Archive for February, 2019

Review of Ricardo Viel, ‘Um país levantado em alegria’ (20 anos do Prémio Nobel de Literatura a José Saramago)

Ricardo Viel, ‘Um país levantado em alegria’ (20 anos do Prémio Nobel de Literatura a José Saramago)

Porto: Porto Editora, 2018 – ISBN 978-972-0-03132-7, 177 pp.

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The international conference held in Portugal at the University of Coimbra in October 2018 to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of José Saramago’s Nobel Prize for Literature was also the launchpad for two new books, both published by Porto Editora with the support of the Fundação José Saramago, the official foundation dedicated to the late author’s work  (cf. entries on this blog for 19 October and 20 December 2018). One of those books was a Saramago original, ‘Último caderno de Lanzarote’, the sixth and final volume in the series of the writer’s diaries known as the Cadernos de Lanzarote, covering the period of the Nobel; the other is the volume here under review, ‘Um país levantado em alegria: 20 anos do Prémio Nobel de Literatura a José Saramago’ (in English, roughly, ‘A nation rises up in joy: 20 years of José Saramago’s Nobel Prize for Literature’). The book is compiled, edited and introduced by Ricardo Viel, Brazilian journalist and director of communications at the Fundação José Saramago, and prefaced by the Portuguese author Eduardo Lourenço and the Nicaraguan writer Sergio Ramírez. A Spanish-language version of the volume also exists, translated by Saramago’s widow Pilar del Río (‘Un país levantado en alegría’, Madrid: Alfaguara, 2018).

Saramago’s Nobel was a major cultural event, the first (and so far only) time that the world’s most prestigious literary award fell to a Portuguese-language writer. It was perceived across the Lusophone world as both a glorious triumph and a just reward for a language spoken by over 200 million people, whose literary tradition spans centuries and continents and includes writers of the stature of Portugal’s Luis de Camões and Fernando Pessoa, Brazil’s Machado de Assis and Clarice Lispector or Mozambique’s Mia Couto.

Ricardo Viel takes his cue for the title from a commemorative speech delivered in Saramago’s presence in Porto shortly after the Nobel, by the late doyen of Portuguese letters Eduardo Prado Coelho. The Portuguese critic declared that in the days that followed the epoch-making announcement, literature had ‘subido à rua’ (‘risen up to the street’), and further explained: ‘É possível, como se viu nesta semana, que um país se levante em alegria porque alguém ganhou um prémio de literatura. É possível que um escritor invente uma energia nova para a palavra “levantar”. É possivel que durante alguns dias a literatura tenha, como disse, subido à rua. Mas Saramago deu-nos a explicação: há momentos em que tudo parece possível, este é um desses’ (‘It is possible, as we saw this week, for a nation to rise up in rejoicing because someone won a literature prize. It is possible for a writer to invent a new energy for the words “rise up”. It is possible for literature, for a number of days, to have, as I said, risen up to the street. But Saramago has given us the explanation: there are moments when everything seems to be possible, and this is one of those moments’) (53). To this speech – and beyond it, ultimately to Saramago’s own novel title ‘Levantado do chão’ (‘Raised from the Ground’) – we may trace the title of Ricardo Viel’s study.

The author opens his narration with the great transformational moment on 8 October 1988, its prime mover being José Saramago, Portuguese novelist born in 1922, living on Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, married to the Spanish journalist Pilar del Río and author of a string of distinguished novels including ‘Memorial do Convento’ (‘Baltasar and Blimunda’), ‘O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis’ (‘The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis’) and ‘Ensaio sobre a Cegueira’ (‘Blindness’). The new Nobel learnt of his award at Frankfurt airport, when just about to fly back home after attending the German city’s famous book fair. We retrace with Saramago his steps as he returned to the fair for the inevitable presentations and celebrations, with Pilar braced to attend the endless inquiries in Lanzarote. There is also a blow-by-blow account of the subsequent commemorations and celebrations, in Lisbon and then in Stockholm, and the Nobel ceremony itself: Saramago’s Nobel speech (previously published as a pamphlet by the Fundação José Saramago and also reproduced in ‘Último caderno de Lanzarote’) appears here in full. The book ends with a moving sequence of entries from the diary kept by Pilar del Río in Stockholm, testifying on a more personal level to the grandeur of the events.

Ample space is also devoted to chronicling the multiple tributes received by the Portuguese laureate, from the most exalted of fellow writers to the common reader. Recurrent is the theme of the Portuguese cultural sphere and the sensation that this is not merely Saramago’s prize but that of a whole nation, and beyond that, an entire literature, and beyond that again, a language of global reach: in his Nobel speech, Saramago reaches out to those who stand behind him, ‘aos escritores portugueses e da língua portuguesa, aos do passado e aos de agora’ (‘to the Portuguese writers and the writers in the Portuguese language, those of the past and those of today’), and recalls that ‘eu sou apenas mais um’ (‘I am just one more’) (163). Numerous letters and messages (emails or faxes), from Portugal, Brazil, Italy, Spain or Hispanoamerica, are cited in full, translated into Portuguese where necessary; photos of a selection of the messages, as well as of numerous newspaper front pages, appear as illustrations.

