Speech – Nobel Prize in Literature

Manuel Trindade D'Assumpção, Untitled, c. 1958, oil on cardboard, 46 x 34,5 cm.


Delivered at the award ceremony in Stockholm on 7 December 1998

The wisest man I ever knew in my life couldn't read or write. At four in the morning, when the promise of a new day still loomed over the lands of France, he would get up from his pallet and go out into the field, taking the half-dozen sows whose fertility he and his wife fed on to pasture. My maternal grandparents lived from this scarcity, from the small rearing of pigs that, after weaning, were sold to the neighbors of the village.

Azinhaga of its name in the province of Ribatejo. Those grandparents were called Jerónimo Melrinho and Josefa Caixinha, and both were illiterate. In winter, when the night was so cold that the water in the pitchers froze inside the house, they would fetch the weakest piglets from the pigsties and take them to their bed. Underneath the coarse blankets, the warmth of humans saved the little animals from freezing and saved them from certain death. Even though they were people of good character, it was not out of a compassionate soul that the two old men acted like this: what worried them, without sentimentality or rhetoric, was protecting their livelihood, with the naturalness of those who, to maintain life , did not learn to think more than necessary.

I helped my grandfather Jerónimo many times in his wanderings as a shepherd, many times I dug the earth in the yard attached to the house and cut wood for the fire, many times, going around and around the big iron wheel that activated the pump, I made the water from the community well and I carried it on my shoulder, many times, hiding from the grain keepers, I went with my grandmother, also at dawn, armed with a rake, panai and rope, to collect the loose straw from the stubble that would later be used for the bedding of the cattle. And sometimes, on hot summer nights, after supper, my grandfather would say to me: “Joseph, today we are going to sleep together under the fig tree.”

There were two other fig trees, but that one, certainly because it was the biggest, because it was the oldest, because it had always been, was for everyone in the house, the fig tree. More or less antonomasia, an erudite word that only many years later would I come to know and know what it meant... In the middle of the nocturnal peace, between the tall branches of the tree, a star would appear to me, and then, slowly, it would hide for a while. behind a leaf, and, looking in another direction, like a river running silently across the concave sky, there appeared the opalescent clarity of the Milky Way, the Way of St. James, as we still called it in the village.

While sleep did not arrive, the night was peopled with the stories and cases that my grandfather told: legends, apparitions, surprises, singular episodes, ancient deaths, tussles of wood and stone, words of ancestors, a tireless rumor of memories that kept me awake while gently lulling me to sleep. I could never tell if he fell silent when he realized that I had fallen asleep, or if he continued talking so as not to leave the answer halfway through to the question he invariably asked him during the longer pauses he calculatedly included in the story: “And then?”

Perhaps he repeated the stories to himself, either so as not to forget them, or to enrich them with new adventures. At my age and at that time of all of us, it goes without saying that I imagined that my grandfather Jerónimo was master of all the science in the world. When, at first light in the morning, the birdsong woke me up, he was no longer there, he had gone out into the field with his animals, leaving me to sleep. Then he would lift me up, fold the blanket and, barefoot (in the village I always walked barefoot until I was 14 years old), with straw still clinging to my hair, I would go from the cultivated part of the backyard to the other where the pigsties were located, next to the house. . My grandmother, already up before my grandfather, would put a big bowl of coffee with pieces of bread in front of me and ask me if I had slept well. If I told her about a bad dream stemming from her grandfather's stories, she would always reassure me: "Never mind, there is no firmness in dreams."

I thought then that my grandmother, although she was also a very wise woman, did not reach the heights of my grandfather, who, lying under the fig tree, with his grandson José by his side, was able to set the universe in motion with just two words. . It was only many years later, when my grandfather was gone from this world and I was a grown man, that I came to understand that grandmother, after all, also believed in dreams. It could not mean anything else that, as she sat one night at the door of her poor house, where she then lived alone, looking at the bigger and smaller stars above her head, she said these words: “The world is so beautiful , and I am so sorry to die.”

