Saturday, 18 October 2014

Jose Saramago's Portuguese Journey

The Nobel laureate Jose Saramago may not be widely known in the English speaking world, but his prominence on the Iberian peninsula is certainly a given. His works are noted for their almost austere style and his political interventions are celebrated by the left for their insistence on social and political equality.

Saramago was born in Portugal but left his home country to live most of this life in Spain. When I first read his book 'Blindness' I was struck by the sparse language. At times, his writing reminded me of somebody who writes in a language not his own. Some phrasing was awkward or struck you as poor translation and dialogues were artificial and wooden. His prose possesses an element of artifice that goes well beyond the crafted nature of literature in general. His commitment to equality and freedom however shines through every page and so I was curious to see what he had to say about his home country in his travelogue, The Portuguese Journey.

Saramago appears to have undertaken the journey over the course of several years and the book is written from the perspective of a visitor who is simultaneously familiar and alien to Portugal. He uses the third person singular to create an impression of distance, yet the vignettes of Portuguese life are real and clearly resonated with him as a son of this land. The most curious aspect of Saramago's travel writing is however the absence of those things that were clearly close to his heart, and the abundance of those that he (professedly) hated.

The book is in effect a series of visits to churches, cathedrals and castles, with little snapshots of ordinary lives sprinkled into the (at times somewhat tiring) portrayal of elitist cultural artifacts. For somebody with socialist leanings his obsession with churches and religious paintings is confusing at best and renders the narrative stale. Even where real people push into the picture, they are usually only the pastors or cleaners opening the front doors of churches or chapels for Saramago to visit. The absence of anything apart from churches and castles belies a strange understanding of Portuguese history, where Saramago appears to discount anything that has not been made or founded by a small political or social elite. His writing almost appears to reveal an obsession with the works of those parts of society he fought all his life.

More importantly, however, it's his skewed sense of history that is puzzling. Nothing seems to warrant description that is less than several hundred years old. At times, the Renaissance appears to be the last period of worthy cultural production. This is disturbing given that Saramago's political ideals were forged in the great struggles of the 19th century and 20th century. In fact, Portugal's path through the upheavals of (failed) democratisation is probably one of the most fascinating in Europe, as she first established herself as a republic and slid into a authoritarian regime between the wars. Yet, none of this enters Saramago's travel narrative. He concentrates on a, at times painfully tedious, description of altars, paintings of saints in churches and castles. For somebody who professed a singular disrespect for religion, this absence of anything but church life is bordering on negligence and obsession.

Yet, there is something else that confuses the reader. His main narrating impetus appears to be a deeply felt belief in the need for order and preservation. Saramago's main leanings are certainly not iconoclast yet deeply reverent of high brow culture.


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