The Shocking Surprise of Great Art: José Saramago

By Kevin Rabalais
 

It’s love at first sentence with some writers. You remember the initial encounter for years, even decades after the first taste. You remember the quality of light, the position of your coffee mug on the table. On top of the emotional intensity of that moment, you remember, also, your physical reaction, the charge of the prose itself.

“[A]nd a great work of art is of course always original,” Nabokov writes in Lolita, “and thus by its nature should come as a more or less shocking surprise.”

It’s easy to grow comfortable as a reader. We go back to our trusted favorites because we know they will provide us with the necessary hit. But our greatest discoveries often reside in the unexpected. Every reader knows that she will eventually get around to Middlemarch and Moby-Dick, but we often feel closest to the books we unearth on our own. I read José Saramago’s Blindness shortly after it appeared in English, one year before he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. The experience of those first chapters remains one of the most memorable moments in my life as a reader. At the end of each chapter, I had to close the book and set it on the table. The insight, and the rush of Saramago’s singular style, created an intoxicating and overwhelming effect. It provided the kind of moment we crave as readers, that recognition that we’ve met a writer who sees and understands what we would otherwise never see and understand on our own and who, thankfully, has decided to share what he has learned.

“We return to writers because of their awkwardnesses,” David Malouf once said to me in an interview. He was talking about the distinctions that differentiate one writer from another. Great books force us to learn how to read all over again. Saramago’s work carries its own mesmeric logic. It’s a universe of its own. For that reason, it’s unsurprising to read the author’s Nobel Lecture, much of which he devotes to the memory of his grandfather, a farmer in the Ribatejo region of Portugal.

“The wisest man I ever knew in my whole life could not read or write,” Saramago writes at the beginning of his speech. And yet this man “could set the universe in motion with just a couple of words.”

In that sentiment, we discover what pulses at the center of the work of Saramago, “who with parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony continually enables us once again to apprehend an elusory reality,” as the Nobel Committee wrote in its announcement of the 1998 prize to the Portuguese writer.

Earlier this month during our stay in Lisbon, we had the opportunity to visit the José Saramago Foundation, which the author founded in 2007, three years before his death. Its aim is to spread the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to promote culture in Portugal. The space provides an elegant tribute to the author of The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Baltasar and Blimunda and more than a dozen other books that thrive between covers as complete universes. 

 

Fundação José Saramago

Entrance to the first room of the foundation, with selections from Saramago's library and editions of his works. 

Entrance to the first room of the foundation, with selections from Saramago's library and editions of his works. 

 
Saramago's identification card and papers. 

Saramago's identification card and papers. 

 
Saramago was born outside Lisbon in 1922.

Saramago was born outside Lisbon in 1922.

 
The Nobel Committee awarded Saramago the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998, making him the first Portuguese winner.

The Nobel Committee awarded Saramago the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998, making him the first Portuguese winner.

 
"The painter paints, the musician makes music, the novelist writes novels. But I believe that we all have some influence, not because of the fact that one is an artist, but because we are citizens. As citizens, we all have an obligation to intervene and become involved, it's the citizen who changes things. I can't imagine myself outside any kind of social or political involvement." Saramago, quoted in The Observer, 2006.

"The painter paints, the musician makes music, the novelist writes novels. But I believe that we all have some influence, not because of the fact that one is an artist, but because we are citizens. As citizens, we all have an obligation to intervene and become involved, it's the citizen who changes things. I can't imagine myself outside any kind of social or political involvement." Saramago, quoted in The Observer, 2006.

 
"One day, like the rest of us, he will learn to speak with other voices, which will enable him to express other forms of hunger and experience other tears." The Gospel According to Jesus Christ by Saramago

"One day, like the rest of us, he will learn to speak with other voices, which will enable him to express other forms of hunger and experience other tears." The Gospel According to Jesus Christ by Saramago

 
Saramago's ashes are buried under an olive tree from his hometown of Azinhaga.

Saramago's ashes are buried under an olive tree from his hometown of Azinhaga.

 
The author's desk, typewriter, dictionary and unmistakable eyeglasses.

The author's desk, typewriter, dictionary and unmistakable eyeglasses.

 

 

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