Wednesday, 26 November 2014

José Saramago: The Cave

As everybody knows who’s been following this blog since its beginning, in November I like to celebrate the José Saramago Month; every year around this time I re-read one of his novels. For this occasion I chose The Cave (2000). My archives tell me I first read it in 2006, a prodigious year when I devoured seven more novels by him: I had only discovered him the year before. In this whirlwind of feverish reading, about The Cave I only retained a feeling of disappointment; compared with The Gospel According to Jesus Christ and All The Names I got the impression the author had not quite reached the stylistic and imaginative heights of his others novels. But almost a decade later I feel kinder towards it and think there exists a lot to extract from it. In fact I didn’t post this earlier because the more I thought about the novel the longer my notes grew; so far I’ve filled 20 A4-sized pages. Cutting them down to a mere 8 takes a complicated effort of synthesis, which means you won’t read my attempt at proving that The Cave is a remake of Plato’s allegory of the cave via Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

I must begin by referring that The Cave was not ecstatically received when it came out. It was his first novel since receiving the Nobel Prize in 1998, expectations were high and I think there was a general intention, amongst people who don’t cotton much to him, to cut him down to size. Reviews were mixed and negative criticism focused on two different aspects: form and content. Fernando Venâncio, literary critic and author of José Saramago – A Luz e o Sombreado (2001), singled out the novel as an example of what he perceived as regular flaws in Saramago’s novels: lack of interesting themes; bad beginnings and endings that failed to captivate the reader; and a sense that he sometimes gave up on them halfway through. Others were more political in their opinions. Book reviewer Pedro Mexia called it a “requiem for mom and pop business with childish reflections about capital and labour which are not impartial.” True about the partiality, but the omniscient narrator/author admits that he’s writing with “class sympathy.” In 2010 journalist and author Pedro Correia, in his eulogy for Saramago, confessed that “I abandoned [The Cave] halfway through, sick of so many facile attacks on capitalism.” The novel itself is one of the least talked about by Saramago and doesn’t seem destined for posterity like his others. Re-reading it in 2014, however, I consider the novel prescient and I think its poor reception was due to an inability to understand that, instead of being a commentary on the present (in 2000), it was in fact a prophecy about the coming world that few were capable of conceiving at the tail-end of the West’s last era of opulence and just one year before the rise of the modern paranoid, surveillance state.

I know, that’s a lot to weigh on the shoulders of a novel about a potter. What is The Cave about? It’s about the small tragedy of a potter called Cipriano Algor, from whom the Centre, a gigantic shopping mall, refuses to keep on buying his pottery. Goaded on by his daughter, Marta, he starts producing clay dolls which hopefully will interest the Centre. At the same time, Marta’s husband, Marçal Gacho, intern guard t the Centre awaits a promotion to resident guard in order to obtain an apartment inside the Centre, to where he wants to relocate his wife and father-in-law, in order to save them, certain that their pottery days are over. And this, minus a big reveal at the end that ties the novel to Plato’s cave, is the gist of the action. The three guiding lines of the novel, which Saramago discussed in his diary entries dating from September 1997, could be summed up as: critique of consumerism society; critique of the virtualization of reality; and elegy to the evanescent handwork world of his childhood trips to his grandparents’ village. Around the time he was tying up the many strands of influences and relations that would become this novel, he was also writing a weekly article for a magazine called Visão, where as often he was highly critical of what he saw as the failures of modern society. What was he writing about? The centralization of power and money in fewer and fewer hands; the recrudescence of chauvinism in Europe; the dominion of Germany over the European Union; the neoliberal Multilateral Agreement on Investment which has resurfaced in our days under the name of Transatlantic Treaty; the persecution and extermination of Indian tribes within South America nations; “the new colonialism which they call globalization;” and the sexual scandal involving Bill Clinton which distracted people from the more serious scandal involving US cruise missiles totalling a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory that led to an estimated death of thousands of Sudanese deprived of medicine, all based on an unproven hunch that the factory had ties to terrorists. With a few changes in names and circumstances, Saramago was writing about our now. The Clinton example contains the novel’s essence: on the one hand we have democracy with its dictatorial behaviour, committing humanitarian crimes without being accountable; on the other hand we have a public opinion only interested in gossip, oblivious to what’s going on around them. Saramago, however, fed on what surrounded him. Like Umberto Eco wrote in his introduction to Saramago’s The Notebook, “it’s everyday writing that inspires works of larger scope, and not otherwise.”

