The stage set is flanked by two identical signs, startling red on the earthy palette. Lettered in white:
KNOWLEDGE IS HERE
ICI LE SAVOIR
The event is sold out. (I'd purchased a ticket by phone a day beforehand.) They are prepared to accommodate a limited overflow crowd, with video and audio available in an adjoining room.
(For all the years I lived in Ottawa, I recognize no one, except for that guy who used to ride my bus when I had that one contract, and a woman I think I was introduced to at a bar as a friend of a friend of a friend.)
More than 30 minutes late to get started, the emcee dives into a long and boring list of obligatory acknowledgements of volunteers and sponsors.
The format of the evening is revealed. Also, Saramago will speak in French. (I should've guessed. A test of my linguistic abilities now too.) There's been much confusion regarding the language and nature of the events in the local press. (Saramago is due to speak also at the University of Ottawa later today.)
Some welcoming comments by Ian Wilson (Librarian and Archivist of Canada). Something vaguely elitist in him recognizing that this is an audience who appreciates the power of language, literature, and the written word. As if not enough people do.
Also a word from Governor General Adrienne Clarkson — who will as the highlight of the evening be interviewing Saramago on stage — and then some other guy. Support for the arts, blah, blah, blah.
I didn't bring the cumbersome, less-than-handy Handycam with me, but I did snap a couple analog photos. It'll be months, I'm sure, before I get them developed. But here's a rendering of the man to lend some immediacy to my retelling of the event.
Saramago takes the stage. Standing ovation. He looks genuinely humbled.
He speaks (in French) for maybe 10 minutes: For all our advanced studies — discussion, analysis, expostion — he says what is missing from universities today, what is missing from the study of literature is communication, between the reader and writer. Saramago speaks also of "la reception" — by which I understand a kind of opening up of the reader to receive and welcome, and engage in, the literature at hand.
Saramago has recieved thousands of letters from readers around the world. He wonders why — they are not seriously intended to engage with the author, they are a one-way communication. But he understands that in the letter-writing the reader engages with his own self, and perhaps this is what literature is meant to do after all.
Saramago reads the opening pages of Blindness in Portuguese. It's beautiful.
Don McKellar reads the same segment, and then some, in English. Decidedly less beautiful. He stumbles a lot, but his theatricality manages to charm us.
(He'd "joked" about forgetting his own copy of the book at home and having to borrow Her Excellency's, afraid to mark its unscored pages. His reading sounded unpracticed. While the tone of the evening was casual, this struck me as less than professional and sadly disrespectful.)