God is the silence of the universe and man is the cry that gives meaning to that silence
Jose Saramago (16 November 1922 – 18 June 2010)
The mortal remains of José Saramago were cremated this weekend, with part of the ashes to be spread at his birthplace in Azinhaga, Portugal, as well as in Lanzarote, Spain, his home for much of the last two decades. The geographic, historical and linguistic affinities between the two Iberian neighbors helped make Saramago a very celebrated and beloved figure here in Spain.
His works are not as widely read in the English-speaking world. I can think of no better introduction to José Saramago and his world than the talk he delivered on December 7, 1998 when he was honored with the Nobel Prize for Literature. Below I am inserting the first paragraph of the Nobel lecture, entitled How Characters Became the Masters and the Author Their Apprentice, followed by a link to the Nobel Prize organization website where you can read the rest.
In this extraordinary passage he evokes the memory of the person he describes as the wisest man he ever met, an illiterate swineherd and storyteller, his grandfather, a man so enamored of the beauty of this world, that when he felt death approaching, he went out to say goodbye to the trees in his yard, "one by one, embracing them and crying because he knew he wouldn't see them again".
The wisest man I ever knew in my whole life could not read or write. At four o'clock in the morning, when the promise of a new day still lingered over French lands, he got up from his pallet and left for the fields, taking to pasture the half-dozen pigs whose fertility nourished him and his wife. My mother's parents lived on this scarcity, on the small breeding of pigs that after weaning were sold to the neighbours in our village of Azinhaga in the province of Ribatejo. Their names were Jerónimo Meirinho and Josefa Caixinha and they were both illiterate. In winter when the cold of the night grew to the point of freezing the water in the pots inside the house, they went to the sty and fetched the weaklings among the piglets, taking them to their bed. Under the coarse blankets, the warmth from the humans saved the little animals from freezing and rescued them from certain death. Although the two were kindly people, it was not a compassionate soul that prompted them to act in that way: what concerned them, without sentimentalism or rhetoric, was to protect their daily bread, as is natural for people who, to maintain their life, have not learnt to think more than is needful. Many times I helped my grandfather Jerónimo in his swineherd's labour, many times I dug the land in the vegetable garden adjoining the house, and I chopped wood for the fire, many times, turning and turning the big iron wheel which worked the water pump. I pumped water from the community well and carried it on my shoulders. Many times, in secret, dodging from the men guarding the cornfields, I went with my grandmother, also at dawn, armed with rakes, sacking and cord, to glean the stubble, the loose straw that would then serve as litter for the livestock. And sometimes, on hot summer nights, after supper, my grandfather would tell me: "José, tonight we're going to sleep, both of us, under the fig tree". There were two other fig trees, but that one, certainly because it was the biggest, because it was the oldest, and timeless, was, for everybody in the house, the fig tree. More or less by antonomasia, an erudite word that I met only many years after and learned the meaning of... Amongst the peace of the night, amongst the tree's high branches a star appeared to me and then slowly hid behind a leaf while, turning my gaze in another direction I saw rising into view like a river flowing silent through the hollow sky, the opal clarity of the Milky Way, the Road to Santiago as we still used to call it in the village. With sleep delayed, night was peopled with the stories and the cases my grandfather told and told: legends, apparitions, terrors, unique episodes, old deaths, scuffles with sticks and stones, the words of our forefathers, an untiring rumour of memories that would keep me awake while at the same time gently lulling me. I could never know if he was silent when he realised that I had fallen asleep or if he kept on talking so as not to leave half-unanswered the question I invariably asked into the most delayed pauses he placed on purpose within the account: "And what happened next?" Maybe he repeated the stories for himself, so as not to forget them, or else to enrich them with new detail. At that age and as we all do at some time, needless to say, I imagined my grandfather Jerónimo was master of all the knowledge in the world. When at first light the singing of birds woke me up, he was not there any longer, had gone to the field with his animals, letting me sleep on. Then I would get up, fold the coarse blanket and barefoot — in the village I always walked barefoot till I was fourteen — and with straws still stuck in my hair, I went from the cultivated part of the yard to the other part, where the sties were, by the house. My grandmother, already afoot before my grandfather, set in front of me a big bowl of coffee with pieces of bread in and asked me if I had slept well. If I told her some bad dream, born of my grandfather's stories, she always reassured me: "Don't make much of it, in dreams there's nothing solid". At the time I thought, though my grandmother was also a very wise woman, she couldn't rise to the heights grandfather could, a man who, lying under a fig tree, having at his side José his grandson, could set the universe in motion just with a couple of words. It was only many years after, when my grandfather had departed from this world and I was a grown man, I finally came to realise that my grandmother, after all, also believed in dreams. There could have been no other reason why, sitting one evening at the door of her cottage where she now lived alone, staring at the biggest and smallest stars overhead, she said these words: "The world is so beautiful and it is such a pity that I have to die". She didn't say she was afraid of dying, but that it was a pity to die, as if her hard life of unrelenting work was, in that almost final moment, receiving the grace of a supreme and last farewell, the consolation of beauty revealed. She was sitting at the door of a house like none other I can imagine in all the world, because in it lived people who could sleep with piglets as if they were their own children, people who were sorry to leave life just because the world was beautiful; and this Jerónimo, my grandfather, swineherd and story-teller, feeling death about to arrive and take him, went and said goodbye to the trees in the yard, one by one, embracing them and crying because he knew he wouldn't see them again.
From this evocative climb up his genealogical tree, Saramago goes on to gently shake out the leading characters of his works to describe how much he learned from them. In the rest of the Nobel lecture, he gives a moving tribute to those characters, the masters who apprenticed him, and concludes by saying that he only "wished to be the echo of the conjoined voices of my characters. I don't have, as it were, more voice than the voices they had. Forgive me if what has seemed little to you, to me is all".
Hopefully this will provide a glimpse of what made so many millions cherish José Saramago for his imagination, warmth, humor, irony and compassion. To see the rest of his Nobel lecture, click here. The English translation is by Tim Crosfield and Fernando Rodrigues (©THE NOBEL FOUNDATION 1998).
Adeus, maestro. Obrigadinho.