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Miracle writer

Asked to name a Portuguese writer, most of us will throw up our hands. Two earlier masters, Eça de Queiroz and Fernando Pessoa, deserve to be better known in this country: but maybe that's asking too much As for contemporary Portuguese authors, there are two at the forefront, Antonio Lobo Antunes and José Saramago.

Bondo Wyszpolski

We're going to talk about Saramago for three reasons. His novel, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (Harvest Books, $12.95) has just been issued in paperback; his friend and fellow countryman, the film director Fernando Lopes, spoke with me about him while we drank espressos in Vienna a little while ago and the third reason is that, for a man who is acknowledged throughout Europe as one of the most important writers of our time, Saramago is too little known in the United States.

The Gospel According to Jesus Christ follows Baltasar and Blimunda and The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, but the 72-year-old author has published another half-dozen acclaimed novels, still waiting to be carried over into English, and his complete works include books that have been translated into over 20 languages. Saramago has won numerous literary prizes; I see his novels on the best seller lists in Brazil; and yet when I look into Southern California bookstores I'm lucky to find one copy of his latest work. The Torrance Public Library, for example, carries neither Baltasar nor Ricardo Reis, and frankly this is an embarrassment. And it will be all the more an embarrassment if their author should win the Nobel Prize which I believe he will, and probably even this year.

The Gospel According to Jesus Christ is hardly an alluring title, and another life of Jesus -- with all due respect -- seems like a dry subject for a novel since the basic parameters have long been prescribed and the soil worked over as it were. But Saramago has a gift for words (as does his translator, Giovanni Pontiero), and, if you'll excuse the irreverence, Saramago turns water into wine.

The familiar landmarks are here, the Holy Birth, Joseph plying his trade as a carpenter, King Herod's massacre of innocent children in Bethlehem, the various trials and tribulations of the young Messiah and the emergence of his miraculous powers, and so on.

Like its predecessors from the hand of Saramago, the book sparkles and glows with its creator's accomplished touch. Also, without ever becoming indiscreet, the work is pervaded by a sense of authorial mirth. The humor is subtle and understated, and it has the wryness one might find in the Brazilian Jorge Amado, except that Saramago hems it in a bit better than Amado, a man of grand gestures but with a propensity to become too effusive. And while Amado can paint a grandly romantic love scene, it often lingers on the edge of the comical, whereas Saramago keeps the door shut, so to speak, installing a spirituality and dispensing a tenderness across the page when he brings together characters who harbor feelings of mutual affection.

We've seen this rendering of quiet passion between Baltasar and Blimunda as well as between the young Marcenda and Ricardo Reis, and it's a delight, a gift to the reader, to find it here, particularly during the several pages in which Jesus is taught the pleasures of love in the arms of Mary of Magdala. The lines are chaste, more or less, but if these passages offend it might be because the writing itself is like a caress, and so sensuously crafted.

But his ability to convey the emotions of love is not the sole reason why Saramago is a great writer. His characters may be enigmatic, but they are also profound, and they do not shy away from confronting one another or their own selves in their search for truth and understanding.

Towards the end of the Gospel, Jesus, God, and Pastor (the devil) are sitting in a becalmed boat in the middle of a lake in a dense fog. Jesus keeps pressing Him, and so God keeps reciting a list of martyrs who will later die in the name of both the Son and the Father, God and Jesus, and the litany of names and causes goes on for pages. And it's told in a gliding, seamless style like this:

"Crusades, what are they, and why do You refer to them in the past if they have yet to take place. Remember, I am time, for Me all that will happen has happened already, all that has happened goes on happening every day. Tell me more about the crusades. Well, My son, this region where we now find ourselves, including Jerusalem, and other territories to the north and west, will be conquered by the followers of the god I mentioned, who has been slow in coming, the followers on our side will do everything possible to expel them from the places you have traveled and I constantly frequent. You haven 't done much to rid this land of the Romans. Don't distract Me, I'm talking about the future. Go on, then. Furthermore, you were born, you lived, and you died here. I'm not dead yet. That's irrelevant, because as I've just explained to you, for Me what will happen and what has happened are the same thing, and please stop interrupting, otherwise I'll say no more. All right, I'll be quiet. Now then, future generations will refer to this area as the holy places, because you were born, lived, and died here..."

Some readers may suspect that Saramago's dispensing of paragraphs and quotation marks will make for a tumultuous ride, but in the fact the opposite is true. Real conversations merge and interact and do not exist in tiny bubbles that hover over our heads. Figuring out who's talking in this book is not as difficult as it may seem.

Secondly, some readers will prick up their ears at what may appear to be unholy bantering, and accuse the author of making a mockery of the Good Man and His Good Book.

Sorry, this isn't a hatchet job. Even the above exchange reveals something of how the left hand comments on the right and vice versa. The Jesus we find in this Gospel is a young man awakening to his destiny, and forever raising an eyebrow of doubt along the way. He has needs and physical urges just like the rest of us, and Saramago never does a Ken-and-Barbie number on him and Mary Magdalene, a move that would only deaden our sympathies.

