Is José Saramago an anti-Semite? The answer might be allegorical. In March 2002, during a visit to Ramallah with seven other delegates of the International Parliament of Writers, Saramago compared the situation of Palestinians in the occupied territories to the extermination of Jews in Auschwitz. Saramago’s remarks provoked an uproar, especially in Israel, where he has many admirers. Readers in Tel Aviv, Haifa and other metropolitan areas returned such masterpieces as The Death of Ricardo Reis and Blindness to stores in protest. The controversy spread beyond the Middle East: Saramago’s comments were widely condemned in newspapers and magazines in Europe and the Americas.
I, for my part, have been a passionate admirer of Saramago since the early 1990s, when I first reviewed him for The Nation. My initial reaction to his remarks was one of disbelief, followed by dismay. Saramago deserves credit for having gone to Ramallah and borne witness to the suffering of ordinary Palestinians. But the Auschwitz analogy is reckless. While there are disconcerting parallels between the Israeli occupation and the ghettoization of Jews under National Socialism–as numerous Israeli critics, from the late philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz to former Knesset member Shulamit Aloni have pointed out–Israel is not exterminating Palestinians. Ramallah may resemble a prison, but it is far from being a death camp.
A few weeks after the Saramago controversy broke out, I had a public conversation with him at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. In preparation, I spent several days reading recently published interviews and essays in Portuguese, and rereading his novels. I also discussed his politics (Saramago remains a member of Portugal’s Communist Party) with colleagues, notably Saramago’s friend in Porto Alegre, the Brazilian-Jewish novelist Moacyr Scliar.
I asked Saramago, point-blank, if he was an anti-Semite. His answer was a categorical no. He repeated to me what he had told the newspaper Ha’aretz: The role of the intellectual is “to make emotional comparisons that would shock people into understanding.” He also wondered if “the Jews who died in Nazi concentration camps were persecuted throughout history, or forgotten in ghettoes…if that vast multitude of the wretched would not feel ashamed to see the vile acts their descendants are committing” in the occupied territories. He added: “I wonder if having suffered so much would not be the main reason to spare others suffering.”
When I pressed him further about the precise nature of his remarks in Ramallah, he tried to persuade me and the audience that the Israeli press had taken his views out of context. But had it really? Saramago didn’t deny that he had likened Ramallah to Auschwitz, nor did he apologize. The dialogue left me frustrated.
The appearance in English of his novel The Cave, originally published in Lisbon in 2000, and lucidly translated by Margaret Jull Costa, provides an opportunity to revisit the question of Saramago’s politics. Rich in allusions and archetypes, this brilliant novel opens with a quote from Plato’s Republic: “What a strange scene you describe and what strange prisoners. They are just like us.” As is often the case with Saramago, the coordinates of time and space are left vague, although, judging by the references to technology (TV, electricity, amusement parks), we seem to be somewhere in the present. The world of The Cave is dominated by The Center, a sinister mega-mall of fashionable stores, offices, apartments, arcades. The protagonist is Cipriano Algor, a 64-year-old potter who has spent his entire life in a small village and represents, quite literally, The Periphery. He lives humbly with his daughter, Marta, and his son-in-law, Marçal Gacho, who works as a security guard in The Center. Early in the story, Cipriano is informed by the authorities that The Center will no longer buy his pots and jars, since customers now prefer plastic; he has been made obsolete.
Cipriano’s dilemma takes him on an unexpected journey that radically tests his values. First, he stumbles upon a dog, which he names Found and which becomes his closest companion. With his daughter’s encouragement, he decides that if The Center doesn’t want pots and jars, then he should think of another item to sell. He and his daughter come up with an idea: small human figures dressed in multiple costumes. He presents them to the authorities and, to his surprise, he receives a new commission. Before long, he leaves his village to move to The Center, along with his daughter and son-in-law. Suddenly, his life has meaning again.
Or so it seems. In fact, poor Cipriano is being set up for a fall. After moving to The Center, he discovers that unimpeded movement there is forbidden. The inhabitants are asked to be happy, to enjoy the amenities, but not to roam beyond the site. The doors of their apartments remain closed; entire sections of The Center are beyond their reach.
