Monday, June 13, 2005

Saramago speaks, part 1 of 3

In a long, drawn-out fit of spontaneity, I hopped on a bus for Ottawa yesterday to hear for myself what Nobel laureate José Saramago had to say.

His publisher's publicity department did in fact respond to my email last week, informing me that at this time Saramago has no plans to appear in Montreal.

Though the news disappointed me, I was relieved that I could blame time and distance for missing him, missing him because he was hundreds of kilometres away. I'd dreaded that I might hear from the publisher that Saramago had lectured in Montreal just around the corner from here last week: to miss him because of negligence — ignorance of local literary events on my part or delay in the publisher responding — would've been unbearable.

I couldn't get it off my mind though. Ottawa isn't that far away. How much work would I really get done at home this weekend? The real test (of anything): if I didn't do this, how much would I regret it later?

I figured that hearing, in person, José Saramago was worth at least the price of a bus ticket, worth foisting all toddler-minding duties on J-F, worth cramming in extra work hours elsewhere to make up for lost time. How often does one have the opportunity to bask in the presence of genius (a Nobel Prize winner at least)?

(I have met a Nobel winner before, and he failed to impress me. Czeslaw Milosz emanated no aura of greatness.)

Literature of course is not a science. A Nobel prize in the field then cannot be a quantitative indicator of genius. In judging writers, their writing and its impact, the Nobel committee is often as flawed as the rest of us.

It's clear that over the years, some of the awards have been political, if not necessarily politically correct.

How does Saramago measure up?

Remarkably, I'd heard of Saramago before he scored the big prize. I work as a copyeditor. It was in some industry publication or other that a review of The History of the Siege of Lisbon caught my eye. I hunted it down immediately, and fell in love with the rhythm of his words, flattered by his reverence for my profession. (I think it was the following year that the international Nobel spotlight fell on him.) Years later the book again was highlighted to my colleagues.

The proof-reader say, Yes, this symbol is called deleatur, we use it when we need to suppress and erase, the word speaks for itself, and serves both for separate letters and complete words, it reminds me of a snake that changes its mind just as it is about to bite its tail, . . . I must remind you that proof-readers are serious people, much experienced in literature and life, My book, don't forget, deals with history. However, since I have no intention of pointing out other contradictions, in my modest opinion, Sir, everything that is not literature is life, History as well, Especially history, without wishing to give offence, And painting and music, Music has resisted since birth, it comes and goes, tries to free itself from the word, I suppose out of envy, only to submit in the end, And painting, Well now, painting is nothing more than literature achieved with paintbrushes, I trust you haven't forgotten that mankind began to paint long before it knew how to write, Are you familiar with the proverb, If you don't have a dog, go hunting with a cat, in other words, the man who cannot write, paints or draws, as if he were a child, What you are trying to say, in other words, is that literature already existed before it was born, Yes, Sir, just like man who, in a manner of speaking, existed before he came into being, It strikes me that you have missed your vocation, you should have become a philosopher, or historian, you have the flair and temperament needed for these disciplines, I lack the necessary training, Sir, and what can a simple man achieve without training, I was more than fortunate to come into the world with my genes in order, but in a raw state as it were, and then no education beyond primary school, You could have presented yourself as being self-taught, the product of your own worthy efforts, there's nothing to be ashamed of, society in the past took pride in its autodidacts, No longer, progress has come along and put an end to all of that, now the self-taught are frowned upon, only those who write entertaining verses and stories are entitled to be and go on being autodidacts, lucky for them, but as for me, I must confess that I never had any talent for literary creation, Become a philosopher, man, You have a keen sense of humour, Sir, with a distinct flair for irony, and I ask myself how you ever came to devote yourself to history, serious and profound science as it is, I'm only ironic in real life, It has always struck me that history is not real life, literature, yes, and nothing else, But history was real life at the time when it could not yet be called history, So you believe, Sir, that history is real life, Of course, I do, I meant to say that history was real life, No doubt at all, What would become of us if the deleatur did not exist, sighed the proof-reader.


Saramago's biography has also comforted me. He worked as a clerk, a civil servant, before getting into the publishing business. Though he'd published some poems in his 20s, decades passed before he would become a novelist. He's a late bloomer.
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