The current legacy of José Saramago, against the myth of the "difficult author"

In 1979, the writer José Saramago left Portugal through the Valença do Minho border and settled in Galicia. His goal was to make a route through his country that would give rise to a book, but for that he had to leave it because the title of the project was Trip to Portugal. To go to a place you first have to be outside of it, so he spent some time walking around nearby towns and cities until on the fifth day he crossed the Duero River via Zamora and began his Lusitanian journey.

The book was first published in 1980, although over the years there have been numerous reissues, both in Portuguese and Spanish. Anagrama has just released the latest one, translated by Basilio Losada, with unpublished photos taken by the author and photographer Duarte Belo. It is one of those hardcover volumes with a cloth-bound spine, typical of special editions.

In this case, the reason is that it is one of the titles in the Biblioteca Saramago collection –with covers by Manuel Estrada– that the publishing house has launched to celebrate the author's centenary, which is on November 16. It is not the only tribute to the man who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. To give a few examples, on April 25 his legacy was deposited in the Caja de las Letras of the Cervantes Institute and the ONCE coupon for June 19 was dedicated to one of his emblematic works, Essay on blindness. From the José Saramago Foundation they are surprised by the responses they are having to the commemoration proposals they have made to institutions and university, academic and artistic fields. Readers are also enthusiastically participating.

For Pilar del Río, president of the Foundation, this reaction indicates that the writer "is part of the affections of the readers and his voice is installed in contemporary society." In his institution they usually say that it is "the centenary of a contemporary", she says. She is one of the people who knew him best, since she was a translator of his work and his wife since 1988.

"The voice of José Saramago, which, being a singular voice, becomes multiple when it is being read, readers feel incorporated into the story as if it were being told in our ears", he defends. In addition to coordinating most of the activities that are being carried out for the centenary, last April she presented her book (she is not only a translator but also a journalist) The intuition of the island: The days of José Saramago in Lanzarote (Itinerary Editorial).

Fernando Gómez Aguilera, director of the César Manrique Foundation, is a specialist in Saramago's work and curator of his Foundation. He has just published the book The bird that tweets perched on the rhinoceros (Editorial La Umbría y la Solana), which includes fifteen texts in which he reflects on the literature that the Portuguese author wrote from 1993. That was the year in which settled on the Canary Island, after the controversy caused by the novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ in Portugal in 1991.

"It is the largest cycle of his production (about twenty works). It brings together its own, differential characteristics, which represent a turn with respect to the previous one. Saramago called it the cycle of the 'stone', compared to the previous one of the 'statue' ", Explain. The title of this new volume by Gómez Aguilera comes from a quote by George Steiner that alludes to "the oxpeckers, the little birds that perch on the rhinoceroses and alert both to the presence of the pachyderm and to the proximity of humans." For him, "it underlines, metaphorically, the condition of sentinel, of alerter in this case, about the deviations of the system. And, also, about the harmful human drifts, characteristics of Saramago's literature and thought."

Readers who wish to delve into the universe of the Portuguese writer have a long list of titles before them. Novels, several books of stories and children's and youth literature, diaries, chronicles published in newspapers, plays, essays and even his autobiography, Little Memories (2006). A considerable amount of texts among which it can be difficult to choose. Saramago's writing is not considered exactly light, which can cause reluctance to the public.

This is precisely what Pilar del Río refers to, advising potential readers to free themselves from any prior prejudice. "Let them read without fear, without listening to those who say, sometimes frivolously and others maliciously, that he is a difficult author. Of course he is, like learning to ride a bicycle or looking handsome," she maintains. "When one enters the 'saramaguiana' work and begins to feel that oneself is more intelligent than what they tell us, that we can understand beyond WhatsApp messages, that we are capable of incorporating other worlds into our world, then there is no greater pleasure." Her recommendation is to start by reading a few pages out loud until you understand the rhythm. "Then everything is easy and the stories that are told are really amazing. It's worth it."

Nicaraguan writer Sergio Ramírez, winner of the 2017 Cervantes Prize, was a close friend of Saramago and also knows his work well. For him, the best legacy of Portuguese is "lucid writing, which will always look to the future, and which will pass from one generation of readers to another." He recommends that new readers start with Essay on Blindness (1995), especially after what they experienced with the coronavirus health crisis. In fact, it was one of the most read books during confinement. "During the pandemic, it served to reflect on isolation, loneliness, collective catastrophes. You cannot ask a book of imagination for a better social role," he says.

Saramago's books, like the one mentioned by Ramírez, continue to be a good tool to use to analyze what is happening today, even though decades have passed since he wrote them. Gómez Aguilera also points to Essay on Blindness as evident, but also mentions Alabardas, the writer's last novel, which he never finished. "It addresses the current issue of the arms industry and war, on a great individual moral conflict that has at its base the banality of evil, it also resonates the relationship of the arms business with the interests of power, the armed conflict as a tainted economic lever horrifying," he says.

His list of recommendations does not end there. "Essay on lucidity questions the quality of our democracies and their authoritarian drifts. In Cain, the incompatibility of religion with free will is crudely raised and he lambastes the Bible based on a rationalist textual counter-reading, in which the author confronts the consolidated narrative about God". Likewise, he is convinced that "the transiberismo that Saramago defended in La balsa de piedra is today more current than ever, at a time when the geostrategic map of the world is being reordered". "The obsessed search for the other in All Names underscores one of the shortcomings of our time of solitude, despite the appearance of hypercommunication, not infrequently masking and hollow," he adds.

Pilar del Río also reflects on which titles are most useful to try to understand what is happening in today's society through the reflections of the Portuguese author. "Are we citizens or consumers? Are we valued because of our civic status or if we can't buy are we excluded from society? That issue is dealt with in La cavern", she maintains.

He also wonders if we citizens are hegemonic or if they prepare the ground for us to choose what has already been decided by others, and the answer is found in Essay on Lucidity. "If weapons are manufactured, conflicts will have to be manufactured, nobody manufactures to throw away, neither companies nor states. And the manufactured material will have to be experimented with by organizing conflicts, regional or general wars. That is what Halberds, halberds is about," he determines.

According to him, the greatest legacy left by Saramago's works is the opportunity to reflect without fear. He built his books "from the ethics of responsibility, using reason and conscience without going through the observatory of power, which has marked the opinions that we must have at each moment, those neutralities or indifferences so well seen by those who mark the steps to follow, the 'sweet' social correction".

Sergio Ramírez provides another reflection on the weight of Saramago's contribution to literature and thought: "the story as a great parable, which in its described universe contains an imaginative reflection that functions as a mirror of reality. The reality of any era, or time, and especially the present".

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