The Point
Last updated: 05 March 2020.

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Raised from the Ground

 

                                    

 

Anne Edmonds reviews a novel by the Portuguese socialist writer, Jose Saramago

 

It wasn't until Jose Saramago won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1998 that his novels were translated into English. Born in a village of landless peasants in  northwest Portugal in 1922, he avoided real agrarian poverty as his parents moved to Lisbon when he was two; but his family were always poor - he was at grammar school for two years but had to leave as  academic education was too costly. He trained as a mechanic at technical school where compulsory literature and French classes inspired him to self educate via Lisbon's libraries. After years as a mechanic and foundry worker, he briefly edited a Lisbon newspaper during the Carnation Revolution of 1974 which ended the long dictatorship of Salazar and his successor, Caetano. But a counter-revolutionary coup a few months later meant he lost his job - he had joined the Communist party in 1969, remaining a member until his death - amongst the flowers on his coffin were tributes from Fidel and Raoul Castro.

After his sacking, Saramago, already a published poet and playwright, decided to make his living as a novelist: long visits to his grandparents during his childhood and youth had kept him in touch with rural poverty so he went to live in the poorest region of Portugal, the Alentejo, south of Lisbon. His observations on the lives, working conditions and political activity from the early 20th century to the start of the centre-left parliamentary government of Mario Soares, elected in 1976, are the basis of his second novel "Raised from the Ground" 1980 (Raised...).

The foreword to Raised... is a quotation from the Portuguese writer Almeida Garrett:

"I ask the political economists and the moralists if they have ever calculated the number of individuals who must be condemned to misery, overwork, demoralisation, degradation, rank ignorance, overwhelming misfortune and utter penury in order to produce one rich man".

Perhaps this explains why Raised..., the most directly political of Saramago's sixteen novels, was not published in English until 2012, fourteen years after his Nobel award - the era of Thatcher and New Labour being unlikely to appreciate its socialist message while the financial crash of 2008 (Saramago commented "This shows Marx was right") has created a climate more inclined to criticise capitalism, albeit with insufficient harshness.

The discovery of Raised... was a wonderful surprise to me as I believed I had read all Saramago's novels - reading it for the first time was inspiring.

The novel tells the story of the Mao-Tempo (Bad-Weather) family.  We first meet them trudging through a thunderstorm, their ramshackle furniture on a donkey cart, hoping to reach the hovel that will become their next home before nightfall; The father, a boozy cobbler, aims to set up a shop to support his downtrodden wife and baby son, Joao, the novels main character; Joao is distinguished by bright blue eyes which have occasionally appeared in Mao-Tempo new-borns over the generations, raising doubts in their fathers’ about their mothers' fidelity. But these eyes result from an unpunished crime - the rape of an Alentejo girl by a mediaeval German invader whose army conquered the region and who became the owner of the latifundio and the peasants who toiled on it.

The Mao-Tempos move frequently but become landless labourers never escaping the latifundia and its oppressive landlords - Saramago calls them a constantly changing version of the name Berto - but whether Norberto, Alberto, Lamberto, Gilberto. Dagoberto, Adalberto.....the list continues but the oppression and exploitation don't change during over half a century in which Portugal overthrows the monarchy, becomes a republic then a right-wing dictatorship, World War 1 is followed by World War 2, but none of this affects the latifundia where labourers toil through freezing winters and baking summers cutting cork, planting rice, tilling the soil; wages go down, never up  and "winter passes in grand banquets and feasts of thistles, dockweeds and watercress with a little fried onion, a few grains of rice and a crust of bread" while children repeat "Mama, I'm hungry" and families are fined for collecting acorns.

The Bertos are backed in their oppression by the PIDE ( Portugal's Mossad), the Guards, a militia/policeforce and the church; the priest is always called Father Agamades, but whether he is short and fat or tall and thin, old or young, he is always on the side of the latifundia never his "flock".

Things begin to change when left- wing leaflets are spread over the latifundia and the workers demand a guaranteed daily wage and an eight-hour day, backing their demands with strikes. Strike-breakers from the equally impoverished north arrive in the Alentejo and Joao Mal-Tempo serves a six month prison sentence in Lisbon, including thirty days in solitary and the ‘statue’ torture - 72 hours motionless, the slightest movement giving the PIDE the excuse for a beating up - this for refusing to reveal the names of his fellow activists. But other comrades in the prison teach him to read and write ready for the revolution to come. To avoid raising wages on the latifundia, the Bertos decide to stop tilling the land hoping to starve the workers into submission; the workers respond with mass occupations which merge into the 1974 revolution. Joao doesn't live to see it - Raised... ends with his death and just the hope of a better future for his children and grandchildren. Saramago remained cynical about Portugal's development under the Soares government.

This cynicism proved well-founded when his 1991 novel, The Gospel according to Jesus Christ, was censored by the government which prevented Saramago entering it for the European Literary Prize - the Catholic church objected to its portrayal of Jesus as a confused human-being living "in sin" with Mary Magdalene, God as an amoral bureaucrat, and the Devil as a sympathetic clown (rather like Andy Hamilton in BBC Radio 4's Old Harry's Game). His next novel, Baltasar and Blaimunda in 1982, made his atheism and anti-clericalism even clearer - set in 18th century Portugal, it describes  King Joao V's building of the extravagant convent of Majra with unpaid forced labour while his peasant and worker subjects were dying of starvation. Faced with such opposition Saramago left Portugal and spent the rest of his life in Lanzarote, home of his Spanish wife, Pilar, to whom all his subsequent novels were dedicated.

Saramago's penultimate novel, The Elephant's Journey, 2008, is also a fine achievement being as witty, poetic and perceptive in its analysis of human behaviour as all his previous work - he was 85 years old when it was published .It too is based on a historical event; in 1551 King Joao 111 sent the elephant as a present to the Hapsburg Empire's heir, Archduke Maximilian, which involved a journey from Lisbon to Vienna, following Hannibal's winter crossing of the Alps. The main characters, the wily elephant and his mahout, a classic chancer, trick the credulous clergy, aristocracy and people, who turn out to wonder at the strange beast, into believing it can perform god-inspired miracles. The novel is dedicated "To Pilar, who wouldn't let me die". But she had to in June 2010 : Saramago died just a few weeks before he was due to speak at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

 

  Jose Saramago

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