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A close encounter with a Nobel laureate, José Saramago

18 Marzo 2021
A close encounter with a Nobel laureate, José Saramago Foto: Maria Vittoria Querini Maria Vittoria Querini
“The voice that read these pages wished to be the echo of the conjoined voices of my characters. I don’t have, as it were, more voice than the voices they had. Forgive me if what has seemed little to you, to me is all". José Saramago

“The voice that read these pages wished to be the echo of the conjoined voices of my characters. I don’t have, as it were, more voice than the voices they had. Forgive me if what has seemed little to you, to me is all."[From the speech that José Saramago gave in Stockholm for the Nobel Prize].

The moment I finished his novel All Names, the awarding of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature to José Saramago (1922-2010) was announced. It was the meeting of two extraordinary events, the reading of that book in particular and the victory awarded to the first Portuguese author in the history of the award.
Such a coincidence guided my choices, I continued reading Saramago. Then I wrote him a letter. It was not a conventional letter of homage, rather it concerned the sense of some of its emblematic characters who moved in a narrative structure that was not at all simple, above all for the form and for the very personal use of punctuation.

The first book I read, A Land Called Alentejo (Levantado do chão) was not of easy impact: a bitter story of farm laborers (the Mau-Tempo family who already bore their misfortune in the name) but of such vigor that it seemed to emerge, from the furrows of the plow imprinted on an initial land, the one that Saramago knew most of all, the Alentejo in fact, which was for him the land of childhood and of the irreplaceable discoveries that the wisdom of an illiterate grandfather offered him in telling him about life and dreams.
In that letter, moreover, I praised his Italian translator. It is often not thought that part of an author's success is also due to the translators, to those who convey the phrasing of a text in the language of others. Yes, because, as the writer Fabio Stassi argues, "the translators are musicians, like the interpreter who approaches a score already written but which lacks language, timbre, intonation and touch".

I had no response to that letter which seemed so well thought out to me. In March 2003 Saramago participated in a conference at the University of Roma Tre (where a chair was named after him). I went too. I approached him to tell him of course my pleasure in meeting him but above all to hand over to him, in the doubt that it had not reached him, a copy of my letter.
He was tall and thin, his figure tended to curve as his face hollowed out, his gaze shone melancholy from the large lenses of his glasses. He said nothing to me, only at the end of my little speech, which was very short given the queue of admirers waiting, he murmured a thank you and signed me, with an airy handwriting that surprised me by a man apparently so closed, his Ensaio sobre a Cegueira (Blindness) which I had claimed to read in the original language with great difficulty and which, on that occasion, I had brought with me.

I continued to read his books, more and more amazed by his creative horizon that had expanded to take possession of Ricardo Reis, heteronym of Pessoa, to end his life in that novel of great depth that is The year of Ricardo Reis's death. The year is 1936 and the opening of the book - memorable - is already a premise of death, as if the character, returning to Portugal to disembark in Lisbon from a dark ship going up a muddy river of mud, was ferried there by Charon himself.

had chosen an exile on the volcanic island of Lanzarote, surrounded by lunar landscapes in which he could sink his eyes and mind, because of the landscape he made almost a category of the spirit: "How much landscape, a man can wander around for a lifetime and never find yourself if he was born lost" he expressed himself to the immense plains of the Alentejo.

But why did I ever write to him? Besides, why should I expect an answer? After all, that letter was a reflection, a soliloquy. It was above all a hidden applause for my choices as a reader, fatally attracted to the place where "the character was a teacher and the author his apprentice".

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