Tag Archives: Saramago

Saramago – The Elephant’s Journey

7 Dec

From my review of José Saramago’s penultimate novel The Elephant’s Journey:

[…] Given the amount of work the reader is asked to do here, it’s tempting to invoke Roland Barthes’ famous essay ‘The Death of the Author’ when considering The Elephant’s Journey, not because Saramago has left us, not even because we are witnessing Margaret Jull Costa’s typically excellent translation from the Portuguese and hence having to deal with English terms such as ‘pigeon fancier’, but rather because the text is laid out before us as a site of play and experimentation, as a refusal to be explained via the history it (mis-)represents or the life of the author ‘behind’ it.

However, no matter how much the center of representation is destabilized in this work, the authorial voice remains as strong as ever. There is never any doubt that this is a text that could only have originated with José Saramago. We, meanwhile, float above the narrative, text, and book, looking down on the characters, the scenes, and the author at work. As ever, Saramago proves himself to be an author who respects our intelligence and our ability to navigate between narrative and metanarrative, who shares the mechanisms of representation with us because, ultimately, he trusts us.

[…]

Full review available at PopMatters:
http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/133843-the-elephants-journey-by-jose-saramago/

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Disquiet

22 Jul

Fernando Pessoa, Book of Disquiet

To express something is to conserve its virtue and take away its terror. Fields are greener in their description than in their actual greenness. Flowers, if described with phrases that define them in the air of the imagination, will have colours with a durability not found in cellular life.
What moves lives. What is said endures. There’s nothing in life that’s less real for having been well described. Small-minded critics point out that such-and-such poem, with its protracted cadences, in the end says merely that it’s a nice day. But to say it’s a nice day is difficult, and the nice day itself passes on. It’s up to us to conserve the nice day in a wordy, florid memory, sprinkling new flowers and new stars over the fields and skies of the empty, fleeting outer world.
… The grand, tarnished panorama of History amounts, as I see it, to a flow of interpretations, a confused consensus of unreliable eyewitness accounts. The novelist is all of us, and we narrate whenever we see, because seeing is complex like everything.

(Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, tr. Richard Zenith (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2001), p. 30)

In summoning The Book of Disquiet to provide examples for Fado and the Place of Longing (the original title of which was to be Songs of Disquiet, a title I retained for the opening chapter), I wanted to connect fado to the Pessoan project of estranging the world, of locating its disquiet. This line of thinking stresses the links to modernity that one finds in both Pessoa and fado while also opening a dialogue with existentialism and phenomenology, highlighting fado’s links to perception and to lived experience, space and place.

It is also worth commenting on the fragmented nature of Pessoa’s most famous prose work. These fragments seem crucial to the growth in the twentieth century of archived knowledge, written texts, museum exhibits and recorded sounds: at once parts of a whole they can never fully catalogue and desperate attempts to salvage the present as it slips from view and earshot. They anticipate a whole range of fragmented experiences of the twentieth century: the ‘fragments I have shored against my ruin’ in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land; the wealth of ethnomusicological collections made possible by advances in recording technology; the broadcast media and its love of the soundbite; David Harvey’s ‘museum of modern knowledge’; the internet and its hyperlinked web of information.

Fernando Pessoa in Lisbon

The Book of Disquiet is also a book about Lisbon and about the ways of living made possible by city life. The role of the observer and chronicler is crucial and Pessoa creates a special character, Bernardo Soares, to achieve this task for him. Soares interweaves his own existential confusions into his descriptions of other city dwellers who walk past his place of work, his rooms or the cafes in which he spends much of his free time. A self-described dweller on the fringe of society, Soares represents what had by this time become a defining trope in western literature, from Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd’ (1840, rev. 1845) through Baudelaire’s ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (1863) to Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910). A strong sense of alienation amongst the crowd comes into play in Pessoa’s work, leading to yearning for a past in which individuals were more noticeable. In this way, Pessoa’s book speaks to earlier modern works on the city. The excitement that Walter Benjamin finds in the Baudelairean city, for example, is present in Pessoa yet it is an excitement that mixes uneasily with a sense of estrangement.

From where does this disquiet emerge? Perhaps it is from what Italo Calvino, writing on Balzac, calls the ‘intuition of the city as language, as ideology, as the conditioning factor of every thought and word and gesture … as monstrous as a giant crustacean, whose inhabitants are no more than motor articulations’. The imposition of (the idea of) the city upon the citizen is alluded to by Svetlana Boym when she identifies the prevalence in the modern world of an urban identity which, while not vanquishing national identity, has taken over some of nationalism’s most pertinent features, yet which ‘appeals to common memory and a common past but is rooted in a man-made place, not in the soil: in urban coexistence at once alienating and exhilarating, not in the exclusivity of blood.’ This mixture of communal and alienating aspects is crucial to fado, where the modern disquiet of the city dweller so well captured by Pessoa is always already entangled in the responsibilities of communal living that urban society demands. If this disquiet is to be seen as one symptom of late modernity, it is possible to link the longing for freedom from the trappings of the past as another, something Boym seems to have in mind when she writes that the city is ‘an ideal crossroads between longing and estrangement, memory and freedom, nostalgia and modernity’. (Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001), p. 76.)

