The Notebook, By José Saramago

The Nobel laureate's blog entries burn with passion

Reviewed,Thomas Wright
Wednesday 31 March 2010 16:50 BST

The novels of the Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago are things of intricate beauty and complex truth. Masterpieces such as Blindness and The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis are labyrinths in which the reader wanders, wonders, and sometimes gets lost. In the middle of his unpunctuated trademark epiphanies, you don't always know which character is talking, and the perspective often switches suddenly from first to third person.

In The Notebook, however, Saramago abjures his elaborate ambiguous art for political analysis written in a style "as clear as water" and a tone of savage indignation. Originally penned three or four times a week for his blog, these short, dated, written-to-the-moment entries chronicle the period from September 2008 to August 2009. It is a history written in blood – Guantánamo, the "senseless acts and crimes perpetuated by Israel" against Palestine, natural disasters in which only the poor seem to suffer, massacres in Chiapas, the "crime against humanity" of the tax-payer-funded bank bailouts... Saramago casts a cold, penetrating eye over it all, though there are times when he flinches at the horror.

Saramago aims to cut through the web of "organized lies" surrounding humanity, and to convince readers by delivering his opinions in a relentless series of unadorned, knock-down prose blows. Having spent his formative years under Salazar's fascist regime, Saramago might be said to have received the perfect training for identifying and lambasting political mendacity. He derides George Bush as the "cowboy who inherited the world" and mistook it "for a herd of cattle"; the philistine who "expelled truth" from political discourse. Berlusconi, meanwhile, is a disingenuous mafioso, a "disease" in Italy's noble blood.

Yet the rot goes much deeper than politics. According to this staunch Marxist, it is the free market that "conditions governments to bring people within its control". Its neo-liberal ideology has permeated everything: our language, our emotions, our thoughts. Universities now obsequiously do its bidding – instead of shaping a cultured, politically-engaged citizenship, they manufacture worker bees focused exclusively on gratifying their self-interest. "Ignorance is expanding in a truly terrifying manner," Saramago thunders, "we are reaching the end of a civilization."

So far, so very depressing. (It becomes even more so when you think that Saramago is now 87; when he lays down his pen who will replace him?) And yet some hope remains, for, as the saying goes, "where there is power, there is also resistance". Saramago believes that the denuded political landscape may be regenerated by the current recession; surely, he argues, the Humpty Dumpty of world capitalism can't simply be put back together again. The crisis will, at the very least, he thinks, inspire people to read books once more; to ask political and philosophical questions; to protest; to intervene.

A number of reflections on art and literature, along with some travelogue pieces, interleave the bulletins of "news that burns". While these entries are more meditative and subtle, they generally echo, rather than muffle, the strident political commentary. The Notebook will doubtless disappoint Saramago fans who regard him as a sort of Portuguese Borges – aloof, erudite, aesthetic. It will be welcomed, however, by readers who see an intimate (although not necessarily straightforward) relationship between literature and politics. Saramago's trenchant blogging in no way resembles his capacious fiction, yet his novels affirm cultural, aesthetic and moral values utterly at odds with the neo-liberal ethos denounced in The Notebook.

This book is not without blemishes. The abbreviated blog form encourages arguments that are sometimes simplistic, and epigrams that are often elliptical (at least in translation). There are also inevitable repetitions across this anthology. Yet these faults hardly matter: The Notebook is a cogent, stimulating and timely book.

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