Today would have been the 91st birthday of Portuguese writer and Nobel laureate José Saramago; by the end of his long life he had experienced much success, recognition and love – for what more could one ask? It’s not my habit to mourn any soul privileged enough to have died by the side of their beloved, in old age, after doing their life’s work, etcetera, etcetera … but this year, I am sad.
For the last few months I’ve been reading The Notebook, one of Saramago’s last books; it’s a collection of the blog posts he wrote from September 15, 2008 to August 31, 2009. He died less than a year later. This books offers a clearer picture of him as an individual, these are his even more personal thoughts on things happening in a world not of his creation, things that amused or disgusted him, and also things that made him feel grateful to be alive.
What did I love about this old man? His perceptive writing, his righteous (but not snarky) humor and that he spoke his truth. He’s celebrated by skeptics and freethinkers for his unwavering atheism, and was reviled by the Catholic Church for his open disdain of its obsession with power and hoarding of wealth. He pissed off heads of state. He was outspoken about many things – he was political in the sense that he was a) informed about current events and history, b) aware of how the past informs the present and the general trends of human behavior and ruling systems, and 3) he cared about what was happening to everyone and to our planet. You cannot understand what is happening to people and to our planet today if you ignore politics. And you cannot truly care if you don’t understand what’s happening (that’s my belief, at least).
Though he is a famous pessimist (“I am a pessimist but not so much that I would shoot myself in the head”), he was compassionate, and clearly wished for us all to be in right relations with each other.
When I first read his novel, All the Names, many years ago for a university course on the subject of identity, it felt like the wind was being knocked out of me. The story is about one insignificant man’s search for the woman who belongs to a name on a card, and yet it seemed that all of life was being written about. I just really loved it, and love it still. The struggle for so many of his characters is not to become mighty (or famous or wealthy), but to adapt to undesirable circumstances in such a way that their despair is transformed, and they can enact goodness wherever they go.
My grief today was compounded by the fact that I felt alone in my sadness; nobody in my life cares about him. I mentioned at breakfast this morning: “It’s José Saramago’s birthday today.” Hubster, who’s never read nor shown any interest in reading Saramago, said nothing at all; and Kidlet – heaven bless her, she is only 5 years old – pulled up one side of her face and said, “Where did Mama go on her birthday? What? What did you say?”
This made me laugh, but my heart does hurt. I feel the lack, Senhor Saramago’s absence. He is quoted to have said, “I am not concerned with death, I will dissolve into nothingness.” And that is what I feel, that he is gone, and we could still do with having him around. Though we are very different personalities, I try to follow his examples (which I’m still learning about).
Now, as the end of day approaches, I try to turn my sadness into something productive … people die, that is a fact, and he died as well as any of us can hope. Of course I was never sad for him, I was sad for all of us. But as he wrote, “the world is not made for resurrection.” So what will I do with this one life? And what will I do to be clear-sighted and make good wherever I can?
He wrote (and I am translating this from a Spanish translation, so excuse my errors), that “Life laughs at the odds, puts words where we imagined silence, and sudden returns when we thought we would not meet again.” Saramago’s sensibilities – his willingness to accept Life for what it is, and yet to not accept human cruelty and greed – appealed to me; they are what I am aiming for. Acceptance, but not defeat! We must keep the spark of human goodness going, and whenever we can, bring it out into the open.
For more on José Saramago: an interesting little interview with the curmudgeon himself by the Paris Review interview in 1998 .