The alternatives are not placid servitude on the one hand and revolt against servitude on the other. There is a third way, chosen by thousands and millions of people every day. It is the way of quietism, of willed obscurity, of inner emigration.
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José Saramago was a Portuguese author, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature. His brief autobiography is here. The Spring 2001 issue (PDF) (Part II) of Portuguese Literary and Cultural Studies is devoted to articles about him and his work. The Modern Word's Scriptorium has a page dedicated to Saramago resources.
Saramago kept a blog as part of his website, which is quite fully-featured and well-designed; the blog was bilingual in Portuguese and Spanish and has been published in English translation as The Notebook.
READIN started out as a place for me
to keep track of what I am reading, and to learn (slowly, slowly)
how to design a web site.
There has been some mission drift
here and there, but in general that's still what it is. Some of
the main things I write about here are
listening to (and playing) music, and
watching the movies. Also I write about the
work I do with my hands and with my head; and of course about bringing up Sylvia.
The site is a bit of a work in progress. New features will come on-line now and then; and you will occasionally get error messages in place of the blog, for the forseeable future. Cut me some slack, I'm just doing it for fun! And if you see an error message you think I should know about, please drop me a line. READIN source code is PHP and CSS, and available on request, in case you want to see how it works.
"Be quiet the doctor's wife said gently, let's all keep quiet, there are times when words serve no purpose, if only I, too, could weep, say everything with tears, not have to speak in order to be understood."
-- Blindness, Jose Saramago
"Doc tried calling her name but of course words out here were only words."
-- Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon
Si, en suma, fuese un acto carente de honestidad el simple gesto de coger un pincel o una pluma, si, una vez más en suma (la primera vez no llegó a serlo), tengo que negarme a mí mismo el derecho de comunicar o comunicarme, porque habiéndolo intentado fracasé y no habrá más oportunidades.
...No soy pintor.
What comes to mind as a means here of identifying with the narrator, or rather as a way of explaining the identification that is occurring, is to mistranslate his stream of consciousness, to replace the references to painting and to calligraphy with one's own arts and shortcomings; of course one would not be able to hew too closely to the original text for long/at all, and it might straightaway degenerate into pastiche and thence to original writing (a degeneration devoutly to be wished, one might assert) -- one might well veer off into pedagogy, might feel compelled to instruct one's (sparse, and ever dwindling!) audience in methods of blogging, on how to write without having to consider it writing, on how to take heart in one's feelings of inferiority to the successful bloggers and/or successful writers and journalists, to rejoice in one's own failure and lack of intellectual cred. Talk (to them, since you know who the couple of people are who read your journal, though perhaps without being up front about whom it is you're addressing) about composing posts with a particular ear in mind, and about how to avoid feeling slighted when you fail to engage, and here of course you will want to be careful about laying down a guilt trip, and will wonder if this bait will be sweet enough to pull anyone in. Push them away more likely!
Currently reading Nostromo on the subway to and from work, The Lives of Things and (very, very slowly) Manual de pintura y caligrafía* for weekend reading, and making plans to open up and read and write about Antigua vida mía as my contribution to the Spanish Lit Month which Richard of Caravana de recuerdos will with his various co-conspirators be hosting in July. Here is a snippet of reading experience from this weekend --
One could say that the chair about to topple is perfect. In what sense? "complete" certainly -- is the implication here that perfection is death?
Two books in hand on Sunday morning, Sunday morning, pleasant summer Sunday in South Orange, in the village where I live. The orderly torrent of yellow luxurious sunlight amazes me, soft on my skin like satin.
I open up The lives of things and read about the Chair, about the bench beneath me, the allegory's still not crystal clear to me, I'm happy though to dig the plain, the superficial meaning of the words and phrases, marvel at the beauty of the key instead of trying it in its lock.
*(And what, precisely, is the point (you will ask) of reading Saramago in Spanish translation, a novel which is available in English translation, in translation by Pontiero no less? Not sure. But I am having fun with it...)
Here is the utterly beguiling epigraph Saramago chose for his short stories:
If man is shaped by his environment, his environment must be made human.
It is from Chapter 6 of Marx and Engels' The Holy Family, a critique of the Young Hegelians which was their first collaborative effort. Saramago's method of carrying out this transformation of the environment, while I cannot imagine it to be just what Marx and Engels had in mind, is somehow exactly the right thing.
In Pontiero's translation, Saramago calls silence the "universal synonym, the omnivalent" -- a basis, a bottom layer to the intricate sediment of meaning which accretes as sounds are given voice and associated with their meanings. As these fluid meanings set and stick and harden, deepen, language diverges, attaining "a variety of words which never say the same thing, however much we might want them to. If they were to say the same thing, if they were to group together through affinity of structure and origin, then life would be much simpler, by means of successive" erosions of the sediment. Perhaps it is implicit here that this destructive simplification is/was a goal of Salazar*, the "poor wretch" sitting in the termite-eaten chair in its last moments as chair, but I may be reading this in.
*And a million thanks to Pontiero's introduction for elucidating this supremely important detail -- when I was reading this story in Spanish last year, I could mostly understand and make sense of the words and sentences, but was unable absent this critical bit of backstory to put them together into anything like a meaningful whole. Wikipædia says,
In 1968, Salazar suffered a brain hæmorrhage. Most sources maintain that it occurred when he fell from a chair in his summer house. In February 2009 though, there were anonymous witnesses who confessed, after some research about Salazar's best-kept secrets, that he had fallen in a bathtub instead of from a chair. Despite the injury, Salazar lived for a further two years; as he was expected to die shortly after his fall, President Américo Thomaz replaced him with Marcello Caetano. When Salazar unexpectedly recovered lucidity, his intimates did not tell him he had been deposed, instead allowing him to "rule" in privacy until his death in July 1970.
How exciting: the current issue of Guernica features the first half of the story "Things", from Saramago's short story collection Objecto Quase (1978) -- the second half will be published in April. To the best of my knowledge, it is the first time any of these stories has been seen in English translation. The full collection will be published by Verso Books at the end of April, under the title The Lives of Things. Really great news -- Saramago's signature style begins to take shape in these stories, and themes that will occupy his writing throughout his career.
It is also great news to see that the translation is by Giovanni Pontiero, the master who translated so many of Saramago's early books before his untimely death in 1996. Clearly the translation has been out there for a long time, at last it will be available to the public.
Speaking of translation -- I had good news today, word from the editors of Words Without Borders that they'll be publishing my translation of Fernando Iwasaki's "A Troya, Helena," my project of last weekend. It will appear in their April issue.
Somewhere, José Saramago is laughing -- emol.com reports that the town of Bello in northern Colombia will be repeating its mayoral elections after no-one won the vote -- no-one won the vote because 56.7% of the voters marked their ballots as blank. (Reinaldo Spitaletta of El espectadorwrites that he knew something was going on when he saw a lot of people in Bello reading Saramago's Seeing before the elections.) Thanks for the link, Jorge!
posted evening of December 18th, 2011: Respond ➳ More posts about Seeing
Ellen and I watched The Stone Raft (2002) tonight. A good, solid movie and a faithful adaptation of the book. It did not give me the sense of being in the presence of genius, as the book did; but then it also did not take weeks to watch. There is a lot of beauty in the movie and I would certainly recommend it. This book was half road trip/buddy story/love story, half weird unresolvable meandering about the metaphysical/metahistorical status of Spain and Portugal; the team that turned it into a movie made the wise choice to focus on the more filmable aspects of the book. And the dog! What a sweet dog!
One of the most arresting passages in Feeding on Dreams -- and one which incidentally made me think of Saramago's All the Names -- is this distinction between official, archival memory in the First World and in Latin America:
Languages are built on shared silences, assumptions never spelled out in dictionaries, what we omit, fail to explain, because we're often unaware that an explanation might be required to clarify what we mean. One day, Dorothée, a student at the University of Amsterdam who had been translating an article of mine about Chile's Disappeared for a local paper, came with a question. "There," she said, jabbing her finger at a paragraph. "Hay una contradicción."
I could find nothing wrong with the offending phrase, no contradiction. It claimed that dictators want to sweep people from the minds of humanity, store them in an archive in order to forget them. "That's the word that doesn't work," Dorothée insisted, pointing to the Spanish word archivar, meaning to classify a document in an archive. For her, when you officially put something away, you're consigning it to memory, making it retrievable. If the State, el Estado, wanted to obliterate opponents, as in Chile with the Desaparecidos, she said, then it would obviously take them out of the archives. As a Dutch citizen, she expected public servants to preserve an agreed-upon past, which existed as irrefutably as the dams that kept the sea at bay. Whereas for most Latin Americans anything filed in a public archive is secreted by an adversarial and shadowy State that you should never trust, anything filed away is on the incessant verge of oblivion.
Memory is important throughout this book, shading into and conflicting with nostalgia, being lost and refound and disputed and defended; in one of the diary entries from Dorfman's 1990 return to Chile which make up the core of the book, a MAPU comrade of his is telling about a reunion dinner with his Pinochetista parents —
...His mother noticed that he was dragging his left foot slightly as he shuffled towards the living room. "What happened to you, hijo?" she asked. "Did you hurt yourself?"
"You know perfectly well why I'm limping, Mamá. I was tortured, that's why. I'll never walk normally again, you know that."
Tortured? His mother looked at the other members of the family as if to excuse the wayward child and his pranks. Of course the boy hadn't been tortured, hasta cuándo was he going to engage in that sort of political propaganda, let's not dwell on such unpleasant topics...