José Saramago, The Notebook

Despite what current trends may indicate, there aren’t many blogs out there that merit being turned into physical books. A huge percentage of what makes the medium effective in the first place is its timeliness and almost willful ephemerality; by the time a blog has gone through the sausage factory of the publishing world, it’s at least a year later, and now you have to lug the thing around with you. Then there’s the fact that all of the hyperlinks and interactivity will get removed—and, y’know, that it was free the first time around. Most bloggers just can’t compete.

Then again, José Saramago isn’t most bloggers. For one thing, he’s got a Nobel Prize (for literature, awarded in 1998). For another, he’s 87 years old. The Portuguese novelist started his blog, the first year of which, September 2008 to August 2009, has just been published in English as The Notebook, because his wife dared him to.

He also doesn’t play by conventional blogging rules. As Saramago puts it, paraphrasing a critic who reviewed the blog in a Portuguese newspaper, “I don’t include links, I don’t have a direct dialogue with my readers, I don’t interact with the rest of the blogosphere.” In this way, his Notebook is much like a flesh-and-blood notebook. The entries are short, reflective, and elegant; they’re also frequently caked with Saramago’s leftist outrage at the sorry state of the world today.

A few choice topics show up again and again. Saramago devotes several entries to the various fuck-ups of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and remains cautiously optimistic about the early days of the Obama administration. He has some especially charged words for the Israeli government’s deplorable treatment of Palestinians. “[T]he unspeakable sufferings inflicted on the Jews throughout history,” he writes, “and most especially as part of what is called the final solution, ought to afford the Israelis of today… the best possible reason not to commit their very own tyrannies on Palestinian land.” These bursts of undisguised opinion are a welcome change of pace from Saramago’s novels, which, while far from apolitical, frequently mask their ideology in long, ornate, multi-page sentences, as well as tricks of logic and science.

Yet it’s also delightful to see Saramago fall into some of the more familiar blogging habits: writing about stuff he’s obviously just read about on the internet minutes ago, as well as detailing the minutiae from his everyday life. In one memorable entry, he declares that Charlie Chaplin is at heart a tragedian, and that even his smile is both sad and menacing—“[I]t would look better on the face of Dracula. Were I a woman, I would flee a man who smiled at me that way.” There are tempting hints of his novel-in-progress, which was published in Portugal last year as Cain, and even casual readers of Spanish and Portuguese literature will come away with a long list of new, Saramago-approved writers to check out.

On that note, let me pause for a second here and make the mandatory statement in praise of translation. It’s very simple: most of the world’s stories are not told in English, and without the diligence of people like Amanda Hopkinson and Daniel Hahn (who worked on this book), we would not have access to any of them. This is our loss, and it’s a significant one. More people ought to read books in translation, and more books ought to be translated into English. Is someone out there working on this? Please and thank you.

In the end, does a year of Saramago’s online musings add up to a book? I’m not so sure it does. While certainly enjoyable and provocative, I think I’d still rather have The Notebook in my laptop’s bookmarks bar than sitting on my bookshelf. (This is, of course, again setting aside issues of translation—and it must be said that Hopkinson and Hahn do a far superior job than does Google Translate.)

Instead, it may have a richer life as a book that’s passed around between friends, instead of one that’s habitually re-read by a single owner. It’s a fate that a bibliophile like Saramago would no doubt approve of.

Translated from the Portuguese by Amanda Hopkinson and Daniel Hahn. Verso, 288 pp., $28.50, hardcover

(review also appeared in SEE Magazine, June 3, 2010)

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