However Saramago doesn’t write fiction in a straight line. He’s a fabulist in love with allegories and parables who works with symbols and archetypes. Those who merely reduced this novel to its superficial themes – capitalism, labour, consumerism – failed to see that he was trying to make sense of the whole of modern society. Furthermore, I think he was trying to start a debate on the now popular crisis of democracy, an aspect that is overlooked in appraisals of this novel, a failure of interpretation which may have inspired him to write a watered-down, more direct version called Seeing. In interviews after 2000 we notice that he’s becoming more and more outspoken about the decline of democratic values in detriment of markets and unelected institutions and organizations that effectively rule and decide, with the aid of elected politicians, who govern against their electors’ wishes. “How can we talk about democracy in a world where governments don’t rule?” he asked in 2003. In his pessimism, he believed that “we can change a government and place another one in its place,” but “what we can’t do is climb upstairs, where power effectively resides.” This vague power is obviously big capital, and so intangible it is that many doubt its existence and gullibly think democracy is the rule of the people, and so don’t think there’s any need to reflect about it. “There are symposia, colloquies, conferences about everything except about what democracy is. And it’s direly urgent to have a great debate about that theme.” But a decade ago it did not seem as urgent as it does now. Saramago tried to initiate that debate with The Cave, particularly via the invention of the Centre, but reviews failed to get past attacks on capitalism and panegyrics to potters. However I think the Centre is a symbol for everything democracy, according to Saramago, had become at the end of the millennium, not to mention the novel’s protagonist – and one of the most fascinating, original, mysterious and multi-faceted ever imagined by Saramago – since it’s this colossal feat of architecture that dominates the narrative, and Cipriano Algor, on whom so much attention is focused, is no more than window-dressing, a functional guide for the reader leading him through an idea. The notion that a shopping mall may be a protagonist is not as preposterous as it seems. William H. Gass once wrote that character “first of all, is the noise of his name, and all the sounds and rhythms that proceed from him.” A few lines later he refines: “Characters are those primary substances to which everything else is attached.” And exemplifies more ahead: “Mountains are characters in Malcom Lowry’s Under the Volcano, so is a ravine, a movie, mescal, or a boxing poster.” This certainly opens the gates to allowing anything to become a character, but surely some readers have also read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities thinking the cities described were more interesting than Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. To say nothing of The Aleph, the Library of Babel or the Book of Sand, which are far more interesting concept-characters than the vague and bland first-person narrators who describe them in Jorge Luis Borges’ short-stories. Saramago, as you may know, was a huge fan of Borges and even considered himself a failed essayist who turned to novels because he couldn’t write essays. And that’s why so many critics notice in hi fiction attempt to mix novel and essay writing. With all of this in mind, it’s a lot easier to accept the Centre as The Cave’s protagonist.

Whoever knows Saramago’s fiction – poetry, short-stories, novels – inside out is aware of the repeated conflict between confinement and escape. Let’s just remember the two novels that preceded The Cave: in All The Names (1997) we have Mr. José, a clerk in the Central Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths, a vast space that contains files on everybody who was ever born; he works diligently and by a strict routine, without much of a personal life, until the day a serendipity puts him in pursuit of an unknown woman that starts consuming more and more of his time away from the registry. In Blindness (1995) a global epidemic turns the world population blind; the first patients are quarantined in a hospital to fend for themselves; when society breaks down they manage to escape, but only into the greater, more dangerous trap that the world has become. The Cave, a sort of negative of these opposing themes, has the Centre, the economic lung of a city, a miraculous place where thousands wish to live in, in opposition to a small group of residents who intend to abandon this terrestrial Xanadu, at one point even described as “paradise’s elevator.” What’s unique in this novel is that confinement is the deliberate and free desire of people. In Saramago’s other novels oppression is inflicted through force by abstract entities: the Catholic Church, Salazar, the land-owners in Raised from the Ground, bizarre supernatural phenomena, Death and even God, always a bad guy in his novels, are the agents that determine the characters’ choices and freedom. However, the Centre is built by ordinary men for other ordinary men, without visible obligations and intimidation; many of its residents even describe it as a utopia where man is free to realize all his wishes. And yet this benevolent shopping mall may be Saramago’s most terrible, merciless and tyrannical invention.