Theirs may be the ultimate Holy Family, but Joseph is plagued by recurrent nightmares; and Jesus, too, has horrible dreams, the counterpart to Joseph's, the causes and effects of which pose innumerable questions about the transference of guilt and the sins of the father being inherited by the son. Mother Mary, too, has her bouts with what are either apparitions or hallucinations or ghosts, and her next born, James, can't disguise his displays of sibling rivalry.

The story ends where it always ends, with our Lord dangling from a cross in the hot sun. But even here, even in the final lines which contain a stinging irony as well as images and words that may utterly surprise, Saramago is relentless in his mastery and his magic.

The Gospel According to Jesus Christ is an enchanting, thoughtful, amusing, and provocative novel. Like its subject, it will turn sceptics into true believers.

Now, what about José Saramago the man? "José Saramago started his career as a writer very late in his life," explains Fernando Lopes. "He had always been connected with publishing; he spent 20 years of his life publishing other writers' books."

Lopes is a Portuguese film director, based in Lisbon, whose recent work, O Fio do Horizonte (The Edge of the Horizon), was shown in Vienna during the film festival I attended there in October, when this interview was recorded.

Although we talked about Lopes' half-dozen films -- plus his friendship with such writers as Antonio Tabucchi, his 1966 visit to the United States when he stayed briefly in the home of Jean Renoir, and his next filmic project, an exploration of the village north of Lisbon where he grew up and where his mother still lives -- he heart of our casual discussion focused on the extraordinary life and work of the now 72-year-old writer who is among the most acclaimed in both Portugal and Europe.

"Secretly," Lopes continues, "he was writing also." And if Saramago was doing so without calling undue attention to himself, it was because the Salazar dictatorship (1932-68) kept a tight rein on freedom of the press. Only after the bloodless coup of 1974 was there a real chance at individual expression without fear of personal reprisal.

Although Saramago had published his first novel in the 1940s, a second (Manual de Pintura e Caligrafia) did not appear until 1977. Another work, Levantado de Chão, which the Spanish film director Mario Camus is beginning to make into a movie, was published in 1980.

"Then, two or three years later," recounts Lopes, "he published Memorial do Convento, the famous one. Everyone was really surprised to read the book. It was quite a shock to have it. Most of us had known him for a long, long time. I couldn't imagine Saramago writing that book."

It's one of the finest surrealistic romances of our time. Baltasar and Blimunda, as it's called in English begins in Lisbon in 1711, and these are the years of the atrocious Inquisition, when God must be napping. Baltasar, who is 26, returns from battle minus a left hand; he meets Blimunda who is 19, and whose mother is condemned for heresy, publicly flogged, and exiled to Angola for eight years.

When Baltasar helps a certain Padre Bartolomeu Lourenço to build a flying machine, the book begins to acquire a mantle of enchantment, and it henceforth hovers in its own ether between reality and dream. The great musician, Domenico Scarlatti, also appears and takes part in this secret project -- and the subsequent flight, as brief as it is, buzzing the towers of medieval Lisbon, is as wonderful as anything out of a childhood romance.

Yes, I tell Lopes, it's a fabulous book. And Saramago -- I see from the best seller charts -- is quite popular in Brazil.

"Not only," Lopes replies. "He's very popular in Spain and Italy, also in France. And he's starting to be well known in Germany.

"But mainly in Spain," Lopes continues, "where he's almost considered a Spanish writer. They want him also."

And now, thanks to a narrow-minded Portuguese minister of culture, they've got him. But more on this shortly.

Baltasar and Blimunda are still flying high: a few years ago the Italian composer Azio Corghi turned Saramago's monumental work into an opera, which goes by the title of Blimunda.

The opera was produced by La Scala, in Milan, three years ago," Lopes says, "and since then it's been performed in France and Portugal.

"I once tried to convince Saramago to let me produce Baltasar and Blimunda as a film," Lopes tells me, produce, not direct, he emphasizes. "You know Fellini? Fellini wrote about the book. He loved that book very much. And he said, "Probably it's the only book I read in the last years I would like to make a film from."

Lopes tried to get in touch with Fellini to see if he would indeed want to direct the film. And because Fellini tended towards lavishly made films, Lopes knew it would be an expensive project. "I asked quite a lot of Spanish producers, and Spanish television was very, very interested.

"So I went to see Saramago at his home in Lisbon," Lopes says; "and, since we know each other well, I said, 'José, will you allow me to make connections and conduct all things possible so that we can make a film from your novel?"

And Saramago told him no.

"I don't want to see the film," he said to Lopes. "'When I die you will discuss (the project) with my daughter; and I'll leave some notes saying if anyone wants to make the film to please contact Fernando.' So..."

We then talked about The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis which, like Baltasar and Blimunda, is available in this country from Harcourt Brace Publishers.

