venerdì 25 giugno 2010

The Notebook by José Saramago

Tom Payne hails the bloggings of a Nobel Prize-winning author, José Saramago, collected in The Notebook

By Tom Payne

Not everybody likes winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. Beckett thought it a catastrophe; Doris Lessing made it clear that she could have done without it; when the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska won it, Seamus Heaney said: “Poor Wislawa!” These days it seems almost unwriterly to win the most honourable prize a writer can win. Harold Pinter seemed all too chuffed. But why not? It tends to be a lifetime achievement award.

The Portuguese novelist José Saramago, who died last week, received it in 1998 for the work of two prolific decades. Not even the Nobel Prize was going to stop him. Like Pinter, he welcomed it. He tended not to show off without self-deprecation, but in his last published work, The Notebook, he let slip, thrice, that he was pleased to have won the prize.

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Intellectuals in their ninth decade are allowed to write blogs, although, given that Saramago often wrote page-length paragraphs, he was never likely to do Twitter.

He blogged in a ruminative, refined way. As he conceded: “I don’t include links, I don’t have a direct dialogue with my readers, I don’t interact with the rest of the blogosphere.” It was the soapbox for a hugely informed, often indignant Communist who hated the oppression of women, cruelty in all its forms, the Roman Catholic church, George W Bush, and don’t get him started on Silvio Berlusconi. Loves include his wife, the family (his own, and the institution), his Portuguese water dog and other writers, living and dead, to whom he pays generous tribute.

It should be said that these pages aren’t always fascinating. Saramago updated his blog almost every day, and even the greatest writer will struggle to find something new to add at that rate. Fans of his novels will want to know, first, that he’s less apt to hit you with experimental punctuation, except when he’s giving you a peek at some fiction; and they will be sad to reflect that he stopped the blog to write more fiction. Without the blog, could there have been another novel?

Still, this book will appeal to Saramago’s band of regular readers. (And it’s a loyal, big and growing band, especially when you include Brazil.) The translation, by Amanda Hopkinson and Daniel Hahn, reads well, but has barely any notes, so that key characters go unintroduced. I couldn’t help thinking that if you already knew this much about Portuguese literature, then you are Portuguese, or Brazilian.

So is there a point to this book? Yes – it is a plea for civilised discourse, humane values and, for all Saramago’s anger at injustice, deceit, populism and Berlusconi, he is innately optimistic; or at least, he wants to be positive, and holds out a hope that people will do the right thing. He is strict on Obama, for example, but doesn’t rule out that he might make progress on health care reform. (He got that one right, and lived to see it.)

When he can’t be upbeat, he recognises that he should dry up on certain subjects, or urges that we “return to philosophy”. Somewhere in that, there’s the suggestion that reading urbane blogs, and allegorical novels, by the widely mourned Nobel Prize-winning author, would be a start to setting the world back on course. The world is poorer without Saramago, but these notes are a testament to his energy; and his homages to the young will now read as a passing on of the torch.

The Notebook

by José Saramago,
tr by Amanda Hopkinson and
Daniel Hahn
276pp, Verso, £12.99

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