As a being of many aspects, it’s not easy to pinpoint everything about the Centre. Saramago, who is not prone to describe landscape a lot, spends several pages building a detailed geography around it. We know that after Cipriano Algor leaves his village in a lorry there’s a stretch of land called the Green Belt, although there’s no green in its vast barrenness, this colour deduced solely from the greyish greenhouses that grow vegetables; “machines for making vegetables,” the potter calls them. Next there’s an Industrial Belt full of factories that spit soot and smoke that have turned the landscape black and sickly. The potter has difficulty finding assistants because everyone prefers to work in these factories. Ahead there’s a shantytown, and next what the narrator called a no man’s land, a name that alludes immediately to conflict and war: it’s a piece of land that used to harbour the shantytown that was pushed back to its current location, leaving debris and wreckage. Finally he enters the city and reaches the Centre. The lorry drive is by means easy: the text mentions many police restrictions and a general sense of surveillance. Trucks full of food are regularly looted by the shantytown’s inhabitants: the traffic of merchandise is “continuous throughout the night,” this in an impoverished region where the rich and the poor rub shoulders. The Centre, where everything flows to, is surrounded by misery. Inevitably this unbalance generates social tensions that require the swift repression of law enforcement agencies. One gets the impression the Centre exerts tremendous influence on the police. The city, impelled by the Centre’s incessant growth, also grows, pushing away the shantytown. The city, with the Centre at its head, will end up appropriating everything. Like Cipriano Algor says, “The Centre is inside the city, but is bigger than the city.” Inside this technological wonder we find apartments, shops, fun centre, cinemas, cutting-edge health clinics, even a cemetery and crematorium. The Centre doesn’t accept pets, but the tenants live very well without them since they have virtual aquariums, “without fish that smell like fish and water that needs changing. Inside fifty specimens of ten different species swim graciously, which, in order not to die, have to be fed as if they were living beings.” This fascination with virtual reality is extended to the actual apartments and pastimes. Many of the Centre’s apartments only have windows looking in, but “Rest assured that many people prefer them, they think the view there is infinitely more pleasant, varied and amusing, whereas on the other side it’s always the same roofs and the same sky,” says Marçal Gacho, who praises it throughout the novel. For those people who don’t want to look at the banality of the world, the Centre provides a gamut of stimuli, including its own TV channel and rain simulators: there are even those who, ignorant of natural phenomena and seasonal changes, get addicted to getting wet under fake rain. When he consider all these elements: scarcity, hunger and repression for the many; opulence, leisure and safety for a few; a fortress besieged by enemies who, like hordes of mutants, prey on and fight each other for resources as if the world had experienced a cataclysm, one has to ask a few questions: is Saramago writing science fiction? Does The Cave take place in the future? And is it a dystopia he’s crafting? Indeed some of these elements are basic tropes of the genre. It’s not the first time he imagines one; his 1975 prose poem, O Ano de 1993, is effectively allegorical science fiction, in his Small Memoirs he wrote about his childhood love for science fiction movies, and several have mentioned the similarities between Blindness and John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. Evidence spread throughout the novel suggests that Saramago had in mind a sort of police state in the hands of big capital, another popular scenario in science fiction.

But like I wrote earlier, Saramago is a fabulist and his twisted language is just a means to hide what to him is familiar, right under our noses, if only we paid attention to warnings, from the past and the present. There’s no doubt to me that the Centre also represents the author’s own experience in growing up in a dictatorship. Inside the Centre it’s the rule of “the guards, the detectors, the video cameras, and the rest of the meddlesome paraphernalia.” Its interior exudes vigilance and control. Marçal is neither policeman nor soldier, but he’s “close, on the border,” according to Cipriano, an independent, sceptical, curious man who prizes his freedom. When he goes live in the Centre he becomes interested in secret excavations under the Centre: having nothing to do in that infinity of artificial entertainments, he tries to discover more probing the doors that give access to the site. A guard catches him, takes his finger print, confirms that he’s a resident, sends him away and then calls Marçal to follow him because “people have to learn not to be curious, to take no notice of things, to keep their noses out of things.” This may be a reference to Salazar’s dictatorship, which tried to produce a similar mentality. A subtler reference has to do with how suicide is hidden in the Centre: for the potter the Centre’s windows can’t be opened because “people can commit suicide, if they want, but not from falling off 100 meters onto the street, it’s a despair that is too showy and inspires morbid curiosity in passers-by, who immediately want to know why.” Protecting apparent terrestrial paradises from the impurity of suicide, pretending everything is fine takes us to a newspaper article the author wrote in the 1960s, “The Pistol’s Crime,” where he satirised censorship restrictions that stopped journalists from writing about suicide cases directly, forcing them to conjure insipid euphemisms. But this dictatorial past he invokes is becoming the new normal in contemporary democracies. Outside the Centre we follow the activity of the police state in the way the army is called upon to disperse the rabble living in the shantytown; one day, as he heads towards the city, Cipriano drives past a burning truck, the first time that happens, and witnesses soldiers carrying out the raids that used be to entrusted to the police. He immediately suspects that it was the authorities that burned down the truck to have a motive to crack down on them. Who’d suspect that just one year after being published, far from sounding paranoid, the novel would become prophetic about the militarization of the quotidian in Western democracies, and about the construction of a supra-national police state with a nigh omniscient power of vigilance, justifying itself on vague attacks on freedom and security, and with the collusion of the population, out of indifference, fear and inertia? I don’t have doubts that paradoxically the Centre represents totalitarianism as it does democracy.

