José Saramago has the ability to simultaneously seduce and piss off his audience more than perhaps any other living writer. From absurdist premises to an ascetic approach to punctuation, his fiction breeds a kind of intellectual isolation that becomes addictive with each turned page. His novels, for which he received the Nobel Prize in 1998, consist of complex allegories, fantastical scenarios, rewritten histories, and the occasional inside literary joke, each of which is at once stunningly executed and maddeningly disorienting. It comes as a welcome shift, then, that Saramago’s most recent release,
, is a work of nonfiction, an overview of contemporary society that offers clarity and sobering directness without sacrificing any of the author’s love/hate appeal.
The book presents an intelligent twist on the blogs-turned-books phenomenon, proving that the two mediums are compatible beyond social curios and cultural gimmicks. Made up of blog entries written by Saramago between September 2008 and August 2009 — yes, even an 87-year-old, Marxist, Nobel laureate has a blog now, too — The Notebook portrays a different kind of writer, one who remains effortlessly analytical even during his most indignant outbursts (of which there are many here).
The immediacy of the format suits him well, too, inviting an impressionistic style that is refreshingly short on polish or forethought. Each entry is pointed, at times barbed, with Saramago’s candid opinions on religion, leftism, American politics, as well as famous literary figures like Jorge Luis Borges and Carlos Fuentes. He imparts pieces of wisdom and reflection — not all of it agreeable, not all of it compelling — in his musings, while exploring everything from mortality to utopia along the way.
Saramago was a journalist for most of his early career — much of it under Salazar’s dictatorship in Portugal — and it’s his seasoned eye for politics that most vocally comes through. He can be contentious in his critiques, but engagingly so — one day he sneers at George W. Bush for “[presenting] himself to humanity in the grotesque pose of a cowboy who has inherited the world and mistaken it for a herd of cattle,” the next day he assesses Berlusconi’s inexplicable electoral successes with near-academic restraint, and later he lets loose on the left for “[having] no fucking idea of the world it’s living in.” Some of his political predilections may not agree with certain readers, but it’s the critical approach through which he engages each subject that makes it interesting to read nonetheless. The result is a portrait of a philosopher who is as hotheaded and bleakly funny as he is shrewd.
For all its ire, The Notebook is framed by an optimistic outlook. Saramago opens with “a love letter” to his native Lisbon and concludes with a positive postscript: “If one day or another I feel the need to comment or opine upon something or other, I may come and beat a path to The Notebook, that place where I can most express myself according to my desires.” Whatever the case may be, The Notebook is a unique glimpse into the candid ruminations of one of the most talented living writers. It won’t clarify any muddied questions about Saramago’s fiction, but it will certainly offer a window into the intellectual method behind his creative madness.