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Mainstream, VOL L, No 10, February 25, 2012

Saramago’s Candid Comments

Monday 27 February 2012, by Girish Mishra


It is quite often said in India that a person loses his enthusiasm and vigour and the capacity to struggle against odds and acts of injustice as he becomes older. This, however, never applied to the Portuguese literary giant, Jose Saramago. Born in a poor landless family on November 16, 1922, he actively participated in struggles against dictatorship and oppression in his own country and lent his voice to resistance against injustice wherever he saw it. He never, for once, wavered till his death on June 18, 2010.

At a very early age, he joined the Portuguese Communist Party and remained with it till his last breath. He suffered all kinds of difficulties and odds during the Salazar regime but never wavered. With great determination and perse-verance he educated himself while earning his livelihood. He established himself as a great literary figure, not only in Portugal, but also at the international level. In 1998, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his novel Blindness. His other novels such as Seeing, Cave, Death with Interruptions, etc., too, were acclaimed internationally. His books have been translated into more than 25 foreign languages. One of his novels has been rendered into Hindi also. In his own country alone, more than two million copies of his books have been sold.

In 1992, he left Portugal to make Spanish island of Lanzarote as his abode in protest against the Portuguese Government’s ban on the submission of his novel, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, for the European Literature Prize on the pretext that it was offensive to the Catholics.

In September 2008, he began writing blogs at the instance of his wife, Pilar, that continued till November 2009. In the process, he commented on various topics. These comments in their English translation were published as The Notebook by Verso in 2010. It carried a Foreword by the Italian writer, Umberto Eco.
In Eco’s words, “An odd character, this Saramago. He’s eightyseven…. He’s won the Nobel Prize for Literature, a distinction that would allow him to stop producing anything at all, because he’s entering the pantheon anyway.” He went on to term him as “the most gifted writer alive today” and “one of the last titans of an expiring literary gene”.

Coming to The Notebook, without mincing words Saramago asks: “Why it is that the United States, a country so great in all things, has so often had such small Presidents. George W. Bush is perhaps the smallest of them all. This man, with his mediocre intelligence, abysmal ignorance, confused communication skills, and constant succumbing to the irresistible temp-tation of pure nonsense, has presented himself to humanity in the grotesque pose of a cowboy who has inherited the world and mistaken it for a herd of cattle. We don’t know what he really thinks, we don’t even know if he does think (in the noble sense of the word), we don’t know whether he might not be just a badly programmed robot that constantly confuses and switches around the messages it carries around inside it. But to give the man some credit for once in his life, there is one programme in the robot George Bush, President of the United States, that works to perfection: lying. He knows he’s lying, he knows we know he’s lying, but seeing a compulsive liar, he will keep on lying even when he has the most naked truth right there before his eyes—he will keep on lying even after the truth has exploded in his face. He lied to justify waging war in Iraq just as he lied about the stormy and questionable past, and with just the same shamelessness. With Bush, the lies come from very deep down; they are in his blood. A liar emeritus, he is the high priest of all the other liars who have surrounded him, applauded him, and served him over the past few years.

“George Bush expelled truth from the world, establishing the age of lies that now flourishes in its place. Human society today is contami-nated by lies, the worst sort of moral contami-nation, and he is among those chiefly responsible. The lie circulates everywhere with impunity, and has turned into a kind of other truth… a few years ago, a Portuguese Prime Minister… stated that ‘politics is the art of not telling the truth’, …. For Bush, politics is simply one of the levers of business, and perhaps the best one of all—the lie as a weapon, the lie as the advance guard of tanks and cannons, the lie told over the ruins, over the corpses, over humanity’s wretched and perpetually frustrated hopes….”

He does not take kindly even to the Left, especially the Communists with whom he has been associated all his life. He refers to an interview to a newspaper from Argentina, sometime in 2004 or 2005, wherein he had stated: “The Left has no fucking idea of the world it’s living in.” He had expected that the Left would be provoked to respond, but “The Left responded to my deliberate challenge with the iciest of silences. No Communist Party, for instance, beginning with the one of which I’m a member, emerged from its stockade to refute what I had said or simply to argue about the propriety or the lack of propriety of my language. Even more to the point, nor did any of the Socialist Parties then in government in their respective countries… consider it necessary to demand a clarification from the impudent writer who had dared to throw a stone into a fetid swamp of indifference. Nothing of anything at all, absolute silence, as if there were nothing but dust and spiders in the ideological tombs where they had taken refuge, or nothing more than an ancient bone that was no longer solid enough for a relic…. It was clear that they didn’t think my opinions worthy of their consideration.