Cipriano, however, reveals a pesky independent streak when he wanders into the underground of The Center, violating its restrictions. There he discovers a cave in which three men and three women are buried. The cave, it turns out, is the same place that Plato writes about in his famous parable of illusions, a place where people are pushed to live in darkness, observing a parade of shadows projected on the wall that are the result of the visual effect created by a bonfire. Late capitalist society, Saramago suggests, is not so different from the cave; it is a place where reality has been obliterated by deceptive appearances, where we see only shadows of ourselves.
As in Saramago’s other novels, one is acutely aware of the workings of Fate in The Cave. Cipriano, Marta and Marçal are ultimately marionettes in a tale where they have no free will. Saramago, their creator, leaves them at the mercy of superior forces whose raison d’être they may ignore, but which shape their lives with ruthless efficiency. As we expect, The Center swallows The Periphery, as represented by Cipriano. This sense of destiny is echoed by the rhythm of Saramago’s paragraphs, which often run for entire pages.
The effect of Saramago’s style is mesmerizing and also emphatically mythical. That, of course, is Saramago’s objective: to turn his plot into an allegory, which, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, is the “description of a subject under the guise of some other subject of aptly suggestive resemblance.”
Allegory was, of course, ubiquitous in the Middle Ages, but its manichean depictions of the struggle between cosmic forces–good and evil, darkness and light–have declined in appeal with the rise of novelistic realism, with its emphasis on finely observed, well-rounded individual characters. Saramago modernizes allegory in The Cave because he doesn’t foist too much awkward symbolism onto his protagonist. Cipriano may be a metaphor, but he is never cartoonish, and his predicament is poignantly depicted. Saramago writes, amazingly enough, with a heavy hand and a light touch. What might seem like a trite social critique in the hands of a lesser writer is a powerful commentary on the dream world we live in.
Applied to politics, however, Saramago’s penchant for allegory fails him miserably. His April 21, 2002, article in El País was a diatribe that transformed “the well-known biblical legend of the combat between the little shepherd-boy David and the Philistine giant Goliath” into a war of adolescent Palestinian stone-throwers and hostile Israeli tanks and helicopters. The analogy isn’t entirely false: Conservative military analysts like Anthony Cordesman have spoken of the struggle as a textbook case of “asymmetric warfare.” But it is essential to go beyond this superficial approach: The gratuitous brutality of the Israeli army is at once a shame and a disgrace; conversely, the blind faith of Palestinian youngsters hypnotized by Hamas, who become portable bombs designed to kill civilians, is equally abhorrent. The Israeli-Palestinian discord isn’t a novel, much less a biblical parable. Auschwitz isn’t an allegory, and neither is Ramallah. These two human catastrophes are calamitous in their own terms and ought to be understood in their proper contexts.
An intellectual of Saramago’s stature ought to know better than to inject charged biblical allusions into a problem that is already volatile enough. He’s hardly the first to do so. As Saramago surely knows, fundamentalists on both sides of the conflict–the settlers and the Likud, on the one hand; Hamas and Islamic Jihad on the other–view the conflict in similarly biblical terms. In fact, the battle between Israel and Palestine isn’t the latest cycle of an eternal duel between Abraham’s children; rather, it is a century-old confrontation between rival nationalisms. Likewise, the encounter between Nazism and the Jews wasn’t another scene in the clash between Christ and Antichrist. Saramago’s intention may have been “to shock people into understanding.” Whether he succeeded is another question altogether. Is shock truly the way to bring enlightenment in a region where shock tactics are the norm in political rhetoric? Would it make sense to compare the Portuguese people of today with the cruel colonizers of Brazil in the sixteenth century?
Having read almost all of Saramago’s oeuvre, and in spite of our dissatisfying tête-à-tête, I don’t believe he is an anti-Semite. He is no T.S. Eliot. But in making grandiose pronouncements about the Middle East, he has succumbed to a familiar and dangerous temptation, one that has turned one too many sages into clowns. As The Cave demonstrates, the Portuguese Nobel laureate is a literary master at the peak of his talent. He is also a fool for using his reputation to misrepresent, and to confuse even further, a tragic conflict that isn’t in need of obfuscating symbolism but of brave and tangible solutions.