The Wonder of José Saramago

Even if you disagree with his politics, how can you not be inspired by José Saramago? The man turns 88 this year and is still a prolific writer. The Notebook, his collection of blog posts from September 2008 to August 2009, may not be as compelling as his novels—few written works are—but it’s an entertaining and thought-provoking compendium of short essays on Saramago’s favorite topics: the need for strong government; his fellow Iberian authors; the folly that is organized religion; his admiration for Barack Obama, and for the Americans who voted for him; and his contempt for the current Italian Prime Minister, whom he refers to in one post as Berlusconi-thing. There’s nothing subtle about these pieces. Saramago has strong opinions, and you’ll either agree or disagree. But the arguments he makes are funny, often scathing, and beautifully written.

While he maintained his blog, this almost-nonagenarian also found time to write two new novels. One, The Elephant’s Journey, comes out in English translation later this year. The other, Cain, is already out in Spain and his native Portugal and will probably be available in English—translated, no doubt, by the marvelous Margaret Jull Costa—sometime soon. I have no idea, of course, whether these novels are any good. But that Saramago continues to write, and write well—his post-Nobel novels, including The Cave, Seeing, and Death with Interruptions, are among the most imaginative tales anyone has written in the last ten years—astounds me. I’m sure the new works will be just as interesting as their recent predecessors.

Whenever I feel my motivation flagging, I think of Saramago and flip through his books, and my desire to write returns. In an early blog post, he describes the icy silence with which fellow leftists greeted his criticisms of them in an Argentinean newspaper. “Poor thing,” he imagines them saying. “What can you expect at his age?” One might also ask, What can you expect of anyone at that age? With the volume and quality of Saramago’s late-career writings, he provides a simple answer to both questions: A lot.


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