Jose finds himself immured. The novel's Registry is so labyrinthine that a researcher was once lost inside it for a week. Ever since all employees venturing into the stacks anchor an "Ariadne's skein" to both desk- and trouser-leg. And the discovery of a file citing the mysterious woman's death coincides with the light going out in Jose's torch.

If knowledge is darkness, imagination brings light. lt seems fitting that Saramago's next project is based on Plato's idea of the cave - with its distinction between things and their image or shadow. The paradox immediately brings another labyrinthine writer to mind. "No, I don't see any similarity between my writing and Borges," he replies, "though I have become used to being compared to him, as to Kafka or to Pessoa [his great precursor in modern Portuguese literature]".

"All literature is a virtual reality. Kafka's world is now a part of ours; Pessoa taught us that none of us is just one; and Borges explored his labyrinths from his own literary perspective, as a librarian, or reader. That's another point: to be influenced is not a passive state. It presupposes a willingness on the part of the one influenced, a reciprocity I am not sure I am capable of."

So back to the fictitious, and real Joses. "What's most important in the way I write now," says Saramago, "is not the plot but the character. The time for the great narrative novel was in the 19th century, which is why I prefer mine to be viewed as extended essays. Since there is no need to conceal the plot, I can tell you that Jose's final mission is to find the evidence of the woman's death in order to destroy it."

In that sense, at least, the two Joses share not only a name but a destiny. "As far as the powers that be were concerned, Francisco still existed, two years ahead of myself. The only person who could kill him off, by providing the evidence, was I." By finding his death, Saramago gave his brother back his short life.

There is a sense in which All the Names is the most literary of Saramago's works to date. If our greatest fear is not death but oblivion, then at least having one's name set down in a book or stored in some memory (even a computer's) is some sort of bulwark. Having your name emblazoned on a library of titles sufficient for a Nobel Prize, however, still seems in a different league.

I am reminded of the first time I met Jose Saramago. Two years ago, I arrived to spend a weekend at his clifftop home on the Canary Island of Lanzarote to consult him over the translation of one of his books. Despite the warmth of the welcome from both himself and his wife, the Spanish journalist Pilar del Rio, I was apprehensive. Saramago acknowledged, and then affected not to comprehend, my nervousness. "You have not come to meet an important writer by the name of such-and-such. Remember that I am just a man, no more nor less". It seemed to suggest a fitting conjuncture between a famous name and everyman - between the real, and the invented, Jose.

Jose Saramago, a biography

Jose Saramago was born in Azinhaga, Portugal, in 1922. His parents were farmers. He attended school in Lisbon, but spent a lot of his childhood in the countryside. For financial reasons, he had to leave school and train as a mechanic, then worked as a draughtsman, an editor and a translator. Terra do Pecado was published in 1947, but his second work did not follow until 1966. He wrote literary reviews for Seara Nova, and from 1972 to 1975 was a political commentator and cultural editor for Diario de Lisboa. He has devoted himself exclusively to writing since 1976, and in 1993 moved to Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. In the UK, Harvill publishes his novels Baltasar and Blimunda, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, The Stone Raft, The History of the Siege of Lisbon, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Blindness and now All the Names. His many awards culminated in the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature.