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[370] All the Names – José Saramago

Senhor José’s life is nothing but ordinary: in an unnamed city he works as a lowly clerk for the Central Registry of Births, Marriages and Death where the living and dead permanently share the same shelf in a single archive. In his early fifties, José has a laudable modesty of those who do not go around complaining about the voluminous workload befallen him. He attempts his work sedulously, with great precision and sense of responsibility, despite his suffering from vertigo caused by a fear of height when he climbs the ladder to access files on ceiling-to-floor shelves.

Senhor José finds solace in collecting news clippings of the country’s famous, notorious and elite. One night, seized by an impulse and despondence over the inadequacy of his collection, José scuttles across the threshold of the communicating door that parts his lodging from the Registry and pilfers from the file drawer five precious records cards of the famous people. No sooner has he finished copying carefully and returned the cards to their rightful places than he spots the extra card, the unwanted one that belongs to an unknown, ordinary woman. Until then José’s tepid and quiet life is no longer the same as he becomes morbidly obsessed with this unknown woman.

What follows is our protagonist’s exhaustive (and somehow preposterous) quest for the unknown woman through the clues that trail behind from the record cards: her most recent address, her last records from school, her neighbor from 33 years ago, and her parents. I’ll most certainly leave the readers to learn the outcome of José’s investigation. One common theme has surfaced in this novel. Like Saramago’s other books such as Blindness, The Stone Raft and The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, the notion of loneliness (isolation vs. connection) prevails and governs the shaping of Saramago’s characters and the actions they take. José is a loner who only takes interest in people’s birth certificate. Those whom he encounters and indebted upon, especially the woman who lives on the ground floor, suffers from loneliness as she purposely engages in a circuitous conversation with José since she has nobody to talk to. José’s peers at work, who treats him with scornful commiseration, as they are jealous at the Registrar’s unmerited favoritism toward José upon his recovery from illness, are lonely as well.

A sound quote from the book has always resonated in my mind, “I don’t believe one can show greater respect than to weep for a stranger.” (205) All The Names evokes the moment of recognition in the lives of the living and dead. Through the search for this woman to whom José has neither a personal or sentimental attachment, Saramago evokes in us the unbeatable and redemptive power of compassion, something that surpasses life and death and the vast interval of time that separates us from the most remote dead.

Saramago’s writing is thought provoking as usual, richly marinated with philosophical overtones such as “[registry] routine presupposes unconscious certainty” and “we do not make decisions, decisions make us.” (29) Throughout the book José engages in some importunate inner fantasy dialogues as well as conversation with the plaster ceiling. This book is not to be taken lightly. The richness and obscurity of the prose forbid you to rush through it but to let it seep through slowly. The shift in prose styling (from more taut, crisp and direct prose to a slightly more sating prose with cumbersome sentences) from Blindness and The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis makes All The Names a more difficult, arduous read—but very addictive. The story line is surrealistic, very reminiscent of Franz Kafka’s The Trial. Like most of Saramago’s works, the novel teeters between the world we know as “real” and a fuzzy, dark, murky world that is not only shadowy, but even unreal, dream-like, mystical. It’s like an extraordinary reality. In the short-term, the close-up, each life has meaning and worth at least to the person living it and to those around them who make them a part of their own lives. Yet, from a much more distant and long-term perspective, human existence has no meaning. reading him is always disturbing (in a good way) because he puts aside, casts off, our normal, easy and tradition understandings of reality.

264 pp. Trade paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[294] The Gospel According to Jesus Christ – Jose Saramago

Tribute to Jose Saramago (1922-2010)

I mourn the passing of one of my favorite novelists, Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, who died on June 18 at the age of 87. A provocative thinker and inimitable stylist, Saramago often polarized public opinion. His works, which often feature ordinary people in extraordinary situations, will always have a special place in me. Too bad he won’t be like one of his immortal characters in Death with Interruptions. I hereby honor him with a previously unreleased review of his novel.

Saramago deftly embraces historical facts, myth and reality and juggles them in this extraordinarily fictitious account of Jesus Christ. The novel is an in-depth psychological portrait of a savior who possesses a touch of humanity so much more substantial than the Bible claims. Jesus who is at once the Son of God, the beginning and the end, men’s destiny, and a young man of the earth is an interweaving of letters, irony, spirituality, irreverence, humanity, and foible.

The novel hinges on the fact that Jesus’ father, Joseph of Nazareth, out of cowardice and selfishness of the heart, failed to alert the parents that King Herod had issued a decree to kill boys under the age of 3. He could have spared the lives of 27 children had he spoken up. Joseph felt the scruple of running off to save his own son but had forfeited the lives of others. The guilt he felt was exactly guilt a man may feel without having sinned or committed the actual crime himself. It was the sin of omission.

To assuage his remorse that incessantly plagued him, Joseph, as he truly believed he was acting out of his own accord and obeying God’s will, made strenuous effort to beget more and more children to compensate for the 27 lives. When Jesus learned about Joseph’s crime, Jesus felt poignant for his father but asserted that his father was to blame for the deaths of innocent children. Joseph’s sin was illustrated to full actuality as Jesus envisaged infants dying in perfect innocence and parents who had done nothing wrong. Jesus was embittered and broken at the fact that never was a man more guilty than his own father, who had sinned to save his life.

Joseph’s death, which was rather dramatic and undeserving, bore the scruple of his own conscience and arose the question of what awaited him after death. Would it be possible than everything ended with death? What would happen to the life’s sorrow and sufferings, especially the sufferings right before the last breath? What about the memory if time is such an undulating surface than can only be accessed by memory, would memory of such suffering linger at least for a short period of time? Saramago has repeatedly made claims to explore the notion of after-death and its correlation to human existence throughout the novel.

Jesus under Saramago’s pen is not as perfect, impure, and righteous as the Bible portraits him to be. One sees that the savior succumbs to temptation, to not receiving the cup of death, to choose to remain on earth and not to be crowned with glory. The most provocative and controversial aspect of the book is when Jesus intervened the stoning of an adulteress, which brought him to awareness that he was living in sin with Mary Magdalene, and thus living in defiance to God’s will. The sin of adultery (sexual immorality as the Bible claims) brought Jesus into open conflict with the observed law.

The book is not deprived of interesting dialogues in spite of the serious overtones of theology. My favorite is the conversation in which the Devil pleaded with God to admit him into the kingdom. God curtly denied the request asserting than the good God represented would cease to exist without the evil Devil represented. In regard to the meaning of human existence and the pursuit of holiness, Saramago does leave us with an enlightening thought (with such sober dignity) that the soul, in order to be able to boast of a clean and blameless body, has burdened itself with sadness, envy and impurity.

[256] Death with Interruptions – Jose Saramago

Since that first deplorable incident, which, from the moment the world began, demonstrated the difficulties of family life, and right up until the present day, the process has remained unchanged for centuries and centuries and more centuries, repetitive, unceasing, uninterrupted unbroken, varying only in the many ways of passing from life to non-life, but basically always the same because the result was always the same. [153]

Like Blindness and his other works, Jose Saramago situates his characters in the most extraordinary condition and challenges reader to look beyond the words and focus on the thought-provoking concept that concerns the core of humanity. In Deaths with Interruptions, on New Year’s Day, in an unnamed European city, no one dies. During the eight months of the death strike, the chronically ill remain in a state of suspended life, hovering on the very edge of life. Both government and the church view the body’s immortality, which man has coveted all along in history, a challenge—a grave situation with dire consequences to social and economic stability.

. . . while the religious delegates . . . hoping to set the debate on the only dialectical terrain that interested them, that is, the explicit acceptance that death was fundamental to the existence of the kingdom of god and that, therefore, any discussion about a future without death would be not only blasphemous but absurd . . . that if there was no death, there could be no resurrection, and if there was no resurrection, then there will be no point in having a church. [28]

As the paranormal phenomenon causes consternation among politicians, religious leaders, morticians, and doctors, Saramago has taken up this concept, a debate between (the advantage) life and death, as a fertile ground for playing out his incisive variations, exploring not only our fear of death but our fear of life as well. Death with Interruptions is a rhetoric from the perspective of religion, politics, and humanity that illuminates how moral values, in the event of such contingency with no precedent, are rapidly being turned on their head. The death strike stops as suddenly and mysteriously as letters, signed by death herself, that announce citizens’ death appear in their mailboxes.

The week-long pause, during which no one died and which, initially, created the illusion that nothing had, in fact, changed, came about simply because of the new rules governing the relationship between death and mortals, namely that everyone would receive prior warning that they still had a week to live . . . [136]

As people cope with the crisis by humanizing death to mitigate their fear: calling its name, demanding a frank and open dialogue with death, mocking its treachery, death itself humanizes and gives up her dominion. Death with Interruptions is absurd but meditative, asserting the advantages and shortcomings of both life and death in an allegory. It demonstrates so perfectly how people live the life but they have no part in it.

238 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[177] Seeing – Jose Saramago

seeing“Crudely elementary, but effective, the work of poisoning the public was continuing, two and two are four, and always will be four, if that’s what you did yesterday, then you must have done the same today and everyone who has the temerity to doubt that one thing inevitably leads to another is an enemy of legality and order.” [212]

Jose Saramago takes readers back to the surreal, unknown capital where four years ago everyone but one person was staggering around blind. Seeing is a stunning novel that links the current electoral crisis to the yet unexplained tragedy of blindness which, to this date, still haunts the capital’s inhabitants and embarrasses the government. On election day, when the torrential downpour finally tapers off minutes before time, thousands and thousands of people of all ages and social conditions who, without having reached any precious agreement as to their political and ideological differences, have decided at least to file into the polls and cast their votes.

The officials’ joy at the high turnout of election disappear as quickly and dramatically as the voters have exercised their civil duty. Almost like an anticlimax, the officials, confused and stupefied, find over eighty percent of the ballots blank. That voters have scrupulously fulfilled their duty, that they have chosen expression over abstention reveal distrust rather than apathy toward the government. As a state of seige is declared, the city is abandoned, surrounded by army, the rights of inhabitants suspended. To the cabinet, unincreased criminality rate and impenetrable silence of the public are tell-tale sign of some planned objective—an insurrection—because things are happening as if the population is obeying some plan of a central coordinator. The prime minister declares it a moral plague that people are being delinquent and subversive in not voting for the listed parties. This is really McCarthyism at its best. Democratic normality exists only with the pre-condition that one’s political view is in accord to that of the government.

When rumor has it that the ophthalmologist’s wife, the woman who kept her sight in the blindness plague four years ago, might be behind the blank ballot conspiracy, it’s clear that the government, manned by officials who care more about triumphing over a subversive action unparalleled elsewhere for credential than restoring social order, makes uses of absurdities to dull consciences and to destroy reason, and the outcome is both disturbing and detrimental. The second half of Seeing delves into the meat of Blindness in order to illuminate such absurdities and the dubious efficacy of a so-called democratic system. The unknown locale could very well be the USA or China. Be cautioned that Seeing contains spoiler of Blindness. The writing style is, as usual, elegant, enmeshing narrative with dialogues in long paragraphs. The voice is detached and to the point. 306 pages. [Read/Skim/Toss]

New Beginning, Saramago

The Sunday Salon.com
seeingI finally put behind the year of 2008 in terms of reading. I under-estimated the time needed to finished the last book, which spilled into the new year and is counted for 2009 stats. This week has been devoted to composing year round up and new year resolution posts. Being a spontaneous reader, I don’t have a solid resolution as a reading plan:

Year in Review: Reading Wrap-Up
Bookish Resolution
Year in Review: Top Book-Related Posts

I opened the new book that I was supposed to begin on New Year’s Day. It’s a sequel to one of my all-time favorite novels. Four years after the plague that paralyzed the same unknown capital, on a rainy election day, practically no one goes to the polls until 4 in the afternoon. When the rain tapers off, everybody seems to arrive at once; when the ballots are counted, almost three-quarters turn up blank; after a week of governmental consternation, the elections are held again, on a perfect sunny day, and the results are actually worse — 83 percent of the voters have not marked their ballots. This communal exercise of what the narrator calls “the simple right not to follow any consensually established opinion” does not sit well with the authorities; one cabinet minister refers to the electoral blank-out as “a depth charge launched against the system.”