But let’s look at more angles. We can also interpret the Centre as the personification of capitalism. This is most poignantly expressed in the lack of direction Cipriano senses after the Centre stops buying his pottery, replaced by “plastic pottery,” a remarkable oxymoron. Informed while he’s on the underground queue to unload his cargo, he turns to the other drivers looking for “class solidarity,” meeting only with indifference and silence. Everybody the Centre touches experiences this dehumanization and uprootedness. According to Cipriano, Marçal used to be an “affable and nice boy” who became a guard, a crime for the autonomous potter, his own boss, who risks everything in producing pottery without knowing if he can sell it. As for a sales department subchief, he’s described as a “social malcontent,” whereas another is superficially kind and polite, but only insofar as that allows him to serve the Centre and its customers better, like a machine programmed solely for that end, without possessing genuine empathy. Cipriano, by his turn, is ashamed of living off his son-in-law and not off his own work, and starts showing the typical symptoms of depression: lack of hunger, anemia, low self-esteem, tiredness. The first night after the contract ends he falls asleep in the sofa and wakes up complaining, “It would have been better if I hadn’t waken up” because “while I was asleep I was a potter with work.” In the past someone always needed jars and jugs, now he realizes he’s no longer necessary. Marta tries to conform to market logic and starts talking business lingo as if that could help her; so she has an idea: instead of producing pottery they don’t know if anyone needs, they’ll sketch a few ideas for clay dolls and present the “project” to the sales department chief, “that’s how they say it in business and executive language,” she says, thinking they have better chances if they play according to the market’s rules. Of course even this shred of illusion is lost soon enough. And it’s telling that they produce clay dolls: their utensils used to have an intrinsic value because of their usefulness to people; now they’re mere trinkets in a world of fashions and trends, where people buy things out of leisure even if they don’t need them. And for that the Centre has at its disposals the art of marketing, which the novel defines as “creating and impelling in the customer enough stimuli and suggestions in order for the values of use to progressively rise in their estimation, a step soon followed in no time by the rise of the exchange values, imposed by the shrewdness of the producer on a buyer from whom was removed little by little, subtly, the inner defences resulting from awareness of his own personality, those which before, if an intact before ever existed, provided him, although precariously, a certain possibility of resistance and self-control.” To say that the customer chooses with his wallet and that capitalism gives people the power of choice is a simplistic motto, when we consider that companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars in order to perfect techniques, learned from psychology, biology and neuroscience, to manipulate people into spends hundreds of billions of dollars.

Marketing has to do with creating and sustaining leisure and spending habits, prolonging an adolescent phase well past what used to be called the adult age, and opening new niche markets that keep consumers happy and satisfied throughout life. In that sense we can also say that the Centre is a symbol of modern hedonism. The Centre exists to give pleasure to man reduced to a mere consumer of sensual stimuli. We only have to read the countless mottos spreads across its walls, some in all caps like LIFE SAFELY, LIVE IN THE CENTER; YOU’RE OUR BEST CLIENT, BUT PLEASE DON’T SAY TO YOUR NEIGHBOUR; others more modest like: Be bold, dream; Have the boldness to dream; We think about you all the time, it’s time to think about us; Bring your friends as long as they buy; With us you’ll never want to be anything else. Boldness, dreaming, a sense of self-realization, success – all the key-words in marketing. We could add others like originality and individuality, marketing loves to praise people’s individuality. By themselves they’re not problematic since men need to dream and to be bold to accomplish their wishes, but they become a problem when they’re nothing but soundbytes used to sell cars, clothes, cell phones and beverages. Far from becoming original or individual beings, people are invited to disappear into an amorphous mass of collective pleasures, dreaming and daring only insofar as marketing allows them to, forging an identity by acquiring a product that 20 million others are being told to acquire. Far from individuality, marketing fosters a sense of brand loyalty and subservience. When Cipriano tries one of the rain simulators he doesn’t get what’s so amazing about it; but a man tells him, “I feel sorry for you, you’ll never understand,” one imagines with the smug tone of those who smirk at someone who doesn’t understand the hype behind the new iPhone; they can’t understand, they’re not part of the Apple tribe.

The rain simulator takes us to another dimension of the Centre: the expansion of virtual reality in modern society. This by now is more than clear to us. And yet in 1997 the internet wasn’t yet such a big deal and people seemed more grounded on the physical world. But I remember how part of my adolescence lived through that asinine Japanese trend that swept through the world in the late ‘90s: the infamous and moronic Tamagochi. I don’t know if you remember these digital egg-shaped pets that you had to feed with binary codes or else they died, and which grew increasingly more demanding, to the point you got fed up with them and threw them out of windows? Around the time the first batch arrived in Portugal Saramago was in the preliminary stages of the book; I don’t know if there was any influence, but it’s certainly curious that the Centre provides digital pets. There are no cats and dogs, only the aforementioned virtual aquariums: fake fish fed and cared for while humans starved in the shantytown nearby the Centre. The criticism is more than obvious. The consequences of this immersion into the virtual are precisely the erosion of emotional ties, the distancing of the Other, the loss of capacity for empathy. I don’t know if Saramago was aware of the ridiculous Tamagochi, be as it may the Centre prefigures modernity’s accelerating march into voluntary virtual reality: people living parallel lives in Second Life; people mediating their connections via Facebook; a fear of silence for which the incessant tinkering with the cell phone is the cure. In 2010 CNN reported that Avatar watchers were developing depression and suicidal thoughts because they wanted to prolong the feeling of living in Pandora, with its fluorescent neon lights and blue Na’vi. Why should this shock us anymore? The society of spectacle that demonstrated that someone can always supplant somebody else’s former inanity: we’re all aware that we’re actors in movies about ourselves, and we get more hits the sillier the content becomes; self-degradation has become the only form of attention. After a century fighting for the right to privacy, we’re now prepared to throw it away if it gets in the way of ours being a popular Youtube video. The super-surveillance state we live in wouldn’t have met so little resistance from citizens without this new mental development reassuring them that it’s cool to be filmed 24/7.

