Portugal has given the world two distinguished novelists. Eça de Queiros, is the Proust of Portugal. His masterpiece, The Maias, describes the decline of an aristocratic family in the late 19th century. Whereas Eça was a member of the Portuguese intellectual elite, José Saramago was born in a wretched shack in the the rural hamlet of Azinhaga. When he was two, his family moved to a series of two-roomed flats in the poorest quarters of Lisbon. I cannot think of any writer of consequence who endured such grinding poverty in his childhood and youth. His grandfather was a foundling and both he and his wife illiterate peasants. In an early essay I compared Saramago to Thomas Hardy, as a village boy who had made a career as a writer. This was a grave mistake. Hardy wrote his early novels in a comfortable cottage with a large garden, and his mother was a great reader.
Saramago’s parents were too poor to send him to secondary school. He trained as an engineer, taking jobs as a car mechanic and metal worker. In his early fifties he determined to make a living as a writer. In 1998 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. He had become a celebrity, a status he much enjoyed as an octogenarian married to a young, left-wing beauty. Most of his novels are fantasies, set in unidentifiable countries. In one such country, its inhabitants cease to die for seven months after New Year’s Day; in another, the Iberian peninsula floats out to sea. In Blindness, published in 1995, loss of sight becomes a universal, contagious disease. The blind, imprisoned by the government, grope about shitting all over the place. The filth and stench are awful. There are gang rapes by hoodlums. It is not a novel for the squeamish.
The Dantesque visions of Saramago’s novels are a world apart from the universe of Small Memories, a moving account of his childhood and adolescence. Saramago passes his holidays with his grandparents in Azinhaga. He writes that ‘he was simply in the landscape’, even if that landscape had vanished. The present day landscape ‘isn’t mine; it is not the place where I was born. I didn’t grow up there’. The bureaucrats of the European Union ordered the destruction of the olive trees where lizards could hide in their bark, and branches from which birds could sing. The olive groves have been uprooted, replaced by monotonous fields of hybrid maize. Corn is cut by clattering harvesting machines. As a fisherman in his youth, ‘there was no deeper silence than the silence of water. I felt it then, and never forgot it’. He sleeps in straw-filled horse mangers on long marches taking the pigs to market; on frosty nights, sickly piglets are put to bed between his grandparents. He writes of killing harmless frogs with a catapult: ‘Children’s cruelty knows no limits, which is the real reason why adult cruelty knows no boundary either’. Living in Lisbon as a student of engineering, his feelings become, as it were, mechanised in an urban setting; he lies to amuse his school mates.
Small Memories will delight British readers. The same cannot be said of his 15 novels, his public appearances and frequent interviews by journalists and his blogs on the internet. This is partly a matter of style; what has been called his ‘continuous flow’ wanders on through pages of prose that reject conventional punctuation. More dramatically, it is a matter of ideology and morals. As an atheist, Saramago holds that the world would have been a better place had the Bible with its false morality never been written. Capitalists like Berlusconi are ‘vomit’. Blair a traitor to the socialist cause. Even his old friend, Fidel Castro, has ‘damaged my hopes and cheated my dreams’. Jews should stop harping on about their sufferings in the Holocaust; their treatment of the Palestinians is as much a crime against humanity as the mass slaughter in Nazi concentration camps. This might offend Jews, ‘but that does not matter to me’.
In 1969 he joined the communist party. He is now an embittered old man in a hurry, despairing that a moribund and corrupt capitalism can survive. This gloomy pessimism has made him a cultural hero for Leftists in his own country in Spain and Latin America. Readers of The Spectator may find refuge in the Tennysonian nostalgia for a vanished past that is the hallmark of Small Memories.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated December 5, 2009