Jose Saramago, the Portuguese novelist who died this past Friday at the age of 87, had a lot going for him and a lot going against him.
In 1998, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature and called "the most gifted novelist alive in the world today" by critic Harold Bloom. He was also a long-time member of the Portuguese Communist Party.
But more than anything, he should be remembered for those startling novels: "Baltasar and Blimunda," "Manual of Painting and Calligraphy," "The Stone Raft," "The Gospel According to Jesus Christ," "The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis." His 1999 novel "Blindness" was made into a controversial film.
In addition — and unlike many very good foreign writers — Saramago was well published in the United States and, indeed, was almost a popular success.
What makes this exceptional is that Saramago was a formally demanding writer in love with unparagraphed prose. Yet he had the ability to hold us in his grasp nonetheless. His narrators were obsessives who convincingly took us away from everyday reality, inhabiting instead a familiar but very strange world.
In "Blindness," an epidemic of sorts strikes an unnamed city, where the vision of the characters fades to a kind of milky white. "Seeing" — its successor, set in the same city and published in 2006 — involves a voters' revolt in which during an election, the vast majority of citizens cast ballots that are blank.
This is allegorical writing, but it gets at the most basic issues of control and resistance, power and personal autonomy. When Saramago rooted his writing in actual detail, he had a revelatory power that was nearly unrivaled, but his main inclination was toward the parable, the slipperiest of all literary tendencies.
Saramago's final book, "The Notebook" — published just two months before his death — does not represent him at his best. Instead, it is an opportunistic selection from the author's blog.
Grab-bag is a handy expression for such a collection, and while the author on display in these pages can be attractive and sympathetic, there is a distracting undercurrent that insidiously undermines his authority.
It all depends where you look. Some of the writing here reflects the wondrous integrity of his previous books.
"And words?" he observes. "Where do they go? How many of them remain? And for how long? And what for, after all? I know, these are idle words, appropriate for someone turning eighty-six. Or perhaps not so idle when I think of my grandfather Jeronimo, who in his final hours went to bid farewell to the trees he had planted, embracing them and weeping because he wouldn't see them again. It's a lesson worth learning. So I embrace the words I have written, I wish them a long life, and resume my writing where I left off. There can be no other response."
But when Saramago turns to the subject of George W. Bush or Israel, a disagreeable ideologue emerges. "If ridicule could kill," he writes, "there wouldn't be a single Israeli politician left standing, nor a single Israeli soldier, those specialists in cruelty, those graduates in hatred who look down at the world from the height of insolence that is at the root of their education. We understand the Biblical god better when we see his followers. Jehovah or Yahweh, or whatever you call him, is a ferocious and bitter god whom the Israelis maintain as a permanent presence."
As disturbing as that is, however, the genuine novelist is still vividly present, as he was throughout his life.
"'Begin at the beginning," Saramago teases us, "as if this beginning were the obvious starting point of a knotted ball of yarn, and we could unravel it until the very end was as clearly in view. As if between the former and the latter — the beginning and the end — we had a smooth and continuous line between our fingers, with no knots to unravel, or disentangle, something that would indeed be unthinkable in the life of a ball of yarn. And, if the reader will permit me another phrase written to inverted effect, in the yarns of our lives."
In the end, "The Notebook" is redeemed by one line: "Dogs live too short a time for all the love they bestow upon us." The same might well be said of Saramago, who will be remembered for so many of the words he wrote, if not necessarily for those that make up this final book.
McGonigle is the author of "The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov" and "Going to Patchogue."