José Saramago: a New Statesman retrospective

In praise of the late Portuguese writer, who died on 18 June aged 87.

The death of the Nobel Prize-winning author José Saramago last Friday seems likely to spawn an international retrospective of his work. To mark the occasion, we've taken a look back through the New Statesman archives for reviews of his work.

Most recently Tom Cameron, reviewing the "dazzling satirical display" of Saramago's 2008 novel Death at Intervals, praised the author's distinctive tone:

Throughout his fiction, he has cultivated an entertaining and witty blend of logic and absurdity, and his work is characterised by an obsessive search for the right words and names even as he is amused by their arbitrariness.

Writing of Seeing in 2006, John Gray highlighted the struggle between Saramago's political convictions and his aesthetic agenda:

At some level Saramago must realise that his political hopes are delusive and absurd. In Seeing, he blinds himself to this fact while allowing his characters the dubious gift of sight. Contrary to everything Saramago wishes to believe, the book is haunted by the thought that the world's most serious problems have no political solution. It is as if the ghost of Pessoa had re-appeared, smiling, to mock him in his dreams.

Henry Sheen's review of The Cave in 2002 drew attention to a structural development in Saramago's writing:

While Saramago's previous novels often languish and fade as they come to an end, The Cave has a decisive shape and clarity to the ending. The discovery of the cave is the final piece that makes the novel perfect and enlightens everything that has gone before.

Back in 1999, Robert Winder named Saramago's All the Names as one of his picks for book of the year:

It traces the effects of a clerical error on the life of the world, and is both light and grave, elaborate and simple. A lovely adventure, a search for an unknown woman, floats on sentences that topple over one another like waves.

Saramago had intended to visit this year's Edinburgh Festival to promote his new novel The Elephant's Journey. That book, together with Cain, due next year, will complete the translation of his oeuvre into English.

Rebecca Carter, Saramago's editor at Harvill Secker, praised his work as, "one of the most important of the last century -- radical, witty, humane, endlessly challenging and questioning".

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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