He didn't say fear of dying, he said pity for dying, as if the life of heavy and continuous work that had been his was, in that almost final moment, receiving the grace of a supreme and final farewell, the consolation of beauty revealed. I was sitting at the door of a house like I don't think there has ever been another in the world because people lived in it who could sleep with pigs as if they were their own children, people who were sorry to leave life just because the world was beautiful. , people, and this was my grandfather Jerónimo, shepherd and storyteller, who, sensing that death was coming for him, went to say goodbye to the trees in his backyard, one by one, hugging them and crying because I knew I would never see them again.

Many years later, writing for the first time about my grandfather Jerómino and my grandmother Josefa (I failed to mention that she had been, according to those who knew her as a girl, an unusual beauty), I became aware that I was transforming the common people they had been into literary characters and that this was, probably, the way of not forgetting them, drawing and re-drawing their faces with the ever-changing pencil of memory, coloring and illuminating the monotony of a dull and dull everyday life. without horizons, as if recreating, over the unstable map of memory, the supernatural unreality of the country in which he decided to live.

The same attitude of mind that, after having evoked the fascinating and enigmatic figure of a certain Berber great-grandfather, would lead me to describe more or less in these terms an old portrait (now nearly eighty years old) where my parents appear: “These are the two standing, handsome and young, facing the photographer, showing on their faces an expression of solemn gravity that is perhaps fear in front of the camera, at the moment when the lens will fixate, of one and the other, the image that will never be seen again. they will have it again, because the next day will be implacably another day... My mother rests her right elbow on a tall column and holds a flower in her left hand, draped along her body. My father puts his arm around my mother's back and his callused hand appears over her shoulder like a wing. Both shyly step on a carpet of branches. The canvas that serves as a false background for the portrait shows diffuse and incongruous neoclassical architecture.”

And he ended: “One day had to come when I would tell these things. None of this matters, except to me. A Berber grandfather, coming from North Africa, another pig-herding grandfather, a wonderfully beautiful grandmother, some serious and beautiful parents, a flower in a portrait – what other genealogy could I care about? what better tree would find me?”

I wrote these words almost thirty years ago, with no other intention than to reconstruct and record moments in the lives of the people who gave birth to me and who were closest to me, thinking that nothing more would need to be explained so that people would know where I came from and what materials I used. He became the person I started out to be and the person I've become little by little. After all, I was wrong, biology doesn't determine everything, and as for genetics, their paths must have been very mysterious to have taken such a wide turn... My family tree (forgive me for the presumption of calling it that, the substance of its sap being so meager) not only was there a lack of some of those branches that time and the successive encounters of life cause to break from the central trunk, it also lacked someone to help its roots penetrate to the deepest subterranean layers, someone to refine the consistency and flavor of its fruits, who enlarged and strengthened its canopy to make it a shelter for migrating birds and support for nests.

By painting my parents and my grandparents with literary paints, transforming them, from the simple flesh and blood people they had been, into characters again and in another way builders of my life. I was, without realizing it, tracing the path along which the characters that I came to invent, the others, the effectively literary ones, would manufacture and bring me the materials and tools that, finally, in good or bad, in enough and what is insufficient, what is gained and what is lost, what is a defect but also what is an excess, would end up making me the person I recognize myself in today: creator of these characters, but at the same time, their creature. In a certain sense, it could even be said that, letter by letter, word by word, page by page, book by book, I have successively implanted the characters I created in the man I was. I believe that, without them, I wouldn't be the person I am today, without them maybe my life wouldn't have managed to be more than an imprecise sketch, a promise like so many others that couldn't pass promises, the existence of someone who could perhaps to have been and after all it had not come to be.

