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The Vision and Voice of Jose Saramago

Monday, June 11, 2007

Sweet, succulent blur!

Jose Saramago is 84 years old, Portuguese, he’s 1998’s Nobel-laureate, and, as I’ve just learned, a communist. I’ll forgive him this last one because he’s so damn good with language — that language being Portuguese, but his prose retains its wonder when ported over to English.

I’ve now finished reading his newest novel, Seeing, which is a sequel to the 1995 book which was the straw on Alfred Nobel’s back, Blindness. It’s fair to say that Blindness is probably my favorite book, which just proves that this Nobel guy’s got good taste.

Blindness deals with a plague of “milky white blindness” that suddenly sweeps across an anonymous city (or country or planet, the book never specifies just how far it reaches), reducing it to a pathetic, stumbling post-apocalyptic wasteland like something out of Romero, but sans flesh-eating. In witnessing this social collapse, we’re also seeing a collapse in human judgment, both of the individual and the government, in the face of panic. It’s a grim tale, but Saramago keeps it from being depressing with an amazing wit that he’s able to inject into his writing — little asides to talk about a character’s varying motivations, or the bizarreness of a situation, or the appropriateness of the narrator’s own turn of phrase.

1998 Nobel Prize Winner ... in MIND JUGGLING!!For most of the first half of Seeing, I wondered just why it had been released as a sequel to Blindness. It was still an excellent read — Saramago’s distinctive style, which I’ll discuss later, can’t be anything but a pleasure to swim through — but I wasn’t seeing any more than a few offhanded connections to its supposed predecessor. An anonymous city, the same one as in Blindness though this probably isn’t confirmed for a good eighty pages, falls victim to another sudden vision of white — on election day, after a decent voter turnout, the ballots are counted and it is found that, by completely spontaneous and uncoordinated act, more than seventy percent of them have been left blank. Thematic similarities with Blindness start to show themselves as the government panics in reaction to this, what they tend to refer to as, “perfectly legal assault on democracy.”

By the end, it is clear the reasons for these two stories being joined, and I have to say, Seeing is one of the most interesting and unconventional continuations I’ve experienced in any medium. It’s a purely intellectual sequel, with new-but-thematically-similar ideas being offered, where all references to the original could probably have been done without — but certainly shouldn’t have been, as they make this work so much, much stronger and more compelling.

If Droopy had had a recognizable catchphrase, you know I'd be usin' it here.

While the stories he tells are curious and heavy with allegory, it’s Saramago’s writing style that guarantees I’ll continue working my way through the entirety of his 40 years of brought-over-to-English work. It’s a style like no one else’s — he has no use for punctuation beyond periods and commas, and for these he follows his own set of guidelines; he uses sentences like paragraphs and paragraphs stretch for pages, and by no means do they follow the conventional rules of what information should share a paragraph’s space, either. He’ll have entire conversations, with two characters, three characters, or a mob talking over itself, and it will all play out without paragraph breaks or quotation marks or any division between speakers, save for a comma and a capital letter. And yet he never allows it to get confusing (not often, anyway). This style, along with the playful, careful dialogue itself, moves along at a wonderful flow, as does the rest of his prose; in reading these books, as well as another of his which I read last year, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, I find my eyes move across the lines and down the page like they’re floating smoothly along a stream.

His work is a great combination — it’s got the weight of serious, thoughtful, often dreary subject matter; the wonder of situations that can only come about in fantasy (but only slight fantasy, or rather slight fantasy applied to otherwise rational reality); a language that is unique and complex, while always being very quick and fun to read — but never so simple it’s condescending; and a voice that is clear and friendly and playful and gentle. I’m just thankful one of my co-workers left their copy of Blindness sitting on a shelf at Money Mart, otherwise I may never have heard of him at all.

(Special thanks to Drew for his fine, fine work on the top image. Check out that blur! As smooth as the blur on a baby’s ass!) laebmada

14 Comments leave one →
  1. James17930 permalink
    Monday, June 11, 2007 1:29 pm

    Good blurrin’ Drew!

    Keep up the blur work!

  2. James17930 permalink
    Tuesday, June 12, 2007 9:13 am

    BTW, I only kind of skimmed this because I didn’t want to potentially spoil the books for me.

  3. Tuesday, June 12, 2007 11:35 am

    BTW, it doesn’t take that long to type ‘By the way.’

  4. James17930 permalink
    Tuesday, June 12, 2007 1:34 pm

    How come you used a capitil in the middle of a sentence where it wasn’t a proper name?

  5. Tuesday, June 12, 2007 9:15 pm

    Because that’s what you would have typed had you typed that. Why’d you spell ‘capital’ with an ‘o’?

  6. James17930 permalink
    Wednesday, June 13, 2007 6:22 am

    Why, whatever do you mean?

  7. Wednesday, June 13, 2007 10:23 am

    You know exactly what I mean.

  8. James17930 permalink
    Wednesday, June 13, 2007 11:43 am

    No, I just can’t get at what you’re getting at.

    I’m so confused.

    It’s so hot out today.


  9. Wednesday, June 13, 2007 12:33 pm

    It really is hot, isn’t it? Phew.

  10. Wednesday, June 13, 2007 5:56 pm

    Did you learn Portuguese, Beal?

    Perhaps he just has damn good translators…

  11. Wednesday, June 13, 2007 10:36 pm

    I would assume most translators for major literary releases are pretty good (I actually think each of the three Saramago books I’ve read had different translators). But I don’t really understand the process of capturing such an off-beat style in a language different from its original, unless the languages are pretty close together. I don’t know much about Portuguese, so I can’t compare it to English.

    But I can say that Korean had some huge differences with English, and yet the Korean version of Blindness, 눈먼 자들의 도시, which sits right now on my shelf, apparently matches the English version in oddness of style (according to a bilingual Korean). And yet, when I glance through 눈먼 자들의 도시, I see no commas — the English version’s just loaded with those maggoty little bastards.

  12. Sunday, June 17, 2007 6:55 pm

    I seem to have stumboled upon Saramango quite by accident as well – a copy of Blindness came into Chapters while I was working there, and I decided the cover was interesting enough to give it a read (cause you can judge a book by its cover).

    I thought it was a great book, and I always thought I should read more of him. Perhaps now I will.

  13. Sunday, June 17, 2007 8:45 pm

    Yes, finding a book at a bookstore — what a wild accident!

  14. James17930 permalink
    Monday, June 18, 2007 6:11 am

    Yes, but finding one book out of thousands at a bookstore — fate!

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