José Saramago, ‘Último caderno de Lanzarote: O diário do ano do Nobel’, Porto: Porto Editora, 2018, 269 pp., ISBN 978-972-0-03128-0

The International José Saramago Conference held in Coimbra (Portugal) from 8 to 10 October 2018 (see entry on this blog for 19 October) also saw the launch of ‘Último caderno de Lanzarote’, the sixth and final volume in the series of Saramago’s diaries known as the Cadernos de Lanzarote, covering the year 1998 and part of 1999 and with an introduction by his widow, Pilar del Río. This material has been released only now, eight years after the novelist’s death, in the wake of its surprise discovery on Saramago’s home computer.

1998, as the book’s subtitle reminds us, was the year of Saramago’s Nobel Prize for Literature, and the book reflects this by including his Nobel lecture and acceptance speech, which had earlier been published together as ‘Discursos de Estocolmo’ (Lisbon: Fundação José Saramago, 1998). Curiously there is virtually no entry for the moment at Frankfurt airport on 8 October 1998 when Saramago was apprised of the honour, only the laconic jotting ‘Aeropuerto de Frankfurt. Prémio Nobel’.

The entries as a whole vary from one-liners through occasional pieces to reproductions of full-length articles and speeches from across 1998, including Saramago’s important addresses to the Guadalajara book fair in Mexico (on democracy in crisis) and to the Colegio de México (organised by Carlos Fuentes, on the author vs. narrator issue in literature).

Out of this rich and diverse material, I draw the reader’s attention to a piece whose existence I was not aware of and which I believe deserves to be better known. It appears between pages 112 and 118 as an entry for 31 May 1998, with no title and unsourced, and it is therefore not clear if it was given as a lecture and where it was published. In it, Saramago delineates an analogy between two giants of Iberian literature, Miguel de Cervantes and Fernando Pessoa, suggesting that despite one being Spanish from the 17th century and the other Portuguese from the 20th, key similarities bind them in their respective treatments of human identity.

Cervantes’ character Alonso Quijano metamorphoses into Don Quixote, a person with a different life-history and character traits. The historical Fernando Pessoa morphs into Alberto Caeiro, Álvaro de Campos, Ricardo Reis and Bernardo Soares, heteronyms whose biography and literary predilections are not those of their poet-creator, the orthonymic Pessoa. As Saramago puts it, ‘Conhecemos tudo da vida de Don Quijote de La Mancha, porém nada sabemos da vida de Alonso Quijano’ (‘We know all about the life of Don Quijote de La Mancha, but about the life of Alonso Quijano we know nothing’), until ’em um dia da sua insignificante vida Alonso Quijano decidiu ser outra pessoa‘ (‘one day in his insignificant life, Alonso Quijano decided to be another person‘) (114). In parallel, Saramago reads Fernando Pessoa’s ‘multipersonalização sucessiva’ as the poet ‘tornando … a ser alguém, na medida em que pôde tornar-se outro’ (‘becoming someone once again, to the extent that he could become someone else’) (116). He concludes that between Cervantes and Pessoa, if there are clear similarities in the search for the other, the outcomes are different, as, if ‘Pessoa dispersou-se noutros, e nessa dispersão, porventura, se reencontrou’ (‘Pessoa dispersed himself in others, and in that dispersal, it may be, he found himself again’), ‘Quijano substituiu-se a si mesmo por outro enquanto a morte não chegava para fazer voltar tudo ao princípio’ (‘Quijano substituted himself with another, until death arrived to send everything back to the beginning’) (118).

The complexities of the similarity/difference axis between the two Iberian icons are densely and carefully handled by Saramago in this piece. It is an article which the American critic (and great Saramaguian) Harold Bloom could have written, but to my knowledge Bloom has not ventured this particular comparison. There is a wealth of material in ‘Último caderno de Lanzarote’ of interest to students of Saramago and of literature, but this particular rescued gem is arguably the most interesting element of all, as it enshrines the appreciation of two essential figures of Iberian literature, Cervantes and Pessoa, at the hands of a third, none other than Saramago.


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