The Centre also behaves like a two-faced deity: the one serving capitalism and the one serving hedonism. The Centre, in its role as benevolent god, spreads the myth of the free market, wherein everyone can triumph. Its apostles even offer Cipriano a second choice, for the sales department chief explains that “I don’t want people to say that the Centre didn’t give you a last chance.” The language is mellifluous but also shows how for the Centre Cipriano is guilty of some crime, an error, he’s in need of redemption, he’s screwed up. Under the capitalist market, you fail because you deserved to fail, because you were lazy, didn’t do and work enough, and there’s nothing worse than a failure, after all a person stops being human when he stops being productive. “That’s what we are for them, zero,” says the unemployed potter. Other characters are aware of the Centre’s role as Judge: “The Centre is not a tribunal,” says Cipriano, “You’re wrong, it is a tribunal, and I don’t know a more implacable one,” explains the sales department chief. But the Centre is like the Judeo-Christian God, depending on the Gospel you read, it punishes as much as it blesses, and so it also “participates in the nature of the divine” and its apostles brag that it has given “a new meaning to millions and millions of people who were going about unhappy, frustrated, helpless.” The Centre offers ways of being happy enough to fill a whole lifetime, “even if a person was born in the Centre and never left to the exterior world.” One gets the impression people are even luckier if they are born in the Centre and never leave it, protecting their impressions from the impure outer world.

Very well, so the Centre is totalitarianism, is capitalism, is consumer society, is society of spectacle, is the frantic search for pleasure, is the virtual world, is a dystopia, is God. There’s only hypothesis left that encompasses all others: the Centre is the modern Western democracy. When Seeing came out, in 2004, some critics accused Saramago of attacking democracy. The author defended the blank ballot, opposed elections, denied citizens the hard-won right to choose their rulers, the man even wanted to throw down the system, no doubt nostalgic of his beloved Soviet Union. I think they were wrong; the novel was far from communist, in fact the Communist Party had but a vestigial role in it. I think Seeing shows instead Saramago’s moving away from faith in parties and proposing anarchism. The novel inverts what happens in Blindness: instead of the world imploding in chaos and mass murder, we see a besieged capital turning into a self-sustainable community where everybody helps each other, barely noticing that they’re isolated from the rest of the country, much to the chagrin of the democratic government, which intended to punish the poorly-behaved city for its radical electoral practices. Pointlessly it tries to find a scapegoat, some sinister force working in the shadows manipulating people. The blank ballot itself demonstrates the total lack of faith in any party. This apolitical community is a wonderful fantasy, like the utopias dreamt by Fourier, Kropotkin and Makhno, because it takes a simplistic view to the many problems common human nature would create under such circumstances. But then this wouldn’t be a José Saramago if it didn’t embellish mankind a bit in detriment of psychological realism.

No, I believe the real attack against democracy took place in The Cave. Here we have a community where we can’t really talk about persecutions, violence, restrictions. People are free and content, they accept the world they were born into and toil without suspecting what’s going on outside it, or without disturbing themselves when they discover. As we’ve seen, the Centre exterminates curiosity and promotes egotism. It’s true the Centre is surrounded by shantytowns, which it constantly expels farther and farther, but that’s the nature of functional democracies. Democracy was, is and will continue to be a business built on a lot of exploitation. Of course like the inhabitants of the Centre, most prefer to turn a blind eye to democracies doing business with totalitarian regimes like China, Russia and Saudi Arabia, to European countries selling weapons to tyrants who allegedly are against Europe’s values and way of life, to America’s support of dictatorships that control oil fields. Nobody even truly cares when a democracy, in order to make life easier for a company, subsidizes a military coup in a democracy, like it happened in South America countless times in the 20th century, like it happened in Iran in 1954, when a democratic government was overthrown by an Anglo-American plot to put a Shah in power who was receptive to foreign oil business, which instigated the 1979 Ayatollah Revolution, which has kept the region in tumult ever since. Democracies don’t even like democracies; democracies love democracy inside borders, but resent it outside them. Like in the Centre, democracy fosters tribal identities and instils a sense of superiority in relation to others, while at the same time, through marketing, mass media, the entertainment industry and public relation agencies, it eliminates critical faculties necessary to understand at what price democracy was achieved, or if it was achieved at all.

A plentiful land surrounded by misery – until a decade ago that could be a definition of democracy; but since 2001 it’s become hard to write this without laughter, not now that the economic crisis has spread to Europe and America while the elites of Asian and African dictatorships enjoy fortune. It’s hard to remember how presumptous people used to be 15 years ago. Back then some thought we were the last men at the end of history, with that typical arrogance that defines so much of the previous century, obese with moral and scientific certainty. Like the social sciences messiahs of the 18th century, man at the end of the 20th thought he had discovered the formula for the perfect society. Cynicism was not yet a generalized trait, there was still hope and faith in leaders, the future still seemed possible. And now there’s a general feeling that we’re at the end of an era but we can’t yet glimpse what’s coming next because we were never encouraged to do so; we were always sold the idea that this was the best we could aspire to; it was either democracy or falling off a precipice. How could anyone ambition anything better? “You should know that for the Centre there’s only one path; the one that leads from the Centre to the Centre, I work there, I know what I’m talking about,” says the apostle Marçal. Pundits working for the counterfeit democracy we have nowadays say the same under different words, they especially love to insist that, bad as things may be, everything is fine with this system that we built in the last decades. So the economy is constantly unstable? So non-stop scandals demonstrate that the political class is filled with criminals? So economic monopolies are growing? So democracy is becoming a bit more authoritarian than it used to be? So there’s more unemployment? So people just want to survive and be thankful for making it through another day? Everything is fine.