Ricardo Viel allows us to see in graphic detail, through verbatim quotations, how the literary and cultural establishment lined up to congratulate the new Nobel. Among those sending delighted messages were distinguished figures of a diversity of provenances, from the journalist José Luis Cebrián, founder of ‘El País’, to Jorge Luis Borges’ widow Maria Kodama, through to icons of Portuguese folk music such as Manuel Freire or Sérgio Godinho. For Brazil’s Jorge Amado the award was ‘esta vitória, sua pessoal e da literatura de língua portuguesa’ (‘your personal triumph and the triumph of literature in Portuguese’) (108); for Gabriel García Márquez, Saramago’s Nobel and the ecstatic reaction in the Spanish-speaking world confirmed his belief that ‘a literatura ibero-americana é só uma’ (‘Iberoamerican literature is a single whole’) (113); and from Mexico, Marisol Schulz, director of the Guadalajara Book Fair, declared it was ‘um prémio … para a literatura e para as causas mais justas da humanidade’ (‘a prize for literature and for the most just causes of humanity’) (114).

Other messages flowed in from the most varied sources: as Saramago himself put it in a collective reply, from ‘instituições do Estado, câmaras municipais, escolas, universidades, bibliotecas, meios de comunicação social e leitores em geral’ (‘institutions of the state, municipal councils, schools, universities, libraries, media organs and readers in general’) (81). There were also multitudes of more humble missives sent out in message-in-a-bottle fashion by admirers of Saramago’s work from whatever walk of life. Representative here is the secondary school teacher from São João da Madeira, a small town south of Porto, who confessed in her letter: ‘Hoje, agora que acabei de receber a notícia, ouso escrever-lhe sem sequer saber para onde endereçar a carta, sem saber se será lida’ (‘Today, now that I know the news, I dare write to you without even knowing where to address the letter, without knowing if it will be read’), yet also ventured to share with the Nobel himself how she had learnt the news in school, when a colleague knocked on her door (128). Her letter did arrve, as did others sent out into the blue, addressed only to, say, ‘Sr. D. José Saramago – Escritor [writer] – Lanzarote’ (85), which nonetheless miraculously reached their destination.

The atmosphere of celebration and national rejoicing that these pages evoke is contagious. More than one of Saramago’s readers even compare the Nobel moment to the 25th of April, the date of the revolution of 1974 that has become a national symbol: such were the sensations of the writer Luísa Ducla Soares: ‘De certa forma, lembrou-me aquela alegria total e espontânea do 25 de Abril’ (‘In a certain way it reminded me of the total and spontaneous joy of the 25th of April’) (97), and of the singer Carlos Mendes: ‘Aconteceu um novo 25 de Abril!’ (‘A new 25th of April has happened!’) (99).

Ricardo Viel affirms in his introduction that José Saramago’s Nobel has the status of ‘um galardão que foi recebido e celebrado como um bem comum’ (‘an award which was received and celebrated as a common good’), going on to declare: ‘Foi o Nobel da língua portuguesa, o Nobel de milhões de leitores de Saramago espalhados pelos cinco continentes. E também o Nobel de aqueles que, não tendo lido um só livro do autor, se reconheciam nas suas origens e forma de ver o mundo’ (‘It was the Nobel of the Portuguese language, the Nobel of millions of Saramago’s readers scattered across the five continents; and also the Nobel of those who, even without having read a single one of his books, recognised themselves in his origins and his way of seeing the world’) (16).

Saramago himself said in Stockholm, in response to a journalist’s questions after the ceremony, that among those whom he would wish to feel beside him at that moment were ‘os levantados do chão, aqueles que ficaram lá atrás na história’ (‘those raised from the ground, those who remained behind in history’) (69), implicitly connecting his own humble origins, and his characters of such origins like Baltasar and Blimunda from ‘Memorial do Convento’, with the wider popular struggle. This excellent volume, both informative and passionate, may be considered as a valuable contribution to the continuing study of a writer whose international recognition bears witness to his tireless commitment to the cause of literature and the wider causes of humanity.

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Note added 13 September 2019:

This review has been published in Portuguese in:

Revista de Estudos Saramaguianos (online journal, Brazil), Vol. 10, No 2, August 2019, pp. 151-154; online at: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1PxjdpcUS3avQIGx0Wm7MySP195JP_eXj/view

(see entry on this blog for 12 September 2019)

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