A collection of the Portuguese novelist’s early stories shows why he was a worthy Nobel prize winner, writes Stuart Kelly
THE work of José Saramago, the Portuguese novelist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998 and who died in 2010, was typified by surrealism deployed for political purposes. Connections can be drawn between his style of writing and both the broad global notion of “magical realism” – although Saramago tends to be less extravagant and more precise – and the kinds of literature created in the Iberian peninsula after the deaths of Franco and Salazar: writers like Manuel Rivas, Bernardo Atxaga and Juan Goytisolo.
This collection of six stories – or rather, four short stories, an almost-novella and a sketch – dates from 1978; that is, from before the publication of the novels on which Saramago’s fame rests: Baltasar And Blimunda, The Stone Raft, The Year Of The Death Of Ricardo Reis, The Gospel According To Jesus Christ and Blindness.
After winning the Nobel Prize – with the exception of the wonderful Death With Interruptions – Saramago had a tendency to recycle. Blindess was followed by Seeing; Cain was a thematic sequel to his gospel reinterpretation and The Elephant’s Journey was a historical fantasia similar to Baltasar And Blimunda. It is a pleasant surprise to be returned to the angrier, more daring Saramago, and to see in these works the seeds that would culminate in the great novels.
Certain aspects are immediately recognisable. The opening story, “The Chair”, displays the protracted, unspooling sentences that qualify, hesitate and contradict themselves; although in other stories his style is more clipped and lucid. He has already developed a distaste for naming characters, which in Blindness edged into allegory. The twinned obsessions with religion and mortality are in evidence as well.
“The Chair” highlights the local and universal aspects of Saramago. An unnamed narrator, very specifically and in great detail, describes an old man whose chair collapses, leading to a brain haemorrhage. As if giving a lecture, the narrator muses on the cause of this – “a strict order to take everything back from this moment which cannot be postponed, not so much to the tree... but to the merchant, storekeeper, joiner, stevedore, shipping company responsible for shipping from remote parts the tree trunk stripped of its branches and roots. As far back as might be necessary in order to discover when the rot set in.”
This leads to a fantasy of the generations of furniture beetles who have heroically weakened the chair leg until one becomes a Wild West gunslinger, poised to deliver the crucial, redemptory blow. The translator, Giovanni Pontiero, notes in the introduction that Salazar (eventually) died from a brain haemorrhage caused by a collapsing deckchair (he actually lived for a further two years). Readers unfamiliar with this piece of Portuguese history can nevertheless infer the tyranny of the unnamed falling man. There are references to his entourage of “Cains” and “hyenas”; he “has no lips” and wears boots to hide his cloven hoof feet. It both is Salazar and any dictator, political, familial or metaphysical.
The absurdity of life under tyranny is explored further in “Embargo”, where a man finds himself literally trapped in his car during unexplained fuel shortages and is dealt with most hauntingly in “Things”. In that story, the civil servant narrator finds himself, in the phrase of M R James, at the mercy of “the malice of inanimate objects”. A door deliberately scratches him; a sofa is being treated for a fever; a post box disappears. The government urges caution, then, as whole buildings disappear leaving dead, naked victims, declares a state of emergency and then war against the OUMIs – the objects, utensils, machines and installations. The acronym is part of a general abbreviation. The Government is usually “the Government (G)” which makes “Formal Statements (FS)” about the “Security Forces (SF)” – as if an algebraic bureaucracy could contain and constrain the multiplicity of reality. The story builds in intensity and eeriness, and yet the final pages are disappointingly blatant – a character ends by saying: “There was no other remedy since we were those things. Never again will men be treated as things.” Saramago found subtler ways to convey his personal belief in anarcho-communism, without resorting to such clumsy sermonising.
The story “The Centaur” is an accomplished and melancholy study of myth, with such grace notes as wondering how a centaur might sleep (the man part laments that he has never lain on his back); and it has a very odd mistake. The Centaur remembers Hercules killing Nessos, and compares it to Hector killing Achilles. But it was Achilles who killed Hector in The Iliad and I could not decide if this was the Centaur’s senile dementia or a lapse on Saramago’s part.
The collection’s stand-out story is “Reflux”, which easily bears comparison to Calvino and Borges, albeit with a more politically astute edge. A wise king has decided that there should be one single graveyard for his entire country, and the story elaborates on this conceit, describing how cities build up around the necropolis, how the economy is powered by the funerals, and how science is devoted to detecting corpses to be returned to the communal cemetery. It is brilliantly oblique and has the uncompromising logic of a fairy-tale. For those who don’t know Saramago’s work, “Reflux” should inspire them to read more. For those of us who had flagged at his later work, these early stories are a welcome reminder of why he deserved the Nobel.