Essay on George Orwell and José Saramago: now on-line

Now on-line at:
is my article:
‘How totalitarianism begins at home: SARAMAGO AND ORWELL’,
as published in the volume “In Dialogue with Saramago: Essays in
Comparative Literature”, eds. Mark Sabine and Adriana Alves de Paula
Martins, Manchester: University of Manchester, 2006, pp. 105-120
(cf. this blog, 25 April and 30 May 2006; official site for the book –


I examine the theme of totalitarianism in the two authors’ work in general
and with specific reference to Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and
Saramago’s two linked novels ‘Ensaio sobre a Cegueira’/’Blindness’
and ‘Ensaio sobre a Lucidez’ (‘Seeing’).
Orwell, who died at 47, saw himself as a writer almost from day one (‘From
a very early age … I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer’ );
Saramago established himself as a journalist only in his forties and as a
novelist only in his late fifties, receiving the Nobel, in 1998, at 75.
Orwell, schooled at Eton College, came from a privileged background which
he part-reneged descending among tramps and miners; the autodidact
Saramago, whose mother was illiterate and who owned no books till the age
of 19, lifted himself up from obscure rural origins. Orwell, though always
a writer of the Left, became a visceral opponent of Stalinism, while
Saramago remains a member of his country’s communist party to this day.
However, similarities too impose themselves. Neither’s production appears
under his name given at birth: ‘George Orwell’ was the pseudonym of the man
born Eric Blair, while José Meirinho Sousa became ‘José Saramago’ at seven
thanks to a mistake, worthy of one of his own novels, at the registry
office . Certain threads bind the careers of both. One is empire: Orwell,
born in British India, served in the Burmese Imperial Police, exposed the
colonial mentality in his novel Burmese Days and campaigned for Indian
independence; Saramago’s career as journalist and writer only took off in
the wake of Portugal’s anti-fascist and anti-imperialist revolution of 1974
and the consequent abandonment of empire and colonial war. Another is
Spain, in the life and writings of each: Orwell in the Spanish civil war
and Homage to Catalonia; Saramago particularly in A Jangada de Pedra/The
Stone Raft – which echoes Orwell’s memoir in featuring drama at the
Cerbère/Portbou frontier – and his later relocation to Lanzarote.
In formal or generic terms, both Saramago’s and Orwell’s work combines the
fictive with the analytic and the journalistic, tending to relativise any
rigid dividing-line between fiction and non-fiction; while both may fairly
be considered as being – consistently and committedly – among the most
political writers of all time. The production of both includes reams of
journalism as well as published books, with Orwell’s columns in Tribune or
The Observer balanced by Saramago’s in, say, the Diário de Lisboa . Orwell
mixes narrative and political exegesis in the same book (The Road to Wigan
Pier; in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the extract from Goldstein’s book and the
appendix on Newspeak ), while his Burmese set-pieces ‘A Hanging’ and
‘Shooting An Elephant’ could as well be called short stories as essays.
Saramago, as he himself stressed to Umberto Eco in 2004, has deliberately
given his novels such un-novelistic titles as ‘manual, memorial, history,
gospel and essay’ , and has on several occasions described his later novels
as essays in fictional form – a designation which could apply equally well
to Animal Farm.
Thematically, both writers combine respect for both the common man or woman
and the engaged intellectual with the deepest dislike of the owners of land
and capital; both are keen secularists with very little time for
Christianity; and Orwell’s hostility to the British Empire runs parallel to
Saramago’s latter-day crusade against empire in the shape of globalisation
and the mass consumerism satirised in A Caverna/The Cave. In terms of
reception, both writers’ work has had brushes with censorship and official
opprobrium. Saramago left Portugal for Spain in 1992, in the wake of the
withdrawal from an EU prize nomination of his O Evangelho segundo Jesus
Cristo/The Gospel According to Jesus Christ – an action by the right-wing
Portuguese government then in power which, as late as 2005, he described
as: ‘that censorship which happened to me … an act worthy of a fascist
dictatorship’. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm have
frequently been blacklisted by US school boards ; and both are, by a sad
twist of history, today banned by a totalitarian regime in, of all
countries, Burma. Above all, the work of both is imbued with a constant
attitude of critical questioning, a refusal of cliché coupled with a deep
awareness of its power, and a restlessly alert libertarian spirit.


Note added 14 October 2009: This essay has been placed on the reading list for the course ‘Descobrir Saramago’ (‘Discovering Saramago’)  to be offered from 2 to 6 November 2009 to secondary school teachers of Portuguese, organised by the Centro de Formação da Associação de Escolas de São Miguel e Santa Maria (Azores, Portugal) – see entry on this blog for 13 October 2009 

Note added 12 January 2010: for a review of the book, see:
Ellipsis (American Portuguese Studies Association)
No 5, 2007 –
review of “In Dialogue with Saramago”, by Anna Klobucka
pp 183-186

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