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An Elegy for José Saramago, in His Own Words

PUBLISHED: June 18, 2010

The death of Portuguese novelist and Nobel prize winner José Saramago is a great loss to the world of literature. In his towering, comma-strewn paragraphs, Saramago created a singular voice, combining the craftsmanship of an old world storyteller and the craftiness of a post-modern trickster. A magical fabulist working in the medium of history, Saramago deserves a much wider readership, in this country and beyond. Instead of singing his praises, perhaps it is best to let his words sing for themselves.

As an entrance point, this quote does well: “The truth is that history could have been written in many different ways and this idea of infinitude and variation are the essence of my writing. The possibility of the impossible, dreams and illusions, are the subject of my novels.”

Blindness, page 265:

There being no witnesses, and if there were there is no evidence that they were summoned to the post-mortems to tell us what happened, it is understandable that someone should ask how it was possible to know that these things happened so and not in some other manner, the reply to be given is that all stories are like those about the creation of the universe, no one was there, no one witnessed what happened.

The History of the Siege of Lisbon, page 20:

The historian, who only speaks of minaret and muezzin, is probably unaware that nearly all muezzins, at the time and for some time to come, were blind. And if he is aware of this fact, perhaps he imagines that the chanting of prayers is the special vocation of the disables, or that the Moorish communities so decided, partly, as has always been and always will be the practice, to solve the problem of giving work to people without the precious organ of sight. An error on his part, this time, which invariably affects everyone. The historical truth, take note, is that the muezzins were chosen from amongst the blind, not because of any humanitarian policy of providing work or professional training they could cope with physically, but to prevent them from infringing upon the privacy of the courtyards and roof terraces from the dominant position at the top of the minaret. The proof-reader no longer remembers how he came by this information, he almost certainly must have read it in some book he trusted, and since nothing has changed, he can now insist that, yes, Sir, muezzins were blind. Almost all of them.

The Stone Raft, page 1:

When Joana Carda scratched the ground with the elm branch all the dogs of Cerbere began to bark, throwing the inhabitants into panic and terror, because from time immemorial it was believed that, when these canine creatures that had always been silent started to bark, the entire universe was nearing its end. No one remembers any longer the origin of this deep-rooted superstition, or firm conviction, in many cases these are simply alternative ways of expressing the same thing, but as so often happens, having heard the story and now passing it on with fresh distortions, French grandmothers used to amuse their grandchildren with the fable that in the times of the ancient Greek myths, here, in the district of Cerbere in the Eastern Pyrenees, a dog with three heads and the above-mentioned named of Cerberus had barked when summoned by its master, the ferryman Charon. We are equally unclear about the organic change this legendary howling canine must have undergone to acquire the historically proven muteness of its degenerate one-headed offspring. Nevertheless, and this is a point of doctrine known to almost everyone, especially to those of the older generation, the dog Cerberus, as written and pronounced in English, guarded with ferocity the gates of hell, so that no soul would dare try to escape, and then, perhaps as one final act of mercy on the part of the moribund gods, all the dogs fell silent for the rest of eternity, perhaps hoping that their silence might erase the memory of the infernal regions. But since the everlasting does not last forever, as the modern age has clearly shown us, it sufficed that a few days ago and hundreds of kilometers from Cerbere, somewhere in Portugal, in a place whose name we shall record anon, a woman named Joana Carda scratched the ground with an elm branch whereupon all the dogs came onto the streets howling, dogs, let me remind you, that had never barked before. Were someone to ask Joana Carda what had possessed her to scratch the ground with an elm branch, more the gesture of a moonstruck adolescent than that of a mature woman, if she had not thought of the possible consequences of an act that seemed meaningless, and these are the most dangerous acts of all, perhaps she might reply, I don’t know what came over me, the branch was lying on the ground, I picked it up and drew a line. She had no idea that it might be a magic wand.


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