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José Saramago, Communist

Mitchell Abidor
February 16, 2013

by Mitchell Abidor

As the 20th century faded into the 21st , two writers with communist backgrounds won the Nobel Prize in Literature: José Saramago in 1998, a member of the Portuguese Communist Party since 1969, and Elfride Jelinek in 2004, a member of the Austrian party from 1974-1991 whose oeuvre was largely produced while she was still a member. Though both were novelists who were communists (or ex-communists, though not repentant), neither could fairly be described as communist novelists.

Jelinek (b. 1946), a harsh critic of Austrian society, is the author of novels that revolve around male-female relations, around the fatal and, for her, fated combination of sex, violence, and degradation. Saramago (1922-2010), best known for his novel Blindness, is the author of dystopic allegories and novels that explore the nature of identity. The Nobel Prize committee spoke of his "parables sustained by imagination, compassion, and irony," and how his "oeuvre resembles a series of projects, with each one more or less disavowing the others but all involving a new attempt to come to grips with illusory reality." In both cases, overt politics, for Anglophones at least, were hidden, though they were crucial to both writers. Since Saramago’s death in 2010, we have had the publication of two political books: first Notebook, his commentaries on the events of the day, including his particularly acid take on Israel’s actions, and now the tardy translation of his 1980 novel, Raised from the Ground.

Raised from the Ground (Houghton Miflin Harcourt, 2012, 365 pages), which recounts the story of the Mau-Tempo family from the founding of the Portuguese Republic in 1910 until the land occupations that followed the Revolution of the Carnations in 1974, is not only a brilliantly drawn portrait of Portugal as it slowly evolved from monarchy to revolution, it is also the great post-war communist novel, one that will be unlikely to have any future competition. If it lacks the self-conscious gravitas of André Malraux’s 1933 classic, La Conditon Humaine, it nevertheless communicates with great wit, style, and sympathy the growing to class consciousness of the poor of the Portuguese countryside and the role of communists in helping them along this road.

The beauty of the novel resides in Saramago’s ability to employ the literary strategies he has come to be known for to produce a non-didactic, non-hortatory portrait of workers finding their way to liberation, one slow step at a time. The prose is sinuous, the narrative voice effortlessly changing from third person to first, from objective narration to dialogue, from point of view to point of view, from future to present to past, never losing its string, carrying the reader into the lives of the Mau-Tempos and their neighbors.

The Mau-Tempos (the name means "bad weather") are an unremarkable family of laborers on a latifundio (a plantation or landed estate) in the Alentejo region of southern Portugal. Though the first family member we meet, Domingos, is a drunkard who abandons a family he was unable to support, the family is otherwise unremarkable. Not for Saramago the misérabilisme or positive heroes of the committed novel of the Stalinist heyday: The family struggles to survive daily life, struggles to understand the forces that confront them, and there is neither anything baroquely bizarre about them or overly noble. They are simple people leading simple lives: no love affairs, no drama. In their simplicity they persist against the forces that oppose their ability to live decently, forces personified in interchangeable landowners named Norberto and Gilberto and Berto and Lamberto and Alberto and Angilberto, who tell their peasants "you will work for me from dawn to dusk all the days of your life, in accordance with my wishes and my needs, on the other days you can do as you please."

The Mau-Tempos are proud workers, and with the exception of a failed attempt by a family member to emigrate to France, they don’t seek to escape their lot: in latifundista Portugal they "were born to work, like good to average livestock, they leave or are dragged out of their mother’s womb, left to grow upon way or another, it doesn’t really matter, what matters is that they should be strong and good with their hands." But however degraded this view of them, they never lose their dignity, and over the course of the novel, over the course of the century and the vicissitudes of Portuguese history, they and their fellows move from inchoate and spontaneous demands for higher wages and better conditions, to a fight for shorter hours, to taking over the land they’ve worked for others, discovering along the way communist militancy.

Except by the authorities, the word "communist" is never applied to any of the characters or activities in this book as it quietly extols the heroism of the clandestine party, which only became legal in Portugal in 1974. Nor are there any great ideological debates: reality is the only motor needed to find the way to the party. Suddenly, Antonio Mau-Tempo is going out at night with friends — his comrades — for reasons his wife doesn’t ask about, to meetings only he — and we — know to be meetings of a communist cell, where the concern for security is so great that the new member is told to also put his hat on the ground crown up at meetings, so no one can ever learn his name.

With no great ceremony, Saramago makes clear the heroism of the party militants, the risks they take transporting propaganda, placing it under rocks so others can find it, their dignity under arrest, their camaraderie in prison, and the brutality of the PIDE, the Salazar regime’s political police. Though it is almost de rigueur to condemn communism and communists, it should never be forgotten that for the rank-and-file communist in a country like Portugal, party activism meant great risk of arrest, deportation, torture, or death.

This is a novel set in the countryside, where nature rules life, where animals and insects are granted intelligence and wisdom at times greater than ours, for "we don't have the keen vision of red kites;" where hares are killed by putting pepper on newspapers, which causes the hares to sneeze and fatally bang their heads against a stone, a method that never fails because "they’re so curious that they can’t see a newspaper without wanting to read it;" where fireflies serve as a guard of honor lighting a new father to his home to see his child. And it is not an omniscient narrator who witnesses the torture death of a communist at the hands of PIDE agents, but ants who raise their heads and "know by heart [the victim’s] face, the color of his hair and eyes, the shape of his ear, the dark arc of his eyebrow, the faint shadow at the corner of his mouth, and later, back in the ants' nest, they will weave long stories for the enlightenment of future generations, because it is useful for the young to know what happens out there in the world."

Which can also be said of Raised from the Ground, a novel written at the time of communism's last great moment, with Eurocommunism a strong presence, the French Communists about to enter the government, the Italian Communists always a hair from power, and the Portuguese party a driving force in that country's shedding of its fascist past. Saramago's portrayal of simple people joining the struggle serves now as a reminder that communists were not fighting to establish gulags: they were brave people who put their lives at risk to end exploitation. Aside from its pure literary pleasures, the novel's goal was to prevent the Portuguese and their young from ever forgetting the struggles along the road to modernity and freedom, and that "it's not enough that they have weapons and we have none, we are not men if we do not now raise ourselves from the ground."

Mitchell Abidor is a contributing writer to our magazine and a translator, musician, and actor living in Brooklyn. He is author of Communards: The Paris Commune of 1871 as Told by Those Who Fought For It.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.