Furthermore, there is a sense in The Book of Disquiet of the attempt of the individual to overcome the monstrous in the city, to imprint his or her own trace upon the structured, symbolic city plan. Such is the case in José Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, where the figure of Ricardo Reis is witnessed in an ongoing process of walking the streets of Lisbon; even as he is marked for disappearance, Reis leaves his trace on the city, on the dead poet who haunts him and on the readers of Saramago’s text. Citizens are able to take partial ownership of the city. Yet that partiality only leads to a new type of symbolic ownership and, though the culturally-scripted city has been challenged by this new symbolic city, the new symbolic city becomes both familiar and fantastic.

With its always-threatened loss the symbolic city becomes an object of nostalgic desire, forever in danger of obliteration by the real city, which cannot be symbolized or familiarized. Into what we might term, following Barthes, the studium of the Symbolic irrupts the punctum of the Real, penetrating the studied and reliable, ostensibly ‘known’ city and lending an aura of disquiet to what was supposedly familiar. This disquiet, in turn, nags at any comfortable sense of nostalgia that contemplation of the familiar, familial, home might otherwise suggest, for there is a danger present: that the object of nostalgia might not, after all, be lost. This is dangerous because the object of nostalgia seeks to find its greatest effect in the safety promised by its inability to return and contradict the nostalgic subject. The lost and mourned object does not reply and this is part of what comforts the loser and the mourner. Yet at the same time that the mourner takes comfort in this stable situation, the danger is never altogether absent that the tranquillity so longed for will not be pierced by a punctum, a reminder of the reason for mourning (I can think of few more evocative examples than Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris and Andrei Tarkovsky’s film adaptation of it).

A still from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (USSR, 1972): 'the danger is never altogether absent that the tranquillity so longed for will not be pierced by a punctum, a reminder of the reason for mourning'.

Above all, The Book of Disquiet is a book of witnessing. Pessoa introduces Soares in his preface as someone who was looking for a witness, someone who would carry his story to the world. Soares himself describes the book as ‘a factless autobiography’, suggesting that it will be a biography without biographemes. It is arguably more like biography as a process of writing, a life produced by writing:

For a long time … I haven’t recorded any impressions; I don’t think, therefore I don’t exist. I’ve forgotten who I am. I’m unable to write because I’m unable to be. Through an oblique slumber, I’ve been someone else. To realize I don’t remember myself means that I’ve woken up.

(Pessoa, Book of Disquiet, p. 314.)

But, if writing is presented by Soares as an affirmation of existence, he is not always convinced that the message can be transmitted to another:

What is there to confess that’s worthwhile or useful? What has happened to us has happened to everyone or only to us; if to everyone, then it’s no novelty, and if only to us, then it won’t be understood. If I write what I feel, it’s to reduce the fever of feeling.

(Pessoa, Book of Disquiet, p. 21.)

It would be unfair of us to expect a work as fragmentary and unstructured as The Book of Disquiet to provide a consistent viewpoint about the processes of witnessing as both seeing and saying. Rather, it is a book plagued by doubts such as those just cited, an internal conflict between the desire to record and an uncertainty as to whether the record should be passed on. Bernardo Soares realizes (as does the Pessoa who, having written as Soares, then stores the writings in an enormous case destined to some kind of future revelation) that between the extremes of ‘everyone’ and ‘I’, there is a community of like-minded people to whom he is speaking: ‘It sometimes occurs to me, with sad delight, that if one day (in a future to which I won’t belong) the sentences I write are read and admired, then at last I’ll have my own kin, people who “understand” me, my true family in which to be born and loved.’ And shortly after: ‘It seems that civilizations exist only to produce art and literature; words are what speak for them and remain.’ Soares is writing for a community that will come later, which is no doubt why he wants his manuscript to be taken by Pessoa and disseminated.

Ricardo Reis contemplates the city

25 Jun

Alfama Rooftops

Ricardo Reis crosses the park to take a look at the city, the castle with its walls in ruins, the terraced houses collapsing along the slopes, the whitish sun beating on the wet rooftops. Silence descends on the city, every sound is muffled, Lisbon seems made of absorbent cotton. soaked, dripping. Below, on a platform, are several busts of gallant patriots, some box shrubs, a few Roman heads out of place, so remote from the skies of Latium, as if one of Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro’s native rustics had been set up to make a rude gesture to the Apollo Belvedere. The entire terrace is a belvedere as we contemplate Apollo, then a voice joins the guitar and they sing a fado. the rain appears to have finally disappeared.

