I used to try to shake off my mother whenever she tried to make me look more presentable. She’d try to clean a smudge of dirt of my freckled nose and I’d push her away yelling “Leave me alone, Hermione!” She’d try to button my shirt properly and I’d push her away, “I’ve missed a case, but I like it this way.” And I’d walk out the door with one collar near my ear and the other close to my chest. My mother no longer cares how messy I look, or simply learned to look as if she doesn’t care. Ironically to me, inevitably to her, now I’m the one who asks her for help to straighten out a sweater and make sure my shirt peaks out evenly underneath it.
“… the best way of killing a rose is to force it open when it is still only the promise of a bud.”
That was an excerpt of José Saramago’s The Cave. Saramago is a Portuguese writer and Nobel Laureate, who was born in Azinhaga, Iberian Peninsula, in 1922. I learned about his writing in high-school. One of his books was part of the curriculum so, naturally, due to my very cool rebellious teen spirit, I proceeded to ignore it, which was my mo. with any book I HAD to read. A few months after finishing high-school, after I could do nothing to change my paltry grades, I decided to read it. He slowly climbed up the ladder of my favourite writers to the top. It was a small ladder, Enid Blyton was there, as was J.K. Rowling and a Maxim Magazine erotica writer, whose writing helped me a lot in the pre-adsl days. It was still, by no means, a small accomplishment.
Saramago deals with daunting subjects. His most recognized work is Blindness. It paints a vivid image of violence, chaos, and anarchy. In Death with Interruptions, we meet Death as a character who assumes a human form; who lives and speaks. The Gospel According to Jesus Christ battles The Life of Brian for the top spot of most ironic work about the life of Christ, and the seminal idea that spurred The Elephant’s Journey was a metaphor for the meaningless of life.
Heavy themes go well with his writing style. Long sentences and paragraphs are interrupted by innumerous commas. His toolbox of punctuation is emptier than most writers’. It holds only two tools: commas and full stops. Even his dialogue is written without hyphens or quotation marks. A character speaks and then the next. We distinguish the dialogue changing speakers when the comma precedes a capitalized word. We decide if the reader said, exclaimed, asked, stated or inquired. This keeps your attention at a maximum or, if it doesn’t, you’ll call his work unreadable:
“What does reading do, You can learn almost everything from reading, But I read too, So you must know something, Now I’m not so sure, You’ll have to read differently then, How, The same method doesn’t work for everyone, each person has to invent his or her own, whichever suits them best, some people spend their entire lives reading but never get beyond reading the words on the page, they don’t understand that the words are merely stepping stones placed across a fast-flowing river, and the reason they’re there is so that we can reach the farther shore, it’s the other side that matters, Unless, Unless what, Unless those rivers don’t have just two shores but many, unless each reader is his or her own shore, and that shore is the only shore worth reaching.”*
I got to know Saramago well, but only through his writing. I built my own image of him. That image was changed in the first few minutes of José & Pilar. In his library in Lanzarote, before he seats down, Pilar, his wife, stops him. She straightens the collar of his maroon shirt before letting the man I revere go to work.
Miguel Mendes documentary deals, among other things, with the opposition of the public perception of Saramago and the vulnerable man underneath, who almost unwillingly shows himself in public. A man who was pushed away from his country for writing a novel about Jesus Christ is shown marvelling at the rainbow of cards triggered by a win at solitaire. One of the biggest proponents of communism in Portugal and the leading voice for the Junction of Spain and Portugal, shies away from an argument with his wife, not to anger her I assume. There’s a tenderness to this. An added dimension to such a man.
It’s impossible to be unbiased about the quality of the movie. It suffered from some poor editing at times, which made it resemble a YouTube video at times. Very few times, fortunately. Parts of the movie contain some beautiful photograph. You’d have to point the camera at the floor to make Lanzarote look anything but amazing. If I recall correctly, there wasn’t a single handheld shot, which is surprising for a documentary, but I’m not sure if in a good way or bad. I might also point out that it was too long, but I won’t. I was too interested in the subject matter beforehand, to see it as a flaw. For other audiences it might be a flaw. The director suffered from that same problem. He was too interested in what Saramago had to say to leave it out of his movie.
José & Pilar follows Saramago for about two years. In that time period Saramago was working on The Journey of the Elephant. It seems like an adequate treatment to shoot it as a journey. Saramago travels from Spain to Brazil. He visits Mexico and Portugal and returns to Spain, now his home. We accompany him via the eyes of the public, through television broadcasting, voice-overs of opinions of his work, public appearances, etc. We also have access to his other side, more private, more personal. Saramago narrates his thoughts, bore as he would write them for one of his characters, as we follow him before and in the aftermath of his public appearances.
His health dwindles and he struggles with his own mortality. “I’m 83 now, it’s maybe time I start thinking about the future.” He’s an atheist with no fear of death, but when asked of what he still desires, after the fame, the accolades, the Nobel, he answered, “Time.”
He died at the age of 86, on the 18th of June of 2010.
*How the dialogue would probably look with a “normal” punctuation:
“What does reading do?”
“You can learn almost everything from reading.”
“But I read too!”
“So you must know something…”
“Now I’m not so sure.”
“You’ll have to read differently then.”
“The same method doesn’t work for everyone, each person has to invent his or her own, whichever suits them best, some people spend their entire lives reading but never get beyond reading the words on the page, they don’t understand that the words are merely stepping stones placed across a fast-flowing river, and the reason they’re there is so that we can reach the farther shore, it’s the other side that matters.”
“Unless those rivers don’t have just two shores but many, unless each reader is his or her own shore, and that shore is the only shore worth reaching.”
I’m not the messiah, but you can follow me: