18 June 2010


I had just finished reading this note about the New Yorker's 20 Under 40 List with its prejudice toward youthful fictioneers when I headed to the NY Times website to read the day's headlines and discovered Jose Saramago has died at age 87. I nearly screamed out, "Too young! Too young!"

It's been a few years since I last read Saramago, simply because other things kept grabbing my reading time, but I will forever be grateful to the Nobel Prize committee for bringing him to the world's attention, because I doubt I would have encountered his work otherwise. I read Blindness soon after it was released in the U.S. to see if the latest Nobel Prize winner was my sort of writer, and it was a shattering experience. Because I came to it with only basic expectations and knew little about it, I was in just the right frame of mind to be shocked and awakened by its visceral power. No other book had ever so powerfully made the fragility of human civilization so clear.

I went back and found everything else I could get my hands on by him. (My copy of Baltasar and Blimunda was discarded by the New Hampshire State Prison, and I almost brought it back to the prison and said, "No, you need this. Keep it.") The History of the Siege of Lisbon, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, The Stone Raft, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, All the Names, The Cave -- I devoured these books, one after another, their voices melding in my head over the course of a year or two of hungry reading. I have few memories of the books individually, but ghostly memories of their voices and characters, and that seems appropriate to them, so filled with what is otherworldly, so beautiful in their terrors and aching in their loves.

And so I imagine Faulkner and Kafka sitting together at a wobbly table in a café in an unnamed city built with thousand-year-old stones, drinking something locally distilled, a little tipsy and loquacious, twilight setting in, and so they help each other stand up and discover themselves skipping down the street and humming a tune and giggling until they get to an alley and they realize it's dark and time to go home, and melancholy sets in, and they stare up at the sky in silence for a moment and they see the stars through industrial haze, and there's a new one up there, shimmering, and at the same time, without even realizing it, without knowing why, the two men whisper a word whose meaning they don't understand, Saramago, and then walk home, slowly, in opposite directions through the endless darkness of night.