The Cave was Saramago’s way of disagreeing. He thought it was time to have a frank debate about what democracy should be and what it has become. To say that he was a lonely voice would be a mistake. Although it’s fiction, The Cave belongs to a growing literature that includes Noam Chomsky’s Profits over People, Naomi Klein’s No Logo and The Shock Doctrine, John Pilger’s The New Rulers of the World, Sheldon Wolin’s Democracy Incorporated, Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusion, Daniel Innerarity’s La Sociedad Invisible, James Meek’s Private Island, Peter Oborne’s The Triumph of the Political Class, Alfio Mastropaolo’s La democrazia è una causa persa?, and Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. Indeed amidst all this non-fiction Saramago’s novel seems out of place, but I’d include also William Gaddis’ 2002 Agape Agape into the mix, for its many points of contact. People have been discussing democracy and diagnosing its many ills for quite some time now, it’s just that the discussion has become more vital as of late. And for that reason I don’t think The Cave is going to be forgotten after all. Far from being a minor novel, I’m now willing to concede it may be one of his best and most lucid. It was ahead of its time and was misunderstood. Now is the right time to read it; the world has remade itself in its image, making sure it’ll continue to resonate with readers so long as this era of crisis, chaos and confusion lasts.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

In case you read Portuguese...

Whoever reads this blog in search of lessons on Portuguese Literature may feel the experience of looking at a moth-eaten tapestry full of holes that interrupt the pretty patterns and motifs. There’s nothing systematic about the way I wrote about it, and it’s not even a major interest for me. Whenever I write about it I do so mainly because I want to illustrate or illuminate or expand something about a writer I love a lot: José Saramago, Eça de Queiroz, Fernando Pessoa, António Lobo Antunes, Jorge de Sena. If I get someone to read The Travels of Fernão Mendes Pinto, that leaves me deeply honoured; if I can direct someone to a French translation of Raul Brandão, that makes my day. If I happen to educate some people in the process, I don’t complain.

But I know I don’t do a very good job at it. The truth is there are lots of literary critics and historians and essayists who can and do mend the holes in the tapestry a lot better than me. Most people just don’t have access to them, because of the language barrier and of a logistic inability to obtain their books. There’s nothing I can do about the language, but about getting the books I recently discovered a remarkable resource to understanding everything you ever wanted to know about Portuguese Literature.

A few weeks ago I discovered that the Instituto Camões has made available free and legal .pdf copies of a bygone book collection called Biblioteca Breve. Initiated in 1977, under the aegis of the Instituto Camões, with respected men and women of culture and letters at its helm, for almost two decades it published short but informative books written for laymen on every conceivable literary, film, historical, musical, architectural subject, penned by well-known experts on these areas. I read my first one a few months ago and the collection’s index left me astonished. Since then I’ve been slowly collecting them, buying them of online booksellers. They’re all available online, but I’m a physical book person and I love receiving them on my mail box. There are over 100 books and each title is deeply enticing. Here are a few I recommend

1 A Originalidade da Literatura Portuguesa, by Jacinto do Prado Coelho: the collection started with a book by one of the best critics of the time. In about 60 pages he takes the reader through the many facets of Portuguese Literature, trying to understand what makes it unique, what its characteristics are. He addresses everything: the lack of a novelistic and theatrical tradition; the weight of lyrical poetry and sentimentalism; the role the Inquisition had in shaping it; its fatalism and love for tragedy; the Baroque tradition (whose rhetorical tricks can be seen in Saramago, for instance), etc. It’s not a flattering book, but it’s even-handed and honest. The reader finishes this book thinking it’s a very bizarre, uneven, hysterical literature, and probably it is.

4 A Geração de 70 – Uma Revolução Cultural e Literária, by Álvaro Manuel Machado: The Generation of ’70 is the name given to the authors whose careers started in the 1870s: Eça de Queiroz, Antero de Quental, Oliveira Martins, Ramalho Ortigão, Teófilo Braga. Eça, the great proponent of Realism in Portugal, is the most famous of the bunch, but this little book explains succinctly how important they were and how they revolutionised Portuguese literature and society.

9 O Segundo Modernismo em Portugal, by Eugénio Lisboa: Portugal’s first Modernism started around 1915 when Fernando Pessoa and friends like Mário de Sá-Carneiro and Almada Negreiros created a short-lived but radical magazine called Orpheu. Although they failed in kicking Portuguese society out of its indolence and slid back to obscurity, they left some seeds growing, and in the 1920s a new generation of modernists coalesced around a magazine called presença: their most important achievement was rescuing Pessoa’s generation from oblivion. I never tire of praising the names of José Régio, João Gaspar Simões and Adolfo Casais Monteiro – if it weren’t for them, no one would know the creator of heteronyms. This excellent book is a fine introduction to their work, ambitions and successes.

