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Monday, November 14, 2005

Religion feeds on death

Translation of La religión se alimenta de la muerte, an interview by Miguel Mora with José Saramago published in El País on 12-Nov-2005.

At 83 years old, José Saramago is showing off his new house and presenting his new novel. The house is in a quiet area of Lisbon and is called Blimunda, like the female heroine of his Memorial del convento. The novel is called Las intermitencias de la muerte and has been published simultaneously in Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and Catalan with a first edition print run of 100,000 copies. The 1998 Nobel prize winner presented his book at two events in Lisbon yesterday. In the morning he held a video conference at the Instituto Cervantes and in the afternoon he presided at a publicity event at the San Carlos National Theatre where to the accompaniment of music by Bach he received the congratulations of some of his readers, various women, (one of them his wife, Pilar del Río, and translator of his novel into Spanish) read extracts from the book and he spoke about literature, life death and politics.

The author of El año de la muerte de Ricardo Reis has a difficult relationship with Portugal, a country that he abandoned symbolically in 1993 after an under-secretary of Cavaco Silva's government prevented his novel, El Evangelio según Jesucristo, from representing the country at a European literature competition. And now that Cavaco has returned to prominence with his pre-presidential election campaign, Saramago has increased his attacks against the 'censor' with the same energy with which he wrote and now promotes his new novel, “perhaps the best since the Nobel prize”, he says.

Las intermitencias de la muerte begins with an extraordinary idea, like all Saramago's novels: suddenly, in an imaginary country, death no longer kills. From here, the story investigates (with irony, humour, humanism and pessimism) this state of temporary immortality which disturbs the powerful, delights the naive and turns out to be the start of ungovernable chaos.

Question. The book begins with the phrase, “On the next day, no one died”, and seems, at times, to be a satire, a style that not many associate with you.

Answer. It is not exactly a satire, although it is a bit satirical, perhaps it is better described as critical of the customs and institutions, the reactions of people in the face of, or absence of, death... The question is: what would happen if we were eternal beings.

Q. And the first answer in the novel is that without death many people would be very sorry state.

A. Death is a serious business and is not always very neat and tidy. Although this isn't the main theme of the novel, if death suddenly disappeared, if death stopped killing, many people would start to panic: undertakers, insurance agents, old people's homes... To say nothing of the states who would not know how to meet the pensions bills.

Q. It seems to be a joke, but the subject is very serious because old age is lasting longer.

A. It is serious; they can only pay for the pensions until 2015; after that we don't know. This was part of my idea for the novel, to explore serious subjects but at the same time appearing to be having fun.

Q. More than ironic your novel appears to be sarcastic, something we don't associate with you either.

A. Irony isn't a new thing in my novels; I think that in one way or another (aggressively, actively, directly or subtly) it is present is everything that I write. What is new is humour; the narrator is much more humorous, more than in any other of my novels, or at least this is what some people say who have chuckled while reading the book.

Q. Humour often goes down well when talking about transcendental subjects like death.

A. The truth is that I didn't intend to be humorous, it just came out like that. I have to confess that I enjoyed writing about a subject as serious as death, although we all know that we can't laugh much about death because it is death that ends up by laughing at us. We shouldn't think of death as an entity, a 'grim reaper' waiting outside for us, but something that is inside ourselves, that each one of us carries within, and that when our body comes to an agreement with it, then our lives end.

Q. The novel also talks about he impossibility of immortality.

A. Immortality would be horrible; although one would live 20 years in childhood, 50 in adolescence and 80 or 90 in maturity, old age would eventually arrive, and the drama would begin from that point. Can anyone imagine an eternal old age? It's better not to think of such an extreme old age, it is preferable to think that death isn't an exceptional event but something much more every day.

Q. Is this when Saramago the pessimist first appears?

A. It is not pessimism, but surrendering to the evidence.

Q. Does the cellist who is in love with death personified as a woman without knowing who she is feel the same way as you feel?

A. If I look to the past, the hero of all my novels is a solitary man; it is the same in this one where he is also very shy, he doesn't have a family... I have never lived alone and I have never liked putting my personal experiences into my novels.

Q. Where did the idea for the novel come from?

A. I was in Madrid, re-reading Rilke, and I don't know if the idea came directly from the book, Los cuadernos de Malte Laurids Brigge or not, but when I finished the book, it came to me. It always happens like this for me, and this is why I say that this could be my last novel, because I don't just write about anything; first I have to have the idea. I thought, “what if death wasn't able to kill a certain person”? This was the spark that started it. I didn't start by imagining death being on strike in an entire country, which is what happens in the first part of my book. That development came later after the general idea.

Q. I remember that among other things, the idea of death contributes to the power of the church.

A. Worse than that. The problem is that the church needs death to support its own existence. Without death, there would be no church because there would be no resurrection. Christian religions feed on death. The corner stone on which the whole administrative, theological, ideological and repressive edifice of the church rests would crumble if death ceased to exist. This is why the bishops in the novel call for a campaign of prayer to implore death to return. It may seem cruel, but without death and resurrection religion couldn't go on telling us to behave well in this life so that we could enjoy our life in the hereafter. Assuming there is everlasting life ...

Q. At the moment, Cavaco Silva is the presidential candidate [in Portugal].

A. Yes, and his appearance has made me exhume the corpse of that censorship that I experienced when he was the prime minister. His government did something that a fascist dictatorship does. Therefore I will support Mario Soares if there is a second vote. Although my candidate is Jerónimo de Sousa of the communist party, if Cavaco reaches the second round with Soares, I will vote for Soares. What worries me more is the apathy of the people, this crisis of indifference that we see in the country. It doesn't seem possible that these are the same people who were considered to be the most belligerent in the whole of Europe only thirty years ago.


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José Saramago (Azinhaga, 1922) has just published a new novel, Las intermitencias de la muerte, which he claims is his best since winning the Nobel prize. In it, the author humorously explores the impossibility immortality. According to Saramago, “Death is a serious business and not always neat and tidy; it is difficult to imagine a very long old age, and the Christian religions feed on death”.

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