Now I am able to clearly see who my life teachers were, those who most intensely taught me the hard trade of living, those dozens of characters from novels and theater that at this moment I see parading before my eyes, those men and those women made of paper and ink, these people that I believed I would guide according to my convenience as a narrator and obeying my will as an author, like articulated puppets whose actions could have no more effect on me than the weight supported and the tension of the wires with which he moved them. Of these masters, the first was undoubtedly a mediocre portrait painter whom I have simply designated by the letter H, the protagonist of a story that I believe it reasonable to call a double initiation (his own, but also, in some way, that of the author of the book). , entitled Handbook of Painting and Calligraphy, who taught me the elementary honesty of recognizing and accepting, without resentment or frustration, my own limits: not being able or willing to venture beyond my small cultivation plot, I was left with the possibility of digging into the depths, to down towards the roots. Mine, but also those of the world, if I could allow myself such excessive ambition. It is not up to me, of course, to assess the merits of the result of the efforts made, but I believe it is clear today that all my work, from then on, obeyed this purpose and this principle.

Then came the men and women of the Alentejo, that same brotherhood of convicts from the land to which my grandfather Jerónimo and my grandmother Josefa belonged – rude peasants forced to hire the strength of their arms in exchange for wages and working conditions that they would only deserve the name of infamy – charging for less than nothing the life that the cultured and civilized beings that we pride ourselves on being like to call, depending on the occasion, precious, sacred or sublime. Popular people I knew, deceived by a Church as complicit as beneficiary of the power of the State and landowners, people permanently watched by the police, people, many and many times innocent victims of the arbitrariness of a false justice.

Three generations of a family of peasants, the Mau-Tempo, from the beginning of the century until the April Revolution of 1974 that overthrew the dictatorship, pass in this novel that I have given the title of lifted off the ground, and it was with such men and women raised from the ground, real people first, fictional figures later, that I learned to be patient, to trust and to surrender to time, to that time that simultaneously builds us up and destroys us again build us up and again tear us down. The only thing I'm not sure I have assimilated satisfactorily is what the hardship of experience made a virtue of these women and men: a naturally stoic attitude towards life. Bearing in mind, however, that the lesson received, more than twenty years later, still remains intact in my memory, that every day I feel it present in my spirit as an insistent summons, I have not, until now, lost hope of coming to become a little more worthy of the greatness of the examples of dignity that were proposed to me in the immensity of the Alentejo plains. Time will tell.

What other lessons could I receive from a Portuguese man who lived in the XNUMXth century, who composed the “Rhymes” and the glories, shipwrecks and disenchantments of The Lusiads, that he was an absolute poetic genius, the greatest of our literature, no matter how much this weighs on Fernando Pessoa, who proclaimed himself her Super-Camões? There was no lesson that suited me, no lesson that I was capable of learning, except the simplest one that could be offered to me by the man Luís Vaz de Camões in his extreme humanity, for example, the proud humility of an author who is calling every door looking for someone willing to publish the book he wrote for him, suffering the contempt of those ignorant of blood and caste, the disdainful indifference of a king and his company of powerful people, the mockery with which he has always the world has been visited by poets, visionaries and madmen.

At least once in their lives, all authors had or will have to be Luís de Camões, even if they did not write the redondilhas of “Sôbolos rios”… Between court nobles and censors of the Holy Office, between the loves of yesteryear and the disillusionment of old age premature, between the pain of writing and the joy of having written, it was this sick man who returns poor from India, where many only went to get rich, it was this soldier blind in one eye and wounded in the soul, it was this seducer without fortune that will never again disturb the senses of the ladies of the palace, who I put to life on the stage of the play called “What will I do with this book?” at the end of which another question echoes, the one that truly matters, the one that we will never know if there will ever be enough of an answer: “What will you do with this book?”. Proud humility was that of carrying a masterpiece under your arm and seeing yourself unjustly rejected by the world. Proud humility too, and obstinate, that of wanting to know what the books we are writing today will be used for tomorrow, and then doubting whether they will be able to last for a long time (until when?) the reassuring reasons that may be being given to us or that we are give ourselves. No one is better deceived than when he consents to be deceived by others...

