José Saramago was the mountain in the harsh sea, a bird that paid no heed to gliding through life on a slipstream – it was never about doing things the easy way, it was about making sure the world he left wouldn’t be anything like the world he entered.
Everyone tries to make a change, on varying scales to varying levels of success, but change through culture – a soft war, was the one that Saramago fearlessly waged throughout his entire life. His crusade saw him take on on the Vatican and his own government through his acidic satire on the page and scathing condemnations off of it.
The public sphere is the soil bed in which you can just as quickly flourish as die off. Agents carefully manage their clients to be inoffensive, even if their work is – they try to create two sides, the private and the professional. The real life person, or at least their image, is always milder than their work. This way nothing can harm the sales figures that could become jeopardised by an antagonistic public portrayal. That’s why there are so few artists like Saramago now, fighting in his life and in his work for exactly what he believes in.
There are ones with stylishly controversial opinions, cultivated to sell their work, but they’re communicated in a way so as never to isolate a potential buyer, they’re subtle notes of branding that not many people notice unless they’re looking for it. Saramago was none of that, in his life he raged even more intensely than he did on the page. He said what was his Truth, without any thought to artistic consequence – for to alter your personality for sales would be the ultimate betrayal.
It didn’t require much analysis to understand where Saramago’s beliefs lay. He was an Atheist and a Communist, born in a devoutly Catholic country and raised during a right-wing authoritarian regime. It was through the politicisation of religion that the regime of his formative years used the sedate the people - his reactionary views are understandable, but no less remarkable.
In the nature of any true great fighter, he took on the most powerful opponents he could. First up was the Vatican. His 1991 release 'The Gospel According to Jesus Christ' looks at the relationship between Jesus Christ and a selfish God. Their relationship is fraught with doubt (thanks to some Devil-on-the-shoulder manipulation) but in the end Jesus realizes that he can't stand in the way of God's will. On the cross Jesus asks "Men, forgive Him, for He knows not what He has done." It reads as both apology and attack. The Catholic Church weren't happy.
The mocking tone of Saramago's book depicts organized religion as something thrown together by earthly beings that are negotiating their own way through fear and confusion. The Catholic Church branded it an anti-religious piece of literature and was subsequently withdrawn from the 1992 European Literature Prize.
To make matters worse, he wasn’t just an atheist, but a communist too. Growing up the poor son of peasant farmer parents and living under Antonio Salazar's Estado Novo regime, Saramago's politics were formed organically, through nature and nurture. He became an official member of the Communist Party of Portugal in 1968, and in 1989 ran unsuccessfully for a position in local government. Unable to utilise a governmental position to confront the system he viewed as being deeply flawed from the inside, he chose to bear words-as-arms and beat away at the political class with his blunt instrument from the outside.
It was the state of Israel that would suffer the most eloquent scorn of Saramago though. He felt a great sense of injustice at the way the Palestinian people were treated at the hands of the country. To Saramago, "What is happening in Palestine is a crime we can put on the same plain as what happened at Auschwitz.” It's not unusual for a writer to voice their concern over political and social matters, their literary fame giving them a platform. It is unusual though for an artist of that stature and a creator of, generally, apolitical writings, to make statements as provocative as this. The mere mention of concentration camps can be enough to swallow up an entire career.
The whole time, after facing increasingly intense backlash, Saramago was adamant that his words weren't to be misinterpreted as passionate and reactionary, no, he went on record to verify that his words were studiously thought through and that he meant every one. Confirming that, "It was the fact that I put my finger in the Auschwitz wound that made them jump." Saramago knew what he was doing - not only that, he knew how to do it.
Through his whole life it was clear that above all, Saramago’s belief system stemmed from being a profound humanist.
Whether one would agree with his contentious beliefs, they were always put forth with the conviction that what he believed in was the sum of what he believed he could help to change, “I believe that we all have some influence, not because of the fact that one is an artist, but because we are citizens.” His standing as an artist gave him a platform, but he was always speaking as a human being first and foremost.
Saramago never understood our obsession with searching for life on other planets if we were incapable of looking after life here. His belief system boiled down to him being a man with “a certain respect for the elementary things, which are the time, the sun, the earth and the people who walk in it". His books were both stories of ideas and great craft, using often complex themes and structures to tell very simple truths.
His own life, the unwritten one, managed to rival the legacy of his work. The two aspects, private and public, worked symbiotically. There’d never be one without the other. Saramago made damning statements through his work and through the channels that his work permitted him. Without his ideas, we would never have had his books. But without his books, we would never have bore audience to his ideas - one's that are today as powerful as they were then.
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