"I like that book very much," says Lopes. "It's probably the book I prefer from Saramago."

Writing in The Nation last May, novelist and critic Ilan Stavans said this of the work: "I rank it among the best novels I've ever read, a sweet masterpiece set in Lisbon in 1936." Ricardo Reis is the imaginary alter-ego of the poet Fernando Pessoa (the Iberian Peninsula's T.S. Eliott, and he returns to Portugal from Brazil shortly after Pessoa's death. Imagine, if you will, stunning conversations between an author's literary creation and the ghost of the author. Like with Baltasar and Blimunda the book is suffused with Old World magic realism, and Saramago is truly in the New World company of Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the too-little-known Brazilian, Osman Lins.

"As you have seen in my film, O Fio do Horizonte, says Lopes, "there are lots of 'quotations' about Fernando Pessoa and Ricardo Reis. Remember the scene in the morgue? The doctor is performing the autopsy, and his name is Ricardo Lopes, Lopes is my name and Ricardo is sort of a tribute to Ricardo Reis."

I mention to Lopes that the third book of Saramago's available in English is The Gospel According to Jesus Christ.

"Gospel was quite a problem," Lopes replies with a frown, "That's why he left Portugal and lives in Spain.

"There was a very, very terrible politic (discussion) between Saramago and the Catholic Church," and this came about after Portugal's minister of culture attempted to bar the novel from competing for the European Literature Prize, fearing that its subject matter -- a retelling of the life of Jesus Christ -- would cause an uproar at home. Which it did. And then it was published in Spain and, well, it must have been one hell of a fracas with cudgels and jawbones wielded left and right.

Saramago accused the minister of culture (and probably others in the government) of censorship, and in turn this broke open another interminable argument, between Saramago -- who is a member of the committee of the Portuguese Communist Party -- and his detractors who did not fail to remind him about censorship in the Soviet

Union and in Eastern Bloc countries. A weak argument, apparently, because Saramago has always been openly critical of his party where and when he disagreed with it.

But the pettiness in Portugal got to him. "I am leaving," he said, "and I'm going to live in Spain."

At some point here I asked, is Saramago allowed to visit the United States?

"Well, let's put it frankly," says Lopes. "You know you have to sign that you are not a Communist when you go to the American embassy."

Yes, but?

Lopes didn't know. "Well, he's not a man to travel a lot anyway. He's never been in the United States. He travels around Europe, mainly Spain, Italy, France and he went to Brazil several times and to Latin America because he was invited. But not the United States." Lopes adds that it would be impossible for Saramago to deny his Communist affiliations.

"But it would be quite interesting to get him in the States -- because you will write about him."

True. I might even write about him if he doesn't come to the States.

"He can be very warm with you if you meet him," Lopes says. "And quite cold if he takes a disliking to you. By the way, with his friends he's a really charming and very warm person. And then we discuss everything. Politics, football; everything. He has a lot of interests."

Apparently, you'll only find Saramago in Lisbon when he goes to visit his daughter or to attend to his business concerns. As befits the literary magic that he is, Saramago is living on a small volcanic island in the Atlantic Ocean. Which brings us to the Lanzarote diaries.

"He is now publishing, almost every year, a sort of diary," says Lopes though, as they're described to me what they sound like is a cross between one's journals and one's memoirs. These volumes contain "lots of ideas on literature, politics and about being old. It's quite interesting about what he says about his age -- the way we lose some control of ourselves, our bodies. Things he could do," Lopes recalls from the books, "he cannot now. A lot of reflections on life; all the senses of life, even interior life.

Some of the best pages in his diary, probably the best, are the things he writes about his wife, because Pilar is 30 years younger than he is."

I remember a line in the Baltimore Sun, written by an uncredited correspondent (in the clipping I have) who visited the Saramago household in 1991. "All over the living room are photographs of his second wife, Pilar, the young Spanish journalist he married five years ago."

"He really writes marvelously about his passion for his wife, "Lopes continues, "which one would not expect from a man like Saramago. It's very moving that this man still has that capacity left to love that woman... Indeed, he confronts his old age with the energy of his passion -- and there is a dilemma. He knows that he is older, very much older than she is," and if the natural order of life and death bears itself out, Pilar Saramago will survive her husband by many years.

These Lanzarote diaries, as Lopes calls them, sound spellbinding, and one hopes, one really hopes, that Harcourt Brace will do for Saramago what they've done for Italo Calvino, a writer in the same intellectual ballpark, and bring these out -- without delay -- in English.

However, one is not really surprised to learn of Saramago' s grand passion for his wife and his ability to express it so acutely and so lovingly. Reviewing the author's previous novel in The New York Times critic Herbert Mitgang wrote this of the 48-year-old Ricardo Reis:

"He falls in love with a 23-year-old woman, who has a deformed arm... When Ricardo Reis touches the young woman's broken fingers, the author leaves a greater romantic impression than most physical encounters by lesser novelists."

And these tender, heartfelt moments are to be found in all of José Saramago's books.

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