Book Review: Jose Saramago’s The Notebook
My favorite moment in Jose Saramago’s new book is the story of a cobbler who works for the ancient Greek painter Apelles. Everyone has their place in life, Apelles tells the poor cobbler, and as an expert on shoes, his is to make sure that footwear on the painted figures are realistic, exact representations of real shoes, while Apelles manages the painting. The problem, though, is that in order to fulfill his duty our anonymous cobbler must kneel down every day in order to get a good view of the shoes; soon his knees start to ache.
Apparently, Saramago reminds us, even cobblers know something about knees.
The moral, then, is to listen to our knees, our direct experience. The “bankers, those politicians, those insurers, those big speculators… who consider themselves the possessors of ultimate wisdom” would like nothing better, he tells us, then for us to listen to their expertise, to remember our place as cobblers and leave the world to them. But then we look around and see that we’ve lost our jobs, that our nation’s public goods are being privatized, that we can’t visit the beach because its covered in crude oil, and that our neighbor had his legs blown off in a war he can’t explain; our knees are taking quite a beating.
Jose Saramago, obviously, is not an economist or expert in politics, though I wouldn’t hesitate to call him a profound thinker, along with world’s greatest living novelist. As he writes, ” I lack the essential competencies required of a profound analyst, like those profound economists from the Chicago School, who, although very gifted, failed utterly, the notion never going through their privileged brains of a catastrophic crisis that any simplistic analyst would have been well able to predict.”
The Notebook is a strange book. It developed out of a blog, that used to be posted in online. His wife suggested he write semi-regular internet posts after a near death experience, and after a year Verso decided to translate and publish them. Written in his native Portuguese, they cover an eclectic set of topics: personal travel narratives (American TSA agents, of course, seize the laptop of this Nobel Prize winner), observations on the simultaneously unfolding economic crisis and American presidential election, homages to the mostly Latin American authors who have influenced him, left-wing foreign policy critiques, and ruminations on death, religion, and anything else. It is an invaluable snapshot of our last year, captured by writer and thinker who stands with the true greats.
As the story about our cobbler suggests, Saramago is not one for dispassionate analysis. Instead this book is, above all else, about a human’s response to the turbulent last year: anger at the bankers and Israeli government, a hope that begins to fade to skepticism about Barack Obama, and an endearing need for an old man tell the world what the poems of Fernando Pessoa or Federico Mayor Zaragoza meant for when he first encountered them. He has gotten some flack for his tone, which is supposedly too outraged and emotional and simplifies matters. To which Saramago responds: “how can we talk of excesses of indignation” when the world which is “specifically lacking” outrage. Righteous anger, he reminds us, can be one of the best human qualities, when deployed at the right times and at the right targets.
Saramago has been a member of the Communist Party since the 1960s, and is unrepentantly Marxist. In his words, “I don’t think I’ve ever divided my identity as a writer from my conscience as a citizen… that does not mean that I have ever placed literature at the service of my ideology. What it does mean, however, that in every word I write I seek to express the totality of the man I am.”
Throughout his work, then, has always run a profound sense of the dignity and humanity of everyday people- potters swept aside by faceless technological change, crippled veterans forced to labor for the whims of distant monarchs, imprisoned plague victims struggling to build community and solidarity. His fiction despite having such clear political messages, gains its genius by its simultaneous ability to transcend that politics, to consistently bring you back to the most personal and human. So in The Cave, for instance, you can read a simple and compassionate version of one of mankind’s oldest stories– an old man tries to cope with the death of his wife, fears his newly wed daughter will leave home, and can’t imagine being forced to leave his rural home—without realizing, until its over that you’ve read an extended metaphor about classic Marxist themes: the cruelty and inhumanity of capitalist “creative destruction,” the meaninglessness of consumerism and ways which technological “innovation” increase the power of the capitalist who owns the machines over the small producer.
In so many ways his style and vision– passionately humanistic yet also deeply concerned with high economic or political theory– seems out of place in our political discourse, old fashioned almost. Perhaps it’s a European thing, where public intellectuals are given freer rein. But it also seems like remnants of an older Left where people were strongly attached to the direct political struggle, but also understood that humans need art, poetry, and literature to go along with bread. It reminds me of a Richard Rorty essay that I can’t now find about the need for a politics that, in his words, balance “Trotsky and Wild Flowers;” the human striving for justice with the human need for aesthetic and artistic beauty.