Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, by Jose Saramago

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Initially published in Portugal in 1976, Manual of Painting and Calligraphy is one of Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago’s first novels. He was fifty-four when he wrote it, and had spent most of life, as our translator Giovanni Pontiero puts it, doing “various manual jobs.” The novel didn’t win him fame: It would take a few more attempts for that to happen, with 1982’s Baltasar and Blimunda, by which stage Saramago was sixty and Manual was long out of print. If he’d quit then, this weird, thoughtful novel would have been left, discarded, in the basement of the culture, forgotten and unread.

But Nobel Prizes, and the deaths of Nobel Prize winners, have a way of breathing life into old works. With the publication of Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, English readers receive the final installment in a long and breathtaking series of novels by the Portuguese master. It’s a smart, knotty, anxious work. Set in Portugal in 1974, at the end of the Salazar regime, Manual is written in the voice of “H,” a painter hired by corporate executives and noble families for official portraits. H dislikes his customers and dislikes himself for taking the work.

H is a clever, slightly neurotic host and Saramago (clearly under the influence of Brecht) never really lets us settle in. After introducing us to his sometime girlfriend, his group of friends, and his latest client, H begins to wax theoretical on, of all things, the great artistic capitals of Europe. Part travel diary and part aesthetic treatise, these chapters are like great ditches of mud in the narrative track: You find yourself pausing at the edge, a little miffed at the interruption, not sure if you can be bothered wading through to the other side.

For Saramago, as for Brecht, this is precisely the point. The pleasant drowsy spell of fiction mirrors the pleasant drowsy spell of public life. Ipso facto, the writer who wishes to break the spell of public life needs to break the spell of fiction. But the endgame wasn’t the small beans of a more engaged public sphere or better public policy. The point, of course, was Communism.

When Jose Saramago wrote Manual of Painting of Calligraphy, he was a Communist. After he won fame, he stood as a candidate for the Portuguese Communist Party in more than a dozen elections. He was a Communist when he died in 2010. It’s often said that politics has no place in literature. Political language, so the argument goes, is coarse and blunt; literary language is nuanced, delicate and complex. But from this fraught dialectic, Saramago finds the elusive third way, forging a politics as humanely generous as literature and a literature as socially committed as politics.

To put this another way, Saramago is a Communist, but he’s not the kind of Communist to treat you like an idiot. Though there’s plenty of wisdom in Saramago’s writing, there are no lectures. He is not a hip radical or a smug intellectual. His writing is more generous than the socialist realism of his forebears and more brave than the effete postmodernism of his contemporaries. And his political desires are simple: He wants families, workers and small communities to be left the fuck alone. If this is not a surprising conclusion, then his villains, invariably the corporation and the state, are even less so. After reading Saramago’s superbly generous novels, one can almost believe that, free from these institutions, humans would not be so violent, or petty, or ignorant. We might even live in peace.

Manual is perhaps the least generous of his novels; it is also the most self-conscious. It’s a novel of ideas—or, at least, a novel about thinking. Like other novelists of the seventies, and like every other English dissertation since, Saramago loves to theorize. In one section, for example, we are made to think about the epistemology of “naming” and the nature of the “I.”  In a line which could be cribbed from a thousand student theses, we are told that “The I at this moment is fundamentally different from what it was a moment ago, sometimes the opposite, but certainly always different.”

This is not a stupid point, but it’s not really an interesting one. Manual is more difficult than his later novels; it’s also less wise. In places, though, he approaches the intuitively simple profundity that makes his later work so rich:

With Socrates, art and Marx, one can go far. Wearing one’s father’s boots is also a way of being a man, even though one’s feet may be too small for them. The best weapon against death is not our simple life, however unique or truly precious it may be to us. The best weapon is not this life of mine which is terrified of death, it is everything that was life before and has endured, from generation to generation, up to the present. I once held my father’s skull in my hand and felt neither fear, repugnance nor sorrow: only a strange sense of power like that felt by the swimmer when he is carried along on the crest of a wave.

The novel picks up in the second half, as one of H’s friend’s is arrested and H begins to deal with apparatus of the state. As H is reminded of the violence which underpins his social world, his cleverness begins to slip away. This is, after all, Salazar’s Portugal. Physics, in the end, trumps metaphysics, and the police state is seen to be prior to H’s delicately cultivated state of mind. This is all to the good. Saramago is a talented bastard and even this, one of his lesser works, will outshine most of what we read and think.

Matt McGregor is from New Zealand, and is currently working, reading and writing in Albany, New York. More from this author →