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Nobel Prize Winner: Jose Saramago

October 9, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: When the Swedish Academy named José Saramago this year’s Nobel Laureate in literature, they said he was a writer….

STURE ALLEN: Who with parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony continually enables us once again to apprehend an elusory reality.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Saramago was born in Portugal in 1922 in a small town north of Lisbon. His family couldn’t afford to buy books, and Saramago had little formal education. He published his first novel in 1947 when he was 25 years old, but international recognition didn’t come until — at age 60 — he wrote Baltasar and Blimunda, a love story set in the Inquisition. Among his novels are: The Stone Raft — perhaps his best known work – The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, which provoked criticism from the Vatican — and “Blindness,” which was published in the United States this year. Saramago’s works have been translated into thirty languages. The 75-year old author told reporters yesterday at the Frankfurt, Germany book fair that he was proud to be the first Portuguese writer to win the prestigious award.

JOSE SARAMAGO: (speaking through interpreter) Having won it as a writer in the Portuguese language is a great honor, and gives me a feeling of enormous responsibility and respect for all those writers before me.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The Nobel Prize — worth nearly $1 million — will be awarded at a ceremony in Stockholm on December 10th.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And for more we turn now to Jose Ornealas, Professor of Portuguese Literature at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He’s also president of the American Portuguese Studies Association and editor of a forthcoming book on Jose Saramago. Thank you for being with us.

JOSE ORNELAS: You’re welcome.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Saramago is not very well known in this country. What do you like best about his writing?

JOSE ORNELAS: What I like best about his works is the way he looks at the world and how he is able to look at reality and look at things that other people do not see. In other words, he will analyze and define Portuguese history and you will see things that were missed before, whereas, we, the Portuguese had their own epics, that Saramago come along and rewrite that epic and show a different version of that epic.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Excuse me for interrupting. Is it that he’s looking at it through the eyes of a different group of people?

JOSE ORNELAS: Yes. Yes. Of course, he’s looking through the eyes of a different say group of people. He’s looking through the eyes of the lower classes and also women – how women perceive that reality – and rather than the official discourse of the periods.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: A recurring theme in his work is the loner struggling against authority.

JOSE ORNELAS: Yes.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In his life, has he struggled against authority?

JOSE ORNELAS: Yes. He’s been a leftist all his life and has been a member of the Communist Party, and all throughout his life – especially during the time of the dictatorship in Portugal – during the fascist regime – he was always a person who was always in a vanguard of people who were fighting against the oppression in the country. They subsequently followed that route in his works – again – fighting against oppression becomes a main theme.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And he’s an atheist, is he not? The Vatican yesterday denounced his work for its anti-religious vision.

JOSE ORNELAS: Yes. He is an atheist. But, on the other hand, he is an atheist with a human face, because he has said all along, now, I’m an atheist, I don’t believe in these things, but on the other hand, I cannot get away from what surrounds me, and what surrounds me is Catholicism, all the images, all the myths, and all the symbols of Catholicism. Even if he is an atheist, he is surrounded by it, I think he has to deal with that personally.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What is he like personally? You know him.

JOSE ORNELAS: Well, he’s a shy person. He’s very direct. He doesn’t mince words. When he has something on his mind, he’ll come out ahead and say it and let the chips fall where they may fall. He does not worry about the consequences. And he’s always fighting for what he believes is right.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In fact, he says he most respects lovers, eccentrics, and mad men, and he says, God does too. It’s the strict moralist, he says, he doesn’t like. That’s sort of a theme of his writing too, isn’t it?

JOSE ORNELAS: Yes, yes, it is. And he always is – his novels are full of eccentric characters. For example, in Baltasar and Blimunda, the two main characters, the woman is a seer; she can look into people’s souls and see what they feel, what they think, and also the man – the main character in that novel – Baltasar – is a person who has an arm missing, and he uses a hook to move around. On the other hand, the hook is a symbol of power, because with a hook he can do a lot more things than people who have the two hands.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Some say that Saramago’s best novel is the Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. Would you read something from it for us.

JOSE ORNELAS: Yes, of course. “Anyone who says that nature is indifferent to the cares and sufferings of mankind knows little about mankind or nature. A regret, however fleeting, a headache, however mild, immediately disrupts the orbit of the stars, alters the ebb and flow of the tides, interferes with the moon’s ascent, and travels the currents in the atmosphere and the undulating clouds. Let one cent be missing from the sum collected at the last minute to settle a bill and the winds grow violent; the sky becomes heavy; all nature commiserates with the anguished debtor.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What is in those lines that particularly strikes you? Is it the sort of – I hate to use the word “magical” but that’s the only word that comes to mind – part of it?

JOSE ORNELAS: Yes. It’s very magical. It’s very poetic, and also it sort of follows a style which is baroque. He has been influenced by Portuguese writers of the 18th century, 17th, 18th century, especially –Pessoa – or – our most famous writer of that period. And also another thing that’s unique about this style is that he is not afraid to use popular language in his works, although it’s written in such a way that makes it very complex because it doesn’t follow a normal structure of the sentence. Also, he continuously interrupts his narrative with – by inserting comments – a lot of them ironic in the middle of the narrative. That’s the author’s voice speaking or making comments about what’s happening there, and a lot of times he makes positive comments and at times he makes negative comments, but it’s present there, constantly.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Professor, Portuguese and Brazilian writers and politicians have been quoted widely today and yesterday saying how important how this is award is for Portuguese speakers everywhere. Explain why that is. Why is this so important?

JOSE ORNELAS: Well, I think languages and cultures and need these types of prizes, because it’s one way that they can renovate themselves, in other words, what’s happening here is that Portuguese culture and Portuguese language is on the map. Everybody knows about Saramago; everybody’s interested about going out and buying books – reading one of his books – and I think that they’ll look at it and say this is a very vibrant language, a very vibrant culture, and we can learn from the Portuguese for this culture, and if you don’t have somebody who’s doing these things and being rewarded for what they are doing, then language sort of will disappear and also cultures.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Professor Jose Ornelas, thank you very much for being with us.

JOSE ORNELAS: You’re welcome.