Apparently I am a literary idiot. I’ve managed to go my whole life without ever even hearing of Jose Saramago, much less reading any of his books. Ok, I know he won the Nobel Prize, and I’m sure I’ve looked at the list of winners at some point, but somehow his name never actually registered with me. So the question now is, Why? Why, why, why did no one ever grab me and force me to sit down with some Saramago? Why did no one tell me about this great Portuguese writer in the magical realist tradition whose work is freaky and philosophical and just awesome?
Yes, it’s clear that I loved this book. It’s hard for me not love a book that offers sentences like this one, describing the rented video that launches the action:
The comedy was not just light . . . it was, above all, absurd, ridiculous, a cinematic monster in which logic and common sense had been left protesting on the other side of the door, having been refused entry into the place where the madness was being perpetrated.
The viewer of the cinematic monster in question is history teacher Tertuliano Maximo Afonso. And unfortunately for Tertuliano, the movie does not just lack common sense, it actually banishes common sense from Tertuliano’s own life when he notices that one of the actors in this five-year-old movie looks exactly like he did five years ago. What could this mean? What does the actor look like now? Who is he? Where is he? Tertuliano becomes obsessed with finding the actor, and when he does, well, I’ll leave that to you to imagine.
The plot of the book is interesting on its own, but really it’s Saramago’s style that makes it stand out as a great work. If I were to simply summarize all the events of the book, it would come across as a trippy little meditation on identity and chance, what makes us who we are and what makes the people around us love us. Clever and probably worth reading, but really nothing that hasn’t been done before.
But Saramago offers something much more than a clever, if not entirely original, plot. He also offers a sometimes hilarious narrator who provides a running commentary on the characters’ internal debates (usually taking the form of battles with common sense) and occasional digressions on such topics as the nature of words and the intolerable prospect of having to eat monkfish. The narrator even goes so far as to make excuses for the digressions, as he does here after spending a page and a half discoursing on monkfish and our relationship with words:
Responsibility for this tedious piscine and linguistic digression lies entirely with Tertuliano Maximo Afonso for having taken so long a time to put A Man Like Any Other in the VCR, as if he were hesitating at the foot of a mountain, pondering the effort required to reach the summit. Like nature, they say, a narrative abhors a vacuum, which is why, since Tertuliano Maximo Afonso has, in this interval, done nothing worth telling, we had no option but to improvise some padding to more or less fill up the time required by the situation.
Now Saramago is probably not for everyone. He doesn’t seem to believe in paragraph breaks or quotation marks. A single paragraph might last ten pages or more. And the dialogue is presented in paragraph form, with no quotation marks or periods. Commas, capital letters, and context are the only hints that the speaker has changed. When I first picked up the book, I thought this would drive me crazy, but it didn’t. (I’m not sure I understand the point of it, but it’s Saramago’s signature style, so I’ll just go with it.)
I can’t say that I’d recommend Saramago to just anyone; his style is awfully quirky. But if the two excerpts above made you smile, you might want to look him up. I hear that Blindness is even better than The Double. Any other Saramago fans out there? What are your favorites?