THE LAUREATE: Jose Saramago was born to a family of landless peasants in 1922, people so poor that his father’s joking nickname was incorporated into his name. He was in grammar school for a few years, but poverty forced him into trade school. He was an auto mechanic and a translator before he became a full-time writer. He was also an active member of the Portuguese Communist Party and an atheist. The Gospel According to Jesus Christ was apparently so offensive to the prime minister at the time that he refused to put Saramago’s work up for consideration for the Aristeon Prize. He died in 2010.
MY EXPERIENCE WITH HIM: I love Saramago. I’ve read three or four of his books already and I can’t see myself not reading more in the future. He was another author who put the idea for this project into my head.
WHAT I’M READING: The Cave, chosen out of the four or five other Saramago novels I own and haven’t read yet.REVIEW: The Cave is as close to a perfect allegory of communism as you will ever get. To start with, have you ever heard of Plato’s Cave? If not, go watch this. Anyway, Cipriano Algor is a potter- he and his father before him and his grandfather before him made pots from clay they dug up on their property, shaped it in a pottery, hand-fired it in a kiln and sold it. Cipriano begins the novel in a commercial relationship with The Center, apparently a combination mall/apartment complex. They stop taking his orders and tell him to haul that old shit off their premises. Cipriano and his daughter decide to try making dolls, which they have never done before. The Center agrees to a preliminary order, then cancels it when their focus groups don’t go for it. Meanwhile, Cipriano’s son-in-law becomes a resident guard, as opposed to a normal security guard who doesn’t get to live in the Center. With Cipriano’s skills obsolete and unwanted, he moves with his daughter and son-in-law to the Center and, removed from his means of production, begins to amuse himself to death. Tellingly, the entertainment Saramago spends the most time telling us about is an artificial weather room, where you walk in, are given a “rain coat” and “umbrella” and then walk across the room through a pouring deluge, then walk back through a snow storm. When Cipriano says that it’s nothing like the real thing, one of the”old hands” mocks him and is offended at the suggestion that anything could be better than the artificial weather and the artificial sun that follows it. All this is interrupted when the Center finds an actual cave deep under it, with six bodies chained and roped in place on a bench before a wall and evidence of a fire pit behind them. As Cipriano and his family leave the Center behind them, a massive banner is unfurled, reading “PLATO’S CAVE DISCOVERED, RESERVE YOUR TICKETS TODAY!”
My plot summary leaves a lot out, like the looming malevolence of the Center and the world around it. Like I said, this is clearly an allegory of communism. Cipriano, the poorly educated but skilled worker, is alienated from the fruits of his labor, and then loses access to his livelihood and the means of production. Capital, or The Center, says with no quantifiable proof that Cipriano’s products are no longer wanted. When he moves to the Center as a civilian, he enters a consumerist wet-dream: all the good things in life, recreated in a self-contained bubble building. It’s only when Cipriano, who innocently plays among the entertainments that give people the illusion of happiness, finds a way to express what he sees that he categorically rejects it.
RECOMMENDED: Oh hell yes. Saramago is great plane or road trip reading.
WHAT’S NEXT: A collection of Verner von Heidenstam’s poetry. I lied about us being done with poetry, and I wasn’t too keen on just reading his Boys’ Book of Viking Conquests. That won’t give a complete picture of him as a writer.