(José Saramago, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, p. 49.)

RIP José Saramago

18 Jun

Here the sea ends and the earth begins. It is raining over the colorless city. The waters of the river are polluted with mud, the riverbanks flooded. A dark vessel, the Highland Brigade, ascends the somber river and is about to anchor at the quay of Alcântara. The steamer is English and belongs to the Royal Mail Line. She crosses the Atlantic between London and Buenos Aires like a weaving shuttle on the highways of the sea, backward and forward, always calling at the same ports, La Plata, Montevideo, Santos, Rio de Janeiro, Pernambuco, Las Palmas, in this order or vice versa, and unless she is shipwrecked, the steamer will also call at Vigo and Boulogne-sur-Mer before finally entering the Thames just as she is now entering the Tagus, and one does not ask which is the greater river, which the greater town.

(José Saramago, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, tr. Giovanni Pontiero (London: Harvill, 1992 [1984]), p. 1.)

So begins The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, the classic novel by José Saramago, the Portuguese writer who died today at the age of 87. The combination of the potentially fantastic and the banal, the metaphoric and the everyday, is typical of Saramago. There is always a sense in his prose that, whatever the story he might be telling us, there are a multitude of stories framing it, running alongside it or visible just beyond its borders. Saramago wants us to know that those stories, which are sometimes really observations (as all stories are observations, ways of seeing the world) and sometimes fantastical retellings of official history, need to be included in the story he is telling us, such that we imagine, or he lets us believe we imagine, that what is unfolding in the labyrinth of his text is one, unending metastory. Frequently, in his wandering, loosely punctuated prose–sometimes described as magical realism, sometimes as stream-of-consciousness, but perhaps just as easily though of as the flow of history running all around us and threatening to drown us in the present–he will take us sidestepping through the fragile walls that separate these universes, giving us a glimpse of the bigger picture before shuttling us back to the scene in which this particular story is taking place.

One does not ask which is the greater river, which the greater town. In The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, we know which town we have settled in. The novel tells the story of the dead writer Fernando Pessoa returning to visit one of his surviving heteronyms, the classically minded poet Ricardo Reis. In fact Pessoa is not quite dead, but rather existing in the exile of limbo while he awaits a more permanent death. Reis, too, is an exile, returning to Lisbon in the opening scene of the book after a period in Brazil. Over the course of the book, Reis  is constantly witnessed wandering the streets of Lisbon in a recurrent pattern that, spelled out on the sidewalks and in Saramago’s wandering prose, symbolizes his brief presence in the city as a kind of psychogeographer. Like  Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life and Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out For The Territory, the citizen as walker is both reader and writer, at once subject to the pre-existing paths laid out in the city text and yet able to assert an agency via the sheer act of activity. But Ricardo Reis is not long for this world–he can not be seen, in however magical a reality, to exist beyond the fading memory of his recently deceased creator, Pessoa–and he always seems to be at the mercy of what Italo Calvino calls the ‘intuition of the city as language, as ideology, as the conditioning factor of every thought and word and gesture … as monstrous as a giant crustacean, whose inhabitants are no more than motor articulations’.

Here is Saramago’s description of one of Ricardo Reis’s strolls:

Ricardo Reis walks up the Rua do Alecrim, and no sooner has he left the hotel than he is stopped in his tracks by a relic of another age, perhaps a Corinthian capital, a votive altar, or funereal headstone, what an idea. Such things, if they still exist in Lisbon, are hidden under the soil that was moved when the ground was leveled, or by other natural causes. This is only a rectangular slab of stone embedded in a low wall facing the Rua Nova do Carvalho and bearing the following inscription in ornamental lettering, Eye Clinic and Surgery, and somwhat more austerely, Founded by A. Mascaró in 1870. Stones have a long life. We do not witness their birth, nor will we see their death. So many years have passed over this stone, so many more have yet to pass, Mascaró died and his clinic was closed down, perhaps descendants of the founder can still be traced, they pursuing other professions, ignoring or unaware that their family emblem is on display in this public place. If only families were not so fickle, then this one would gather here to honor the memory of their ancestor, the healer of eyes and other disorders. Truly it is not enough to engrave a name on a stone. The stone remains, gentlemen, safe and sound, but the name, unless people come to read it every day, fades, is forgotten, ceases to exist. These contradictions walk through the mind of Ricardo Reis as he walks up the Rua do Alecrim…

(pp. 46-7)

Poetry, fantasy, the monumental and the everyday, the eternal and the transient, memory, loss, pathos, and the humour of pessimism: all this exists in Saramago’s late voice. He will be missed.