José Saramago, the Portuguese writer and Nobel Laureate, passed away one year ago this week. If he was Ghanaian, we would hold a one-year “celebration” of his life and passing, called afenhyia, to mark the day. In Ghana, we just don’t let the dead rest, we continually mark their death until we pass on! We would go to church, visit his grave or burial site, and then gather at a public hall that can accommodate the expected huge crowd. We would wear styled outfits sown from black and white materials. Frankly, some people will look their best on the day. The church would be Methodist, so I could sing my heart out. There would be donations to his wife Pilar, publicly announced so we know who gave the most money. These announcements will elaborate on the nature of the donor’s relationship to Saramago or his immediate family. I might say something like:
“I first heard of José Saramago when he won the Nobel Prize in 1998. I promptly run out, bought and read Blindness. Since then, I’ve been an avid reader of his works. He was, and remains, one of my favorite authors. So if he has died and indeed a year has since passed, then I cannot help but come and mark this afenhyia with his family. I donate the amount of …Ghanaian cedis to his wife Pilar”.
Well, this beloved novelist was not Ghanaian. And he was an atheist. So the above described celebration just won’t do. I’ve decided instead to present Saramago’s best five books, of those that have been translated into English.
- Blindness (1997) – this was his latest book on the English-speaking market when he won the Nobel Prize. The folks at Nobel HQ provided this rationale: (Saramago) “with parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony continually enables us once again to apprehend an elusory reality”. Well, I can never understand these Nobel citations so I turned to Blindness for an explanation. An epidemic of blindness, the “white evil” sweeps through the population of an unnamed city. The main characters are The Doctor, The Doctor’s Wife, Girl with Dark Glasses and King of Ward 3. A complete social breakdown ensues in the devastated city. What a terrifying, shocking, dizzying but compelling story. Apocalyptic, dystopian. All this coupled with Saramago’s style of writing – his long, long sentences with very little punctuation – well, the two days that I spent reading this book are among my best reading days ever. In short, I love this book. But, but. I think that Blindness’ iconic reputation, as deserved as it is, benefited from the proximity of its publication to Saramago’s Nobel Award.
- All the Names (1999) – Because if you threatened me with blindness, I would have to say that this is Saramago’s best book. Where Blindness is loud, All the Names is quiet. It is the story of Senhor José, a humble clerk who works in the Central Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths of a large, unnamed city. He collects clippings on famous people as a hobby. He lives in a room adjoined to the Registry. To feed his hobby, he sneaks into the Registry and takes files with people’s information into his room. This is against the rules. One night, he accidentally takes the file on an unnamed woman. He becomes obsessed with finding out who the woman is. A stunning tale of loneliness, obsession and the crushing weight of bureaucracy. All the Names is Saramago’s most touching book.
- The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1991) – this is a chronicle of Ricardo Reis’ final year. He is a Portuguese doctor who, for most his life, has been living and practicing in Brazil. He returns to his homeland when he learns of the death of the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa. Not much happens, plotwise, in this book. Sometimes the ghost of Pessoa pops into Reis’ room for a chat. It was in the middle of reading this book that I concluded that José Saramago was having too much fun writing his books. Ricardo Reis is one of the heteronyms created byFernando Pessoa. Via Wikepedia, “the literary concept of heteronym, refers to one or more imaginary character(s) created by a writer to write in different styles”. Saramago extends this concept and has the writer and his creation existing together. Delightful.
- The History of the Seige of Lisbon(1996) – A story within a story. It is an examination on language, writing and history. In one story, a proofreader decides to insert the word “not” into a sentence in a book titled The History of the Seige of Lisbon that he is correcting and thereby changes history. He is then urged to write the new history by his boss, who also happens to be his lover. The second story is the the re-imagined history told as a historical romance.
- The Stone Raft (1994) – Like Blindness, the characters in this novel have to grapple with and survive a near apocalyptic event. The Iberian Pennisula suddenly breaks off from Europe and drifts west in Atlantic Ocean, heading for North America. We follow five characters, each of whom unknowingly might have caused the split, as they journey together on the floating pennisula. The Stone Raft is one of Saramago’s more obvious political allegories. He published the book in 1986, the same year that Spain and Portugal joined the European Union. He separates them from Europe in the year that Iberia joined the European unification project. This book abounds with other challenging themes. But it is, again, the playfulness, the language, the wit and irony that endears one to this book. An original, critical and utterly entertaining fantasy.
That’s my five. If asked to pick a sixth book , I would choose between The Gospel According to Jesus Christ and Baltasar and Blimunda. A special thanks to the translators, the late Giovanni Pontiero and Margeret Jull Costa.
What do you think of my best five? Agree or disagree (or as my 4-year-old is fond of saying, True or False)?