Booking Through Author

btt button
saramago1. Do you have a favorite author?
I have many favorite authors. But to answer all the questions to follow, I have to choose Jose Saramago, a Portuguese writer who won the Nobel Prize in 1998. He is an author who with parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony continually enables us once again to apprehend an elusory reality. The most popular book is probably Blindness.

2. Have you read everything he or she has written?
I have read most of his novels that are translated into English. He has also written three volumes of poetry, which are yet to be translated, a series of books on critical studies and drama. Two of his latest works of fiction: Seeing (a sequel to Blindness), and Death with Interruptions are sitting on my night-stand. The latter, again, is a highly imagined parable that explores how the non-existence of death affects our society. The story begins on New Year’s Day, when humans stop dying. How appropriate to begin the new year with this book!

3. Did you LIKE everything?
I have liked all the works I have read so far: All the Names, The Double, The Cave, The Stone Rift, and Blindness. His writings take you away from reality into his realm of imaginations that give you a new perspective of reality. It exemplifies the saying that fiction is lies that tell the truth of how people truly live.

4. How about a least favorite author?
I cannot think of one, considering that I usually would read the works of my favorite authors. I follow my instincts in choosing books. In the same way as a favorite author, I’m afraid I’ll have to have bad experience reading all the books of an author to label him/her the least favorite. That would be quite harrowing.

5. An author you wanted to like, but didn’t?
William Faulkner. After The Light in August, which was highly recommended by my high school English teacher, I have shied away from this American novelist whose style is just too dense and digressive for me. I cannot come to appreciate his highly rhetorical and symbolic style and the books become so boring to me.

Blindness: The Film

The Sunday Salon.com

Blindness is a dramatic thriller film that is an adaptation of the 1995 novel of the same name by José Saramago about a society suffering an epidemic of blindness. The blindness is very unusual one in which the afflicted sees a swimming whiteness. In an unnamed city, at a busy intersection, a driver stops his car and causes a traffic standstill. The man has suddenly become blind. The person who lends to his succor and offers to drive him home turns out to be a thief having his eye on the vehicle. The thief then receives his comeuppance and is struck blind. The wife of the first blind man takes him to the ophthalmologist on a cab. Within a day, the cab driver, the ophthalmologist, the patients at the eye clinic and those whom the first blind man comes in contact with turn blind. They all end up at a quarantine ward in an isolated, derelict patch of the city.

The film follows a handful of these people as they try to survive hunger in a government makeshift prison. It is strikingly disturbing as one of the wards has decided to ration food for everyone. These hooligans and thugs first ask for the collection of all valuables in exchange for food. When offerings thin out, they demand to have women sent to their ward to satisfy their carnal pleasure in exchange for food. As the wife of the ophthalmologist—the only person immune to the epidemic of blindness, has had enough, she retaliates and is determined to lead the handful out of the ward. Her sight is kept a secret by her husband and others, though as time goes on, she feels isolated in being the only one with sight. Her biggest concern in the beginning is simply her husband. But her ability to see ultimately both isolates her and makes her into a leader.

Some of the scenes are very gruesome and disturbing, rendering the audience completely silent. At one point I wondered if I could stay for the entire film. Under stern surveillance of soldiers, the internees have to abide by the regulations that push them to the edge of humanity—bury the dead among them, maintain strict isolation from the soldiers who bring in food thrice a say, remain indoor as any attempt to escape or any sign of a seditious movement will result in death. Most importantly, these people are all stripped of their identity because identity is no longer relevant. The notion of name is not important in the book as the characters succumb to their blindness. All that remains are the voices and the memories of the past with which each person makes of his identity.

