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.