Now approaching is a man who left his left hand in the war and a woman who came into the world with the mysterious power to see what's behind people's skin. His name is Baltasar Mateus and he is nicknamed Sete-Sóis. She is known by the name of Blimunda, and also by the nickname of Sete-Luas that was added later, because it is written that where there is a sun there must be a moon, and that only the joint and harmonious presence of one and the other another will make the earth habitable through love. Also approaching is a Jesuit priest named Bartolomeu who invented a machine capable of going up to the sky and flying with no fuel other than the human will, which, according to what has been said, can do anything, but which could not, or did not know, or I have not, until today, wanted to be the sun and moon of simple kindness or even simpler respect.

They are three Portuguese madmen from the XNUMXth century, in a time and in a country where superstitions and the bonfires of the Inquisition flourished, where the vanity and megalomania of a king caused the building of a convent, a palace and a basilica that would astonish the outside world, in the unlikely event that this world had enough eyes to see Portugal, as we know that Blimunda had them to see what was hidden... And a crowd of thousands and thousands of men also approached with dirty and callused hands, their bodies exhausted from having, for years on end, erecting, stone by stone, the implacable walls of the convent, the enormous rooms of the palace, the columns and pilasters, the airy bell towers, the dome of the basilica suspended over the void. The sounds we are hearing are from the harpsichord of Domenico Scarlatti, who doesn't know whether to laugh or cry... This is the story of Convent memorial, a book in which the apprentice author, thanks to what he had been taught since the ancient times of his grandparents Jerónimo and Josefa, has already managed to write words like these, from which some poetry is not absent: “Besides the conversation of the women, there are the dreams that hold the world in their orbit. But it is also the dreams that make it a crown of moons, which is why the sky is the radiance that is inside the heads of men, if not the heads of men, the very and only sky.” So be it.

The teenager already knew something about poetry lessons, learned from his textbooks when, at a vocational school in Lisbon, he was preparing himself for the trade he practiced at the beginning of his working life: that of mechanical locksmith. He also had good masters of poetic art during the long hours at night he spent in public libraries, reading at random from meetings and catalogues, without guidance, without someone to advise him with the same creative astonishment of the navigator who invents each place he discovers. But it was in the library of the industrial school that O Ano da Morte by Ricardo Reis began to be written... There one day the young locksmith apprentice (he would have been 17 years old) found a magazine – Ayena was the title – in which there were poems signed with that name and, naturally, being such a poor connoisseur of the literary cartography of his country, he thought that there was a poet in Portugal who was called that: Ricardo Reis.

It didn't take long, however, to learn that the poet himself had been a certain Fernando Nogueira Pessoa who signed poems with the names of non-existent poets born in his head and which he called heteronyms, a word that did not appear in the dictionaries of the time, so it took so much work for the apprentice of letters to know what it meant. He learned by heart many poems by Ricardo Reis (“To be great, be whole / Put what you are into the minimum you do”), but he could not resign himself. Despite being so new and ignorant, that a superior spirit could have conceived, without remorse, this cruel verse: “Wise is he who is content with the spectacle of the world”. Much, much later, the apprentice, already with white hair and a little wiser in his own wisdom, dared to write a novel to show the poet of the odes something of what was the spectacle of the world in that year of 1936 in which he had put him through his last days: the occupation of the Rhineland by the Nazi army, Franco's war against the Spanish Republic, the creation by Salazar of the Portuguese fascist militias . It was as if he were saying to him: “Here is the spectacle of the world, my poet of serene bitterness and elegant skepticism. Enjoy, enjoy, contemplate, since sitting is your wisdom…”.

O Ano da Morte by Ricardo Reis it ended with some melancholy words: “Here, where the sea ends and the land waits”. Therefore, there would be no more discoveries for Portugal, only an infinite expectation of futures as destination, even the least unimaginable: just the usual fado, the usual saudade, and little else... It was then that the apprentice imagined that perhaps there was still a way to launching boats back into the water, for example, moving the earth itself and making it sail across the sea. An immediate result of Portuguese collective resentment for the historical disdain of Europe (more accurate would be to say the result of a personal resentment of mine…), the novel I wrote then – The Stone Raft – separated the entire Iberian Peninsula from the European continent to transform it into a large floating island, moving without oars, sails or propellers towards the South of the world, “a mass of stone and earth, covered with cities, villages, rivers, forests, factories, wild bushes, cultivated fields, with their people and their animals”, on the way to a new utopia: the cultural encounter of the peninsular peoples with the peoples of the other side of the Atlantic, thus challenging both my strategy dared, the suffocating dominance that the United States of North America has been exercising in those parts...

