Saturday, January 27, 2007

Jose Saramago, Literary Genius.

Sometimes I marvel at the task of the translator. The job of transforming language from one language to another, without losing the essential cultural aspects and challenges of the author in his own words, would be daunting. That's especially the case with Jose Saramago, a portuguese Nobel Prize-winning author, whom I consider to be one of the greatest living writers. It may be premature for me to form this judgement... as I have only read two of his works, but I have a high level of confidence that I will continue to hold a consistent opinion of his skills.

Saramago defies many conventions of the contemporary novel. As I have very little formal training in grammar, I'm limiting to pointing out some of the obvious examples. The author virtually eschews indicator words to let the reader know which character is delivering dialogue. By itself, this wouldn't be that off-putting... but Saramago also refuses to put line breaks in his novels. His writing flows through the pages of his book without pause, daring us to continue without until we are finished . He also smashes the literary equivalent of the cinematic fourth wall. Without warning, Saramago will address the reader directly... sometimes smack dab in the middle of some internal dialogue of the protagonist.

And despite these features, Saramago strikes me (and others, obviously) as a literary genius. His wit, insight, and labyrinthian style of storytelling dazzle the reader. Yet we shouldn't be tempted to believe that his main skill is artful contrivance... he comments on deep and provocative philosophical issues, without coming off as pretentious. He is virtually firing on all cylinders at once. Sometimes I feel as if I am going to be lost in one of his meandering (dare I say "Proustian"... ah, fuck it) sentences... but then I am compelled to follow its reckless path. Through the force of his literary abilities I come out on the other side believing I understand him exactly as intended. Through this device, he elicits a low-level tension that keeps me reading way past the time I had originally intended.

I discovered Saramago through his best known work- Blindness (1995). As much as I would like to do justice to this book, I read it several years ago... and would be commiting a disservice by attempting a comprehensive review now. Basically it is about the reactions of a society in which its citizens are rapidly and inexplicably losing their vision. Of course it is allegorical, but not in a way that it loses its connection to realism, or blunts its emotional impact. It is a frightening work despite the fantastic elements. There is much to be learned about a world that loses its bearing and descends into barbarity. I have no doubt that the essential message of Blindness is a universal one, and that this book will achieve the status of literary classic for the ages.

This week I completed a more recent Saramago work entitled The Double (2003). In this work the protagonist discovers the existence of an exact duplicate of himself, living across the expanse of the large metropolis in which he lives. He becomes obsessed with confronting his twin, and the elements of his life change rapidly. This situation challenges the perceptions of identity, and the evolution of his identity crisis leads to tragic consequences. The Double is deeply enmeshed in the existentialist tradition, yet manages to retain the feeling of a Neo- Noirish thriller. As our "hero" ramps up his efforts to solve the puzzle of his duplicate, the reader is propelled to the story's conclusion. Saramago has already informed us that it all ends badly, but that hasn't alleviated the anxiety we experience... or any feeling of impending doom.

While The Double is considered one of Saramago's lesser works, I was completely involved in the experience of reading it. If perhaps some of its characters lacked the substance and depth that might be expected from a master author, its exploration of self-identity and perception resonated with me. Often I stopped to ponder how I would negotiate the main problem that the protagonist faced. There is a quality somewhat reminiscent of a fable in the little I have read of Saramago. There are implications beyond the plots of his works. The questions he asks his readers are intriguing and have much to do with the basic mysteries of our lives. And ultimately this is why I expect to continue reading his books. I am certain that my appreciation of Saramago is not to be contained during any one phase of my literary life. The prospect of exploring his entire body of work is exciting.


Anonymous Sharif said...

Sometimes I marvel at the task of the translator.

I completely agree. I have been very impressed with all the translations. However, there are probably some intricate things about Portuguese language that the English readers are missing. For instance, I read somehwere, Saramago tends to write in 'royal' Portuguese which is not commonly used.

5:36 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

I'd definitely love to be able to read Saramago in Portuguese. There's no possible way that I can understand the totality of the author's subtleties in a translation.

10:35 PM  

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