32 O Horror na Literatura Portuguesa, by Maria Leonor Machado de Sousa: Portugal does not have a fecund tradition of horror and fantasy. The reason has to do with the implementation of the Inquisition, which suppressed imagination and confiscated all foreign books that were deemed lurid, obscene, offensive to dogma. Writers like Cervantes and Voltaire, Gothic novels, messed up Germans like Tieck and Hoffmann were all forbidden, so there wasn’t any incentive to foster a lively national literature within those genres. Even so this writer has long been fascinated with them and has written the definitive history of horror in Portuguese literature. No, it’s not this book, this is more of an appetizer for her 400-page masterpiece.

41 Os Relatos de Naufrágios na Literatura Portuguesa dos séculos XVII e XVIII, Giulia Lanciani: Portuguese Literature is such an heterogeneous, oddball thing that we even include narratives of real-life shipwrecks amongst our classics. The definitive source is Bernardo Gomes de Brito’s The Tragic History of the Sea, which is a 18th century compilation of narratives published in the 16th and 17th, remarkable for their realism, rawness and overwhelming sense of gloom. Some have seen them as Portugal’s answer to Spain’s picaresque novels. Giulia Lanciani, an Italian scholar, analyses this genre and its importance for literature. It pervades everything, from Luiz de Camões to António Lobo Antunes, and it’s undoubtedly one of the cornerstones of our literary production.

54 Breve História da Censura Literária em Portugal, by Graça Almeida Rodrigues: This is the best book on Portuguese Literature ever written! Sure, you can read the 1000+ pages of the interminable A História da Literatura Portuguesa, but that book only explains who’s who and who wrote what, which is an easy thing to do. But Graça Almeida Rodrigues’ book, which is roughly translated as A Short History of Literary Censorship in Portugal, explains in 100 pages why thousands of books were never written. Read as a complement to Maria Leonor Machado de Sousa, it shows why censorship stopped Portugal from having a vibrant novelistic culture up until the 19th century, with the victory of the constitutional monarchy, why the great 16th century theatre died and disappeared for centuries, why literary production up until the end of the 18th century was mainly limited to poetry, and only a handful of poets at that. The reader also learns that Portuguese Inquisition was the most ferocious and restrictive ever to exist, so renowned for its practice of prohibiting, controlling and confiscating books that Pope Paul IV called a monk called Francisco Foreiro to head the Council of Trent commission dedicated to creating the infamous Index Librorum Prohibitorum. I think that says everything.

57 Fernão Mendes Pinto – Sátira e Anti-Cruzada na Peregrinação, by Rebecca Catz: In case you have forgotten, this is the translator of The Travels of Fernão Mendes Pinto. Catz is an American scholar who for the past decades has tried to convince people that Mendes Pinto deserves to be ranked amongst great writers like Rabelais, Swift and Cervantes. That’s a noble goal and I wish her luck. Catz has an interesting theory about his 1614 book: instead of an autobiography, she sees it as a pioneering critique of imperialism which satirizes European’s conquering ambitions. Perhaps she’s right, Mendes Pinto is not extremely kind to his countrymen and exposes the Discoveries for what they are: unrestrained greed and Christian hypocrisy. However amongst 16th Portuguese writers he’s hardly a solitary voice.

59 Do Pícaro na Literatura Portuguesa, by João Palma-Ferreira: This is one of the best things I’ve read lately. Because of the Inquisition we never had picaresque novels, even Cervantes was forbidden, but the author explores the way traces of this genre seeped into some of our classics, many of them nowadays forgotten, many belonging to popular literature and so a bit clandestine and not palatable to the erudite tastes of our elites. But he writes so passionately about them that I’ve started tracking them down. I was marvelled to find out that a Portuguese noblemen had written a third volume of Mateo Aleman’s Guzmán de Alfarache (in fact I was marvelled to discover Guzmán de Alfarache existed), and that Luis Velez de Guevara’s El Diabo Cojuelo had influenced a book called O Diabinho da Mão Furada. I have lots of new books to buy in December.

This is just a sample of what this rich collection has to offer. So if you happen to read Portuguese, here’s a resource for you to explore.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

José Saramago: the bibliography

José Saramago celebrates his 92nd anniversary today. I’ve been so busy this year I haven’t had the time to whip up my review of The Cave yet, so just to mark the occasion here’s a selected list of Saramago bibliography you can’t get your hands on. Red means the books I own and/or read:

Lugares de ficção em José Saramago (Maria Alzira Seixo, 1999)

This is the birth of José Saramago Studies. Maria Alzira Seixo, already known for her contributions to António Lobo Antunes, can be said to have invented them when in 1987 she published a booklet on the Nobel Prize recipient called O Essencial sobre José Saramago. In 1999 she republished it with added essays and a new title. It’s a good introduction that covers the essential themes of his work.

Maravilhoso, Trágico e Sagrado em "Memorial do Convento" de José Saramago (Miguel Real, 1995)

Miguel Real (b.1953) is a novelist and literary critic with a long oeuvre on philosophy and history. This book is a small essay-book on the novel that made Saramago famous, Baltasar and Blimunda.