A doubly utopian vision would understand this political fiction as a much more generous and humane metaphor: that Europe, all of it, must move to the South, in order to, by discounting its ancient and modern colonialist abuses, help to balance the world. That is, Europe finally as ethics. The characters of stone raft – two women, three men and a dog – travel tirelessly across the peninsula as it furrows the ocean. The world is changing and they know that they must look in themselves for the new people they will become (not forgetting the dog, which is not a dog like the others…). That's enough for them.

Then the apprentice remembered that at times in his life he had revised some book tests and that if on the Raft of Stone he had, so to speak, revised the future, it would not be wrong for him to now revise the past, inventing a novel. what would be called History of the Siege of Lisbon, in which a reviewer, reviewing a book with the same title, but about History, and tired of seeing how the so-called History is less and less capable of surprising, decides to substitute a “yes” with a “no”, subverting the authority “historical truths”. Raimundo Silva, as the proofreader is called, is a simple, ordinary man, who only distinguishes himself from the majority for believing that all things have their visible and invisible sides and that we will know nothing about them until we have given them the full turn. This is precisely what he is talking about in a conversation he has with the historian.

Thus: “I remind you that reviewers have already seen a lot of literature and life. My book, I remind you, is about history. It is not my purpose to point out other contradictions, Doctor, in my opinion everything that is not life is literature. The story too. The story above all, no offense intended, and the painting, and the music. Music has been resisting since it was born, now it goes, now it comes. he wants to get rid of the word, I suppose out of envy, but he always returns to obedience, And painting, well, painting is nothing more than literature made with brushes. I hope you haven't forgotten that humanity started to paint long before it knew how to write. You know the saying, if you don't have a hunting dog with a cat, or, in other words, if you can't write, paint or draw, that's what children do. What you mean, in other words, is that literature already existed before it was born, Yes sir, like man, in other words, before being, it already was. It seems to me that you missed your vocation, you should be a historian. I lack the preparation, doctor, that a simple man can do without the preparation, it was very lucky to have come into the world with genetics in order, but, so to speak, in a raw state, and then no more polishing than the first letters who were unique, He could present himself as a self-taught person, the product of his own worthy effort, there is no shame, in the past society was proud of its self-taught people, That's over, development came and it's over, self-taught people are looked down upon, only those who write verses and stories to amuse themselves are allowed to be self-taught, but I was never good at literary creation. So, pretend to be a philosopher, the doctor is a humorist, he cultivates irony, I even wonder how he dedicated himself to history, since it is such a serious and profound science, I am ironic only in real life. I would like to think that history is not real life, literature, yes, and nothing else. But history was real life in a time when it could not yet be called history. “So you think the story is real life, I think, yes, That the story was real life, I mean, I don't have the slightest doubt, What would become of us if the deleatur that erases everything didn't exist, sighed the proofreader .” It goes without saying that the apprentice learned the lesson of doubt from Raimundo Silva. It's about time.

Now, it was probably this learning of doubt that led him, two years later, to write O Evangelho second Jesus Christ. It is true, and he has said so, that the words in the title came to him as a result of an optical illusion, but it is legitimate to ask ourselves whether it might not have been the serene example of the proofreader that, in the meantime, walked him prepare the ground from which the new novel would spring. This time it wasn't about looking behind the pages of the New Testament looking for opposites, but rather illuminating their surface with a level light, as one does a painting, in order to make the reliefs, the signs of passage, the darkness of the depressions stand out.

