The Leonard Cohen of World Lit

José Saramago, novelist.

You could easily have got the wrong impression of José Saramago from the flood of press reports last week when it was announced that he’d won this year’s Nobel Prize for literature. The gist of the coverage was that Saramago, a Portuguese novelist known for his playful excavations of Iberian history, is the real thing, an inheritor of the majestic European literary tradition and the last best hope for the serious novel. His life story enhances this image of fragile purity: He’s a late bloomer who didn’t publish a mature work until his 50s and didn’t become famous until his 60s. His picture in the New York Times had something to do with it too: At 75, squinting and overcome with emotion, he looked like a mole emerging from an underground tunnel–or, with his thick eyeglasses and white-fringed bald dome, like Mr. Magoo.

“Even I’ve never heard of me!” is how a friend of mine meanly translated Saramago’s befuddled expression. That’s a wee bit unfair, of course. Although Saramago isn’t very well known in the United States, throughout the 1990s he has attracted a zealous international following. Besides, when journalists report that his sentences are long and obscure, his stories intertextual and ambitious, they miss the real point of Saramago, which is that he’s really pretty accessible. Perhaps more than any living writer I know, Saramago gives his readers a taste of the exquisite high you get when you first fall in love with books. No matter where you sit down with one of his novels, you feel like you’re up past bedtime, reading with a flashlight, taking a break from your humdrum life to commune with something magic and deep and eternal. The irony is that Saramago uses some very contemporary methods to whip up this madeleine reminder of classic literature. He’s a good writer, occasionally a great writer, but mostly he’s a pop star of a writer, working the crowd into states of childish longing and bliss.

Saramago is often said to unite his native European skepticism with the Latin American school of magical realism. This is true up to a point. Like Jorge Luis Borges, he flirts with science fiction premises and invents antique literary texts and then analyzes them. His two most Borgesian works are The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1984), an hommage to the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, and The History of the Siege of Lisbon (1989), in which a proofreader inserts a single word–“not”–into a single sentence in a book he’s checking, thereby questioning every celebrated theme of Portuguese history. As much as they are about people, Year of the Death and History are about writing and what it can and cannot do.

What distinguishes Saramago from Borges is his tenderness and his explicit, even obsessive, curiosity about human emotion. Conventional literary history says that the novel came into its own in the 18th century, alongside individual rights and a modern conception of marriage. Saramago tries to figure out what it means to love when those conditions don’t apply. Baltasar and Blimunda (1982) is a romance set in Portugal during the Inquisition. The suspenseful and brilliant Blindness (1995), his latest book published in English, tells the fantastic story of an epidemic that leaves the whole world unable to see. A quasi-Borgesian conceit, but Saramago uses it to ask how people love when disaster upsets the social norms. (The answer is atrociously, although a few good souls do their best.)

U nlike Borges, Saramago is an outspoken political activist of a decidedly left-wing slant. As a younger man, he cheered on the 1974 revolution that liberated Portugal from a long, sleepy dictatorship. Lately he’s supported agrarian reform in Brazil, and last March he visited the Mexican jungle to express his solidarity with the Chiapas rebels. The day the Nobel was announced, Saramago was at the Frankfurt book fair to deliver a speech on what it means to be a Communist writer today. His party affiliation made the Wall Street Journal so apoplectic that it published an op-ed this week declaring it all but a crime to give him the Nobel Prize. But he is a most modest militant: At this point in history, he said, communism is essentially a “spiritual state,” a compassionate safeguard against the built-in injustice of capitalism.

His politics, rare warmth, and long and many-claused sentences have earned Saramago a second comparison, this one to Gabriel García Márquez. But if he’s too human to be another Borges, he’s too intellectual and urbane to be another García Márquez. His characters don’t have cousins and neighbors and colorful, labyrinthine histories. In fact, we often know next to nothing about his characters, except that they are lonely, bookish rolling stones who gather no moss, spending several hours a day wandering around Lisbon and daydreaming. (The male characters, anyway. Saramago’s women tend to be motherly souls who either sweetly have sex with the men or else show them how to settle down.)

Ithink a slightly less literary comparison is in order. There’s a revealing moment in TheHistory of the Siege of Lisbon, when the shy proofreader hero, a bachelor in his 50s, is working at home. The television plays silently in the background, and the proofreader looks over and notices that, of all people in the world, Leonard Cohen has appeared on the screen. “Raimundo Silva bent over, turned on the sound, Leonard Cohen made a gesture as if to thank him, now he could sing, and sing he did, he sang of things only someone who has lived can sing of, and asks himself how much and for what, someone who has loved and asks himself who and why, and, having asked all these questions, he can find no answer, not one, contrary to the belief that all the answers are there and that all we have to do is to learn how to phrase our questions.”

Note the admiration for Cohen and the chanting musicality of this passage (beautifully translated by Giovanni Pontiero), the echoes and variations circling around a bittersweet theme. Note also Saramago’s detached melancholy, his brainy anti-elitism, his characters who are lovable but archetypal and abstract. All these qualities critics have identified as traits of the Great European Novel mixed with magical realism are also the traits of the cool, alienated, allusion-dropping singer-songwriter. Cohen has always been praised as the poet laureate of songsters. Why shouldn’t Saramago be the songwriter laureate of novelists?

Which leaves me a caveat: There’s a reason most good songs lasts between five and 10 minutes while a novel usually demands a few days. At some point, ideally, the novel should go deeper than the song. Saramago is never boring–his command over his material is too impressive for that. He can get a little precious, though, and his constant musing about fate can get repetitive, less like Leonard Cohen and more like John Mellencamp, with his message that “life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone.” I marveled at Saramago’s ingenuity when I reread him last weekend; I also wondered at a few points if, with his brand of cute obscurity, he was really Nobel material. But I do know that the man can write a tune, or at least the literary equivalent, and it sure is catchy.