José Saramago: Aproximação a um Retrato (Armando Baptista-Bastos, 1996)

Baptista-Bastos (b. 1934) is a famous Portuguese journalist, known for his anti-dictatorship positions, and regular contributor to newspapers. This book, which I’m dying to acquire, is a long interview Saramago gave him.

José Saramago - O Período Formativo (Horácio Costa, 1997)

The author is a Brazilian literary critic and this book is a study of Saramago’s “maturation period;” I’m not sure what that means, but I suppose it must cover the stuff he wrote before he turned into a great novelist, that is, everything pre-Raised from the Ground.

Ler Saramago: O Romance (Beatriz Berrini, 1998)

The author is a renowned literary critic from Brazil and an expert on Eça de Queiroz. This book on Saramago contains several essays, an interview and some photos I posted before. Interesting essays include one about Fernando Pessoa and Saramago’s obsession wit him, the role of women in his work; and the interview where he describes his work as “supernatural real,” in order to escape from the magical realist tag.

Diálogos com José Saramago (Carlos Reis, 1998)

These interviews, or conversations, are some of the last he had before receiving the Nobel Prize. So they’re useful to know the man right before the great upheaval in his life.

Discursos de Estocolmo (José Saramago, 1999)

His former Publisher, Caminho, did not stoop to publishing his Nobel Prize cerimony speeches for money. I never bothered to buy them when I could, because it seemed ridiculous, and now they’re out of print.

Post-Modernismo no Romance Português Contemporâneo (Ana Paula Arnaut, 2002)

Not a book on Saramago, but he’s in it since he’s considered one of the introducers of post-modernism in the Portuguese novel. Alzira Seixo had already noticed the techniques he used that could associate him with po-mo.

José Saramago e o Alentejo (Maria Graciete Besse, 2007)

A book about the way the Alentejo region is depicted in his work. Since Raised from the Ground is my favourite Saramago novel, I need to own this.

José Saramago (Ana Paula Arnaut, 2008)

Ana Paula Arnaut (b. 1964) has come up with a short but useful introduction and guide to his work. She’s also written one on Lobo Antunes. These two rival novelists tend to attract the same scholars.

Uma Longa Viagem com José Saramago (João Céu e Silva, 2009)

This is a 400-page-long book.interview with Saramago. Since it was conducted about a year before his death, one can see it as pretty much his last statement on everything.

Conversas com José Saramago (José Carlos de Vasconcelos, 2010)

José Carlos de Vasconcelos (b. 1940) is a journalist and editor of the art and literatura newspaper Jornal de Letras, which conducted several interviews with Saramago. This booklet collects six interviews ranging from the 1980s to the early 2000s and covers novels such as The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Seeing and Death with Interruptions.

Biografia José Saramago (João Marques Lopes, 2010)

This is a short biography on Saramago and indispensable to aficionados. It was a great help back in 2012 when I wrote a mini-biography.

Correspondência 1959-1971 (José Rodrigues Miguéis /José Saramago, 2010)

José Rodrigues Miguéis (1901-1980) was a Portuguese novelist who exiled himself in the US, where he lived for decades. Saramago met him while he was the editor at the Estúdios Cor publisher, which published Rodrigues Miguéis’ novels. It’s not an exciting correspondence, it’s very matter of fact and business related. Rodrigues Miguéis seemed to live obsessed with receiving his well-earned royalties and Saramago was constantly assuaging him because of delays. From time to time there’s insight about their lives, especially Saramago’s relationship with the intelligentsia of the time, which he did not care for very much. But one always expects letters between two men of arts to be more interesting.

Palavras para José Saramago (2011)

This posthumous anthology collects texts written about Saramago on his death. It has contributions from all over the world: Juan Gelman, former Brazilian president Lula da Silva, Moacyr Sclair, Luis Sepúlveda, controversial Spanish district attorney Baltasar Garzón, Harold Bloom, David Leavitt, Dario Fo, Umberto Eco, Roberto Saviano, Carlos Fuentes, Gael García Bernal and Mia Couto. It’s a great overview of what the world thought of him.

A Última Entrevista de José Saramago (José Rodrigues dos Santos, 2011)

Ah, good old José Rodrigues dos Santos (b. 1964): a popular journalist, anchorman, and Portugal’s Dan Brown. No, really! Our Dan, since he entertains literary ambitions and has the keys to the television car, once hosted a TV show where he discussed literature with great writers. From that resulted an interview with Saramago. The title spectacularly tells us that it’s the “last interview” he gave; I don’t know if it was.

A Estátua e a Pedra (José Saramago, 2013)

I’ve written about this book before. It’s a speech Saramago gave on his novels in the ‘90s and an excellent resource to understand his poetics of the novel.

Os Escritores (Também) têm Coisas a Dizer (Carlos Vaz Marques, 2013)

This anthology of writers’ interviews is great because it has one interview with Lobo Antunes where he accuses Saramago of being mean to him; and then has one with Saramago where he denies being mean to Lobo Antunes. It’s hilarious if you love beloved novelists at their most petulant and childish. I do, so I treasure this book, I treasure it.