In 1998 I was attending a writing workshop. After the first lessons which advised us on the importance of leaving our inhibitions behind and learning some basic techniques, we began working on topics such as estrangement, the meeting of cultures, journeys or something along those lines. In was in that context that the coordinator of the workshop, Elena Romiti, gave us a fragment of the novel Baltasar and Blimunda (Memorial del Convento, 1982) by José Saramago. When I asked her about this author, whose name I had never before heard of, she unequivocally recommended that I read him.
So I bought the book and came across a literature that was both different and fascinating. The novel tells the story of Blimunda and Baltasar, with the construction of a convent of titanic proportions in the background and the tribulations of a king who was having trouble producing an heir to the throne, all amidst the flamboyance of the Portuguese court of the 18th century. Blimunda and Baltasar were very poor, just like Saramago during his hildhood.
And they had so accepted not knowing where their next meal would come from that they lived day to day. They loved each other and bore no grudges, although they did experience —along with the reader— a certain perplexity before the world that they were unable to categorize as unjust, because categorizations were simply beyond their daily worries.
In September of that year, at the Montevideo Book Fair, the most important foreign guest, beyond a doubt, was Saramago. His conference coincided with my writing workshop and we decided to substitute the workshop session with attendance at the book fair. We went as a gang. We were perhaps two hundred people at the conference that was introduced by the Uruguayan poet, Gladys Castelvecchi.
I don’t remember too much about the conference, except for two things. The first was that someone asked the author why he wrote dialogues separated by commas instead of the traditional dashes and why he didn’t use question marks or exclamation points in his dialogues. Surely this was a question he was asked wherever he went. The author appeared like a man who could not yet believe his capacity for bringing together two hundred people to a conference room to talk about his books. With a pinch of humor directed at himself and another towards the audience, he replied that as human beings we don’t talk with dashes. Whenever we hear a story told out loud we don’t see the punctuation marks and yet we understand it just the same. He went on to say that in order to write Raised from the Ground (Alzado del suelo - 1980), his celebrated work, he had collected dozens of stories from peasants in the Portuguese towns. He had rehearsed his particular style with this novel, trying to transfer the spoken nature of these stories to the written language with the utmost fidelity possible.
To tell the truth, I don’t remember the other question, but it was something about computers and writing, or perhaps reading. Since the question got lost in the black holes of my memory, so did the answer. Nevertheless, it was the end of the conference and it culminated with these words by Saramago, “One can cry over an open book, but who can cry over a hard drive?”
A month later, Saramago was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and his name, image and books circulated the world. Those who had looked at us questioningly, as if to ask, “Who has ever heard of this author you’re going to listen to at the book fair?” respected us because we had discovered Saramago before they had. It’s important to emphasize that despite our own ignorance, Saramago was a well-known and respected writer among the literary circles, but he was in no way as popular as he became after the Nobel.
Nevertheless, there were many who went to the conference that had read him and admired him long before the humble students of the writing workshop. Someone had given Gladys Castelvecchi the novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (El Evangelio segun Jesuscristo - 1991). She had just suffered, for a second time, the death of a son and she was very depressed. A poet and professor of literature, the book had made an impact on her. Gladys, who in contrast to me knew Saramago as a distinguished author who had been bestowed with important international accolades, wrote to him without expecting any answer whatsoever. To her surprise, in the mail she received all of Saramago’s books together with a letter where he wrote that if The Gospel… had been able to pull a smile from her under the very difficult circumstances that she was going through, then that reason alone had made it worth writing.
She replied and, from letter to letter, a strong friendship ensued. They had in common, among other things and not counting literature, the same age and a membership card for the Communist Party. When, years later, Alfaguara sponsored Saramago’s travel to Uruguay for his conference at the book fair, he had one condition: to meet Gladys Castelvecchi.
Alicia Escardó was one of my colleagues from that writing workshop who was part of the gang that went to listen to the conference by this guy named Saramago, whom she had scarcely heard of. The following year, the two of us left the workshop and continued to see each other from time to time. In 2002, Alicia began to edit Letra Nueva, a literary magazine, which took up her entire life, the free time that family and work allowed that is. One Saturday morning she was at a bookstore in Montevideo’s Old City, looking at magazines, when, by chance, Saramago and his wife, Pilar del Río, came in. They were accompanied by the Uruguayan writer Tomás de Mattos, a deeply Christian writer who, for those times, had just published a spectacular novel on the life of Jesus: La puerta de la misericordia (The Door of Compassion). Alicia froze in her tracks. She could not believe that Saramago literally was within hand’s reach. In Montevideo anyone could come across Tomás de Mattos or famous politicians, soccer stars or cultural or theater personalities; but to suddenly come face to face with a writer crowned with the Nobel is, for a lover of literature, an almost mystical experience. When finally her ecstasy subsided, she dared to speak to him about Letra Nueva and, upon seeing him so interested, handed him a copy of the magazine. They talked about the difficulties of starting a venture in such hard times of a recession. “Efforts of some with the help of very few,” Saramago said while he leafed through Letra Nueva. She dared to tell him that in the following edition she was going to write about her extraordinary meeting with him. He asked her if she could send him a copy and they ended up exchanging emails and addresses. Alicia left floating through the streets of the Old City.
My friend’s story with Saramago doesn’t end there. She sent him the promised edition of Letra Nueva and received from Pilar an affectionate email reply, in which they invited her to visit them if she ever happened to be traveling through Lanzarote or Lisbon. Eight years have passed and her eyes still light up with excitement when she tells the story.
Saramago died in June and now I have read many of his novels. He was at an old enough age to die and yet it still saddens me. He did not know me, of course, but I knew him, or at least I knew the author and the man he showed in public along with what others say about him. In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, he paid homage to his grandfather: “The wisest man I ever met could not read or write.” And he remembered the words of his grandmother: “The world is so beautiful and it’s such a pity I have to die.”
The Colombian writer Laura Restrepo recounts in the Spanish daily El Pais that in recent times he had been given to repeating those words as a prophecy. She asks, “Why do Saramago’s novels go so deep and make us tremble in such a way; where does so much intensity come from, such painful beauty? And the best answer I can come up with continues to be the same: because the truth of his prose and the resonance of his poetry make it easy to return home, to a man’s house, a woman’s house, to that place where finally we are who we are, where we are able to get closer one to another and we discover the corner that belongs to us in this collective history.”