“Time went on, and on, the state of the world grew increasingly complicated, and the Left continued fearlessly to play out the roles, whether in power or in Opposition, that has been handed to them. I, who had in the meantime made another discovery, that Marx was never so right as he is today, imagined, when the cancerous mortgage scam broke out in the United States a year ago, that the Left, wherever it was, if it was still alive, would finally open its mouth to say what it thought of the matter. I have already have an explanation: the Left doesn’t think. It doesn’t act, it doesn’t risk taking a step. What happened then has gone on happening right up to today, and the Left has continued in its cowardly fashion not thinking, not acting, not risking taking a step. Which is why the insolent question in my title should not cause surprise: ‘Where is the Left?’ I am not suggesting any answer; I have already paid too dearly for my illusions.”

SARAMAGO distinguishes between religious and non-religious dogmas. The former are less harmful because they are based simply on faith, not on any logic. Obviously, this type of dogmas is not open to arguments. What is most harmful is the transformation into dogma a secular system or theory that always stressed that it was not to be treated as a dogma. To give a concrete example, “Marx…was not dogmatic, but straightway there was no shortage of pseudo-Marxists to convert Das Kapital into a new Bible, exchanging active thought for sterile commentary or perverse interpretation.” Saramago is sanguine, “One day, if we are able to break free of ancient iron molds, to slough off an old skin that doesn’t allow us to grow, we will meet Marx again; perhaps a Marxist re-reading of Marxism would open up more generous pathways into the act of thinking. Then we would have to start by looking for an answer to the fundamental question: ‘Why do I think the way I think?’ In other words, ‘What is ideology?’

The Left assert, time and again, that they are correct and, that is why, they are in a position to create a better world. The people, at large, do not seem to be convinced and the Left must think, why they do not come round. Are the Left unable to communicate and convince people at large? If so, they must find out the reason for their inability and apply necessary corrective measures. These remarks are more relevant to the prevailing state of affairs in India.

Saramago treats God as nothing but a big problem, creating hatred and disunity. He dismisses His role as benefactor of mankind. Without mincing words, he states, “… whether you like it or not, we have God as a problem, God as a rock in the middle of the road, God as a pretext of disunity. But no one dares mention this most prima facie evidence in any of the many analyses of the question, be they political, economic, sociological, psychological, or strategi-cally utilitarian in nature. It is as if a kind of reverential fear, or a resignation to what is established as politically correct, has prevented the analyst from seeing what is present in the threads of the net, the labyrinthine wave from which there has been no escape—that is to say, God. If I were to tell a Christian or a Muslim that the universe is made up of more than four hundred thousand million galaxies and each one of them contains more than four hundred thousand million stars, and that God, whether Allah or some other, could not have made this, and even better would have had no reason to make this, they would reply that for God, whether Allah or some other, nothing is impossible.”

He goes on to add, “In the physical universe there is neither love nor justice. Nor is there cruelty. No power presides over the four hundred thousand million galaxies and the four hundred thousand million stars that exist in each one. No one makes the sun rise each day and the moon every night, even when it is not visible in the sky. Since we were put here without knowing why or what for, we have had to invent everything. We have invented God too, but he didn’t go beyond our thoughts; rather he stayed inside our heads, at times as a fact of life, almost always as an instrument of death.” Saramago quotes Swiss theologian Hans Kung’s maxim: “Religions never served to bring people together”, not to speak of moving mountains. He stresses the importance of secularism as it appears “to be more a defined political position based on prudence, than it is the articulation of a profound conviction regarding the non-existence of God and the impertinence of believing the logic of institutions and their instruments that purport to impose on us ideas contrary to human understanding”.

Talking of democracy and the world economic crisis, Saramago has made some very significant formulations. First, political democracy is of little use, in spite of all the outwardly frills, if it is not based on an effective and real democracy. Unfortunately, “The idea of economic democracy has given way to a market that is obscenely triumphant, even at the moment of an extremely serious crisis on its financial axis, whilst the idea of a cultural democracy has ended up being replaced by an alienating industrialised mass marketing of culture.” Second, it is a matter of great regret that political parties, parliaments and governments of formally-proclaimed democracies seem to be oblivious of this fact, not to speak of any attempt to mend it. Third, the ongoing financial-economic crisis has ended the era (1945-1975) where the market dominated yet democracy was also allowed to function. This era ended and the era of neoliberalism descended crushing and mad to amass more and more money, no matter clean or dirty. Numbered accounts, tax havens, money laundering, and all kinds of trafficking came to dominate.

Saramago calls the financial-economic crisis as a crime against humanity with tacit complicity of governments. Fourth, Saramago raises the question as to what kind of democracy we have when thousands of millions of dollars is given to the culprits while nobody cares for the victims. Last, one industry that has been functioning unscathed is the production of weapons.

The author, a well-known economist, used to teach Economics at Kirorimal College, University of Delhi, before his retirement a few years ago. He can be contacted at:

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