Director Fernando Meirelles acknowledged the challenge of making a film that would simulate the experience of blindness to the audience, for everything about a motion picture is related to vision. With only one character’s (the doctor’s wife) point-of-view available, Meirelles sought to switch the point-of-views throughout the film, seeing three distinct stylistic sections. The director began with an omniscient vantage point, transited to the intact viewpoint of the Doctor’s Wife. The film is supposed to make one feel depressing and uncomfortable, as it unveils the evil inside a man through the visual style that is clinical and cold. The film is powerful—it almost rubs your nose in excrement, and will haunt you afterwards. But granted the source material doesn’t easily lend itself to cinema, it might have difficulty to engage the audience member who is not familiar with the novel.

Blindness: The Film

I saw the film poster for Blindness the other night at the cinema on the way out of my second viewing of Mamma Mia!. The upcoming 2008 dramatic thriller film that is an adaptation of the 1995 novel of the same name by José Saramago about a society suffering an epidemic of blindness. Read my my review of the novel. When a sudden plague of blindness devastates a city, a small group of the afflicted band together to triumphantly overcome the horrific conditions of their imposed quarantine. The film, starring Julianne Moore, Gael Garcia Bernal, Mark Ruffalo, Sandra Oh and Danny Glover, is a harrowing tale about the fragility of mankind. The film is written by Don McKellar and directed by Fernando Meirelles with Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo as the stars. Jose Saramago originally refused to sell rights for a film adaptation, not wanting it to fall into the wrong hands. Meirelles was able to acquire rights with the condition that the film would be set in an unrecognizable city.

With only one character’s point-of-view available, Meirelles sought to switch the point-of-views throughout the film, seeing three distinct stylistic sections. The director began with an omniscient vantage point, transited to the intact viewpoint of the Doctor’s Wife (Julianne Moore), and changed again to the Man with the Black Eye Patch, who connects the quarantined to the outside world with stories. The director concluded the switching with the combination of the perspective of the Doctor’s Wife and the narrative of the Man with the Black Eye Patch.

The novel cunningly and candidly exposes how frail human society can be. The entire banking system collapses, the traffic thwarted, the streets are strewn with corpses, the dogs tear off flesh from corpses… I put down the book and ask myself: how could human dignity be debased as such? Isn’t it true that dignity has no price and life loses all meaning when one starts to make small concessions? Yet it sheds a ray of hope that one person’s perseverance can make a difference. The notion of name is not important in the book as the characters succumb to their blindness. All that remains are the voices and the memories of the past with which each person makes of his identity. If you haven’t read the novel, this is your chance before the film premieres at the theater near you!

The film will open in the US on September 14.

Gertrude Stein and Jose Saramago

In at least two occasions from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was Gertrude Stein challenged for her unique writing style. T.S. Eliot called a revision to her “grammatical solecisms” and discussed why Gertrude Stein used them. The conversation was said to be a solemn one and it was all about “wool is wool and silk is silk or wool is woollen and silk is silken.” Earlier someone had been fascinated with what he had read in manuscript of The Making of Americans. But he pleaded for commas! Gertrude said commas were unnecessary, the sense should be intrinsic and not have to be explained by commas and otherwise commas were only a sign that “one should pause and take breath but one should know of oneself when one wanted to pause and take breath.” Even this sentence itself, like many others in her writing, are a bit too long.

Which reminds me of Jose Saramago, Nobel-laureate Portuguese writer, playwright and journalist. His works, some of which can be seen as allegories, commonly present subversive perspectives on historic events, emphasizing the human factor rather than the officially sanctioned story. Saramago’s experimental style often features (very) long sentences, at times more than a page long as in Blindness. He uses periods sparingly, choosing instead a loose flow of clauses joined by commas. Many of his paragraphs match the length of entire chapters by more traditional writers. He completely does away quotation marks to delimit dialogues—all the dialogues are embedded in the prose—when the speaker changes Saramago capitalizes the first letter of the new speaker’s clause.

I don’t consider the lack of commas and embedded dialogues “grammatical solecisms” as T.S. Eliot had staidly designated, so long as the writing is clear and the thought conveyed. What about you? What kind of writing style might discourage you from reading a book?