That's how the apprentice, now surrounded by evangelical characters, read, as if for the first time, the description of the slaughter of the Innocents, and, having read it, he didn't understand. He didn't understand that there could already be martyrs in a religion that would still have to wait thirty years for its founder to pronounce his first word, he didn't understand that the only person who could have saved the lives of the children of Bethlehem hadn't saved them, he didn't understand he understood Joseph's absence of the slightest sense of responsibility, remorse, guilt, or even curiosity after returning from Egypt with his family. Nor can it be argued, in defense of the cause, that it was necessary for the children of Bethlehem to die so that the life of Jesus could be saved: simple common sense. Who should preside over all things, both human and divine, is there to remind us that God would not send his Son to earth, moreover with the task of redeeming the sins of humanity, so that he would come to to die at the age of two, beheaded by a soldier of Herod...

Nesse Gospel, Written by the apprentice with the respect that great dramas deserve, José will be aware of his guilt, will accept remorse in punishment for the fault he has committed and will let himself be led to death with almost no resistance, as if that was still lacking for him to settle his debts. their accounts with the world. The Apprentice's Gospel is not, therefore, another edifying legend of the blessed and gods, but the story of a few human beings subject to a power against which they fight, but which they cannot win. Jesus, who will inherit the sandals with which his father had trod the dust of the earth's paths, will also inherit from him the tragic sense of responsibility and guilt that will never abandon him again, not even when he raises his voice from the height of the cross: "Men, forgive him because he doesn't know what he's done", certainly referring to the God who had brought him there, but perhaps still remembering, in that final agony, his authentic father, the one who, in flesh and blood, humanly generated it.

As can be seen, the apprentice had already traveled a long way when, in his heretical Gospel, he wrote the last words of the dialogue in the temple between Jesus and the scribe: “Guilt is a wolf that eats the son after having devoured the father, said the scribe, That wolf you speak of has already eaten my father, said Jesus, So all that remains is for me to devour you, And you, in your life, were eaten, or devoured, Not only eaten and devoured, but vomited out, replied the scribe ”'.

If the Emperor Charlemagne had not established a monastery in northern Germany, if that monastery had not given rise to the city of Münster, if Münster had not wanted to mark the twelve hundred years of its foundation with an opera about the dreadful war it faced in the XNUMXth century Protestant Anabaptists and Catholics, the apprentice would not have written the play he called In Nomine Dei. Once again, with no other help than the small light of his reason, the apprentice had to penetrate the obscure labyrinth of religious beliefs, those that so easily lead human beings to kill and let themselves be killed. And what he saw again was the hideous mask of intolerance, an intolerance that in Münster reached a maddening paroxysm, an intolerance that insulted the very cause that both parties claimed to defend. Because it was not a war in the name of two enemy gods, but a war in the name of the same god.

Blinded by their own beliefs, the Anabaptists and Catholics of Münster were not able to understand the clearest of all evidences: on the day of the Last Judgment, when both of them appear to receive the reward or punishment that their actions deserve. in the land. God, if in his decisions he is governed by something similar to human logic, he will have to receive both in paradise and the other, for the simple reason that both believe in him. The terrible carnage of Münster taught the apprentice that, contrary to what they promised, religions never served to bring men closer together, and that the most absurd of all wars is a religious war, bearing in mind that God cannot, even if he wanted to. , declare war on yourself…

Blind. The apprentice thought: “We are blind”, and sat down to write the Ensaio about Cegueira to remind anyone who came to read it that we perversely use reason when we humiliate life, that the dignity of human beings is insulted every day by the powerful in our world, that universal lies have taken the place of plural truths, that man has left of respecting himself when he lost the respect he owed to his fellow man. Afterwards, the apprentice, as if trying to exorcise the monsters engendered by the blindness of reason, began to write the simplest of all stories: a person who goes looking for another person only because he understood that life has nothing more important. what to ask of a human being. The book is called All Names. Unwritten, all our names are there. The names of the living and the names of the dead.

I finish. The voice that read these pages wanted to be the echo of the joint voices of my characters. I don't have, strictly speaking, more voice than the voice they have. Forgive me if this, which is everything to me, seems little to you.

* Jose Saramago (1922-2010) was a Portuguese writer. Author, among other books, of Convent memorial (Literature Company).


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