- Raised from the Ground: A Novel
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 384 pp.
War is a monster that empties men’s pockets coin by coin before devouring the men themselves, so that nothing is lost and all is changed, which is the primary law of nature, as one learns later on. And when war has eaten its fill, when it is sated to the point of vomiting, it continues its skillful pick pocketing, always taking from the same people, the same pockets. It’s a habit acquired in peacetime.
With this observation, Nobel Literature Prize winner José Saramago interrupts his portrait-like narrative of the lives of a family of agricultural workers in the period leading up to the 1974 “Carnation Revolution,” the so-called peaceful overturn that toppled the fascist military dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. The uprising that led to Salazar’s fall gained momentum in the context of the revolt that took place in the Portuguese colonies of Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau, and the pauperization of workers on the land and in the cities in Portugal proper. Saramago’s humble asides, such as the one above, offer kernels of historical insight dressed in literary camouflage, all the more trenchant for their birthing in the trenches themselves.
He recounts the fortunes of João Mau-Tempo, whose last name means “bad weather” (Margaret Jull Costa translated the English-language edition with scrupulous attention to the social implications of Saramago’s choices). Footnotes suggest that much of the material issues from Saramago’s proximity to and familiarity with actual historical events that are fictionalized in the novel.
Saramago’s point of departure is firmly rooted in a prescient class view of the latifundio land system. In describing the internecine squabbles amongst those of the landowning class, he writes: “The latifundio is like one of those mules who is always biting the one next to it.” On an accelerating downhill slide, this vestigial system has produced a social class steeped in disdain, albeit self-serving, for those who work the land. The fundamental misunderstanding of what ought to belong to whom assumes a voice of reedy wounded outrage, winnowing its responses down to a few shrill nostrums when the once-serfs, now wage-laborers, lift their heads long enough from their back-breaking work to demand some greater share of the value that their collective efforts produce.
While he has an ear for both the humdrum and the eccentric dissembling pronouncements of the landowners, Saramago primarily concerns himself with capturing the diametrically opposite and logical sentiments of the workers. To dub him the John Steinbeck of his people and generation would at once amount to a compliment and faint praise of the singularity of his writing, emerging as it does from a culture that was summarily repressed when writers in the rest of Europe and the United States were serving up a body of literary hash seemingly dedicated to subjects of social and political import. Fighting his way past the front lines of the Portuguese cultural embargo may have impelled Saramago into unwavering combat against the mediocrity and posturing associated with socialist realism and other approaches seeking to deliver timely messages on the cheap. Whatever it took for him to win the battle, his readers are the beneficiaries, as the following passage demonstrates:
It would be best to say that for João Mau-Tempo these years will provide his professional education, in the traditional country sense that a workingman has to know how to do everything, from scything to harvesting cork, from clearing ditches to sowing seeds, and he needs a good strong back for carrying loads, and for digging. This knowledge is transmitted across the generations with no examinations and no discussions, and it has always been the same, this is a hoe, this is a scythe, and this is a drop of sweat . . . between the ages of ten and twenty you have to learn all this very fast, or no one will employ you.
How synchronistic is it that this 1980 work of Saramago’s has been re-published posthumously in 2012? (Saramago died in 2008) We live in a moment when those who once declared themselves pacifists while others were picking up arms to fight revolutions in Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia, are retooling their peace-loving convictions by chasing the threads of law and order cries for gun control, as they sanctimoniously thank “our” troops for their “service” droning villages in Afghanistan and assassinating political opponents in other lands, lands rich in new markets and natural resources, by the way. As the democratic rights won in the wake of revelations about Watergate-era government spying are flushed down the Tidal Basin drain, onlookers celebrate the heroism of political police who round up terrorists in TV episodes, while in real life, they “rendition” them to hidden sites outside of U.S. jurisdiction, where they are tortured and terrorized by paid thugs. I used to know an old printing trades worker in Boston who liked to say, “The process of rationalization is endless.” Saramago clearly “gets” this:
It’s the political police, and it’s just great, say there’s someone you don’t like, you simply arrest him, haul him off to the civil authorities and, if you like, shoot him in the head before you get there and say he tried to resist.
Saramago’s gritty view of class conflict in no way inures him to the filigree-like constructs of the mind when it is set free to ruminate. His similes don’t work in every instance. (He makes a comparison of ants to dogs and then later, of ants and dogs to agricultural workers, and the aggregate of comparisons requires something of a boardinghouse reach.) Nonetheless, it may be that his truest talent lies in the range of responses he is able to marshal or evoke in a single sentence, as if he were tracking them along the pathways of the character’s active imagination.
Above the rooftops is the usual wasteful sprawl of stars, if only we could eat them, but they’re too far away, the ostentatious serenity of a heaven to which Father Agamedes keeps returning, he has no other topic, stating that, up above, all our hardships in this vale of tears will end and we will all stand equal before the Lord. Empty stomachs protest, grumbling away at nothing, proof of that inequality.
It is fashionable nowadays for the affluent to go off on Jeep safaris on the African continent, led by “indigenous” (the new word for “native”) tour guides. Three decades ago, such excursions were a theme favored by cartoonists to lampoon the excesses of Caucasian colonialists. The trendy focus on animals has lent safaris a new if discomfiting patina. Saramago, tongue in cheek, takes us on a safari of the laborers in the Portuguese wheat fields as if they were a breed apart from the rest of humanity, He opens their cages just wide enough so that we can see, hear, smell and take snapshots. He is careful not to let them escape, at least until he is ready to have us step back and observe them at that crucial moment when circumstances drive them to draw upon a natural tendency to cooperate, so that they may organize in their own interests as a social class. If, in the name of evenhandedness, we doubt the soundness of his literary grundrisse, he offers this passage to help recruit us back to his cause:
There is little difference between this and the death camps, except that fewer people actually die, doubtless due to the Christian charity and concomitant self-interest with which the bosses, almost every day, load up the trucks with all that mangy, feverish misery and transport it to the hospital in Elvas, some today, others tomorrow, an endless coming and going, the poor things set off close to death, but are saved by the miraculous medicine, which, in a matter of days, has them as good as new, with very weak, tremulous legs, it’s true, but who cares about such trivia, you can go back to work, the doctors say, addressing us contemptuously as “tu”, and the truck disgorges its load of broken-backed laborers, there’s work to be done, there’s no time to waste. Are you better father, asked Amelia, and he answered, yes daughter, what could be simpler.
Saramago suffers no fools of the “lesser evil” or reformist persuasion, who are fond of stooping to blackmail with their “Is it half full or half empty?” shibboleths of accommodation when the workers ask of their boss, “Please sir, may I have some more?” According to Saramago’s yardstick, the farm workers are entitled not only to their forty acres and a mule, but, side by side with the workers in the cities, to take the political power necessary to control their own destinies and discourage the enemy class from entertaining any thoughts of a Thermidor–like resurgence. In case readers are confused on this point, referencing the prerogatives of the landowning class, Saramago explains it simply but unequivocally, and in the best traditions of historical fiction:
They sell people very cheap. Whether they sell them cheap or dear doesn’t matter, the problem isn’t how much or how little.