The Notebook

Reviewed by Ronald

José Saramago, The Notebook. Translated by Amanda Hopkinson and Daniel Hahn (London: Verso, 2010)

In September 2008, the Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese novelist, playwright and journalist, José Saramago, went online at the age of 85 and for the first time in his life began writing a blog. This encounter with what he called “the infinite page of the Internet” lasted until August 2009, not long before he fell ill and died. His enthusiasm about this form of social media and his own new role as a blogger is tangible in the collection of entries which have now been published in book form:

Is this the closest thing we have to citizen power? Are we more companionable when we write on the Internet? I have no answers; I am merely stating the questions. And I enjoy writing here now. I don’t know whether it is more democratic, I only know that I feel just the same as the young man with the wild hair and the round-rimmed glasses, in his early twenties, who was asking me the questions. For a blog, no doubt (72).

It is clear from the wide range of subjects covered in his blog – everything from childhood memories to world politics, literature and writing, utopia and the future of the Left – that this public electronic diary gave Saramago a new sense of freedom to reflect, discuss, digress, ask questions, both big and small, and try to answer some of them himself. In many ways, the collection contains Saramago’s most overtly political statement of views. It remains a posthumous testament to a writer who devoted his life to literature, libertarian Communism and the cause of human enlightenment. As he says himself at one point: “I don’t think I have ever divided my identity as a writer from my conscience as a citizen. I believe that where one goes, the other should go, too. I don’t recall ever having written a single word that contradicted the political convictions I uphold, but that does not mean that I have ever placed literature at the service of my ideology. What it does mean, however, is that every word I write I seek to express the totality of the man I am” (228). In this internet blog, that radical commitment to the cause of social liberation is given its clearest and most candidly personal expression.

Coming from a working-class Catholic background and living all of his life in Portugal and then Spain, one of Saramago’s recurring preoccupations as a writer has been with the oppressive influence of the Catholic Church on the lives of ordinary people. This is also the theme for instance of his great iconoclastic novel about the Inquisition, Baltasar & Blimunda (1982). Being an atheist himself, Saramago fought a life-long battle against the earthly powers of Catholicism, a campaign that continues throughout his blog, very much in the critical tradition of Voltaire and the French lumières: against religious superstition, censorship and prejudice. In an entry entitled “God as a problem”, Saramago writes for instance:

Hence, whether you like it or not, we have God as a problem, God as a rock in the middle of the road, God as a pretext for hatred, God as an agent of disunity […] But let us at least discuss it. It is no good saying that killing in God’s name makes God a killer. To those who kill in God’s name God is not only the judge who will absolve them, he is also the powerful Father who in their minds used to provide the firewood for the auto-da-fé and now prepares and orders the planting of bombs. Let’s discuss this invention, let’s solve this problem, let’s recognize at least that the problem does exist. Before we all go crazy. And from there on, who knows? Maybe that will be how we manage not to go on killing one another (41-2).

Saramago described himself as a radical pessimist, not least when it came to the capacity of the Left to make its voice heard in what he called this “age of lies”, ushered in by George W. Bush, who he said used “the lie as a weapon, the lie as the advanced guard of tanks and cannons, the lie told over the ruins, over the corpses, over humanity’s wretched and perpetually frustrated hopes” (7-8). At the same time, there is throughout the Notebook an irrepressible belief in the reason and intelligence of people to see through the spin and sham of politicians who seek only to promote the privilege and power of the present system. The recent popular uprisings throughout the Middle East have confirmed in a most spectacular way Saramago’s confidence in the courage and determination of ordinary people to fight back against their oppressors.

Many readers of The Notebook will of course be attracted to Saramago’s personal reflections about fellow writers such as Carlos Fuentes, Jorge Luis Borges, Eduardo Galeano, Jorge Amado and Dario Fo. Or his wide-ranging political comments about the events in the news at the time: the election of Obama, Israel’s brutal occupation of Gaza, the religious pronouncements of the new Pope, or the world economic crisis, which Saramago calls “a (financial) crime against humanity” (42). There are also many lovingly personal vignettes from his own childhood, which reveal the sort of deeply felt, working-class sensibility that came to inform his later novel-writing. Perhaps one short episode will suffice here – a moving tribute to his peasant grandfather’s intimate relationship with the soil: “I think of my grandfather Jerónimo, who in his final hours went to bid farewell to the trees he had planted, embracing them and weeping because he knew he wouldn’t see them again. It’s a lesson worth learning” (67).

What shines through all of these entries, short or long, is a rage against injustice and longing for social change that inspired Saramago, even at this late stage in his life, to try to reach out in new ways to different categories of readers. This feeling of urgency is the red thread that links all of these internet reflections, combined with a realistic awareness of the obstacles facing any socially emancipatory struggle that seeks to connect the personal with the political. It is here in the carefully observed detail of everyday life that Saramago’s particular blend of hard-earned wisdom and radical consciousness comes into its own. He returns for example on several occasions to the issue of domestic violence, which he sees not only as a problem that men need actively to address, but also as one that goes far beyond the private sphere of the family itself:

The violence that has always been exerted against women has turned the place of cohabitation (let us not call it a home) into a prison, an ideal space for daily humiliation, for regular beatings, for psychological cruelty as a tool of domination. It’s women’s problem, they say, but that is not true. The problem is men’s. […] Maybe a hundred thousand men, only men, no one but men, should demonstrate in the streets, while the women stand on the pavement throwing flowers at them – that might be the signal society needs to begin to fight this unbearable disgrace, from the inside, and without delay. And to make gender-based violence, whether fatal or not, one of our citizens’ principal sorrows and concern. It’s a dream, a duty. It could be more than just utopian (246-7).

Despite being mainly made up of occasional pieces, written almost on the spur of the moment, there is a clarity of language, an intellectual richness and a lifetime of radical commitment that characterize all of these personal meditations on both the state of the world and Saramago’s own experience of it. For those who have yet to read any of the novels of José Saramago, this Notebook collection of his blog entries should make the perfect first acquaintance. Ronald Paul University of Gothenburg