Nobel Lecture, December 7, 1998
How Characters Became the Masters and the Author Their Apprentice
The wisest man I ever knew in my whole life could not read or write. At four o’clock in the morning, when the promise of a new day still lingered over French lands, he got up from his pallet and left for the fields, taking to pasture the half-dozen pigs whose fertility nourished him and his wife. My mother’s parents lived on this scarcity, on the small breeding of pigs that after weaning were sold to the neighbours in our village of Azinhaga in the province of Ribatejo. Their names were Jerónimo Meirinho and Josefa Caixinha and they were both illiterate. In winter when the cold of the night grew to the point of freezing the water in the pots inside the house, they went to the sty and fetched the weaklings among the piglets, taking them to their bed. Under the coarse blankets, the warmth from the humans saved the little animals from freezing and rescued them from certain death. Although the two were kindly people, it was not a compassionate soul that prompted them to act in that way: what concerned them, without sentimentalism or rhetoric, was to protect their daily bread, as is natural for people who, to maintain their life, have not learnt to think more than is needful. Many times I helped my grandfather Jerónimo in his swineherd’s labour, many times I dug the land in the vegetable garden adjoining the house, and I chopped wood for the fire, many times, turning and turning the big iron wheel which worked the water pump. I pumped water from the community well and carried it on my shoulders. Many times, in secret, dodging from the men guarding the cornfields, I went with my grandmother, also at dawn, armed with rakes, sacking and cord, to glean the stubble, the loose straw that would then serve as litter for the livestock. And sometimes, on hot summer nights, after supper, my grandfather would tell me: “José, tonight we’re going to sleep, both of us, under the fig tree”. There were two other fig trees, but that one, certainly because it was the biggest, because it was the oldest, and timeless, was, for everybody in the house, the fig tree. More or less by antonomasia, an erudite word that I met only many years after and learned the meaning of … Amongst the peace of the night, amongst the tree’s high branches a star appeared to me and then slowly hid behind a leaf while, turning my gaze in another direction I saw rising into view like a river flowing silent through the hollow sky, the opal clarity of the Milky Way, the Road to Santiago as we still used to call it in the village. With sleep delayed, night was peopled with the stories and the cases my grandfather told and told: legends, apparitions, terrors, unique episodes, old deaths, scuffles with sticks and stones, the words of our forefathers, an untiring rumour of memories that would keep me awake while at the same time gently lulling me. I could never know if he was silent when he realised that I had fallen asleep or if he kept on talking so as not to leave half-unanswered the question I invariably asked into the most delayed pauses he placed on purpose within the account: “And what happened next?” Maybe he repeated the stories for himself, so as not to forget them, or else to enrich them with new detail. At that age and as we all do at some time, needless to say, I imagined my grandfather Jerónimo was master of all the knowledge in the world. When at first light the singing of birds woke me up, he was not there any longer, had gone to the field with his animals, letting me sleep on. Then I would get up, fold the coarse blanket and barefoot – in the village I always walked barefoot till I was fourteen – and with straws still stuck in my hair, I went from the cultivated part of the yard to the other part, where the sties were, by the house. My grandmother, already afoot before my grandfather, set in front of me a big bowl of coffee with pieces of bread in and asked me if I had slept well. If I told her some bad dream, born of my grandfather’s stories, she always reassured me: “Don’t make much of it, in dreams there’s nothing solid”. At the time I thought, though my grandmother was also a very wise woman, she couldn’t rise to the heights grandfather could, a man who, lying under a fig tree, having at his side José his grandson, could set the universe in motion just with a couple of words. It was only many years after, when my grandfather had departed from this world and I was a grown man, I finally came to realise that my grandmother, after all, also believed in dreams. There could have been no other reason why, sitting one evening at the door of her cottage where she now lived alone, staring at the biggest and smallest stars overhead, she said these words: “The world is so beautiful and it is such a pity that I have to die”. She didn’t say she was afraid of dying, but that it was a pity to die, as if her hard life of unrelenting work was, in that almost final moment, receiving the grace of a supreme and last farewell, the consolation of beauty revealed. She was sitting at the door of a house like none other I can imagine in all the world, because in it lived people who could sleep with piglets as if they were their own children, people who were sorry to leave life just because the world was beautiful; and this Jerónimo, my grandfather, swineherd and story-teller, feeling death about to arrive and take him, went and said goodbye to the trees in the yard, one by one, embracing them and crying because he knew he wouldn’t see them again.
Many years later, writing for the first time about my grandfather Jerónimo and my grandmother Josefa (I haven’t said so far that she was, according to many who knew her when young, a woman of uncommon beauty), I was finally aware I was transforming the ordinary people they were into literary characters: this was, probably, my way of not forgetting them, drawing and redrawing their faces with the pencil that ever changes memory, colouring and illuminating the monotony of a dull and horizonless daily routine as if creating, over the unstable map of memory, the supernatural unreality of the country where one has decided to spend one’s life. The same attitude of mind that, after evoking the fascinating and enigmatic figure of a certain Berber grandfather, would lead me to describe more or less in these words an old photo (now almost eighty years old) showing my parents “both standing, beautiful and young, facing the photographer, showing in their faces an expression of solemn seriousness, maybe fright in front of the camera at the very instant when the lens is about to capture the image they will never have again, because the following day will be, implacably, another day … My mother is leaning her right elbow against a tall pillar and holds, in her right hand drawn in to her body, a flower. My father has his arm round my mother’s back, his callused hand showing over her shoulder, like a wing. They are standing, shy, on a carpet patterned with branches. The canvas forming the fake background of the picture shows diffuse and incongruous neo-classic architecture.” And I ended, “The day will come when I will tell these things. Nothing of this matters except to me. A Berber grandfather from North Africa, another grandfather a swineherd, a wonderfully beautiful grandmother; serious and handsome parents, a flower in a picture – what other genealogy would I care for? and what better tree would I lean against?”
I wrote these words almost thirty years ago, having no other purpose than to rebuild and register instants of the lives of those people who engendered and were closest to my being, thinking that nothing else would need explaining for people to know where I came from and what materials the person I am was made of, and what I have become little by little. But after all I was wrong, biology doesn’t determine everything and as for genetics, very mysterious must have been its paths to make its voyages so long … My genealogical tree (you will forgive the presumption of naming it this way, being so diminished in the substance of its sap) lacked not only some of those branches that time and life’s successive encounters cause to burst from the main stem but also someone to help its roots penetrate the deepest subterranean layers, someone who could verify the consistency and flavour of its fruit, someone to extend and strengthen its top to make of it a shelter for birds of passage and a support for nests. When painting my parents and grandparents with the paints of literature, transforming them from common people of flesh and blood into characters, newly and in different ways builders of my life, I was, without noticing, tracing the path by which the characters I would invent later on, the others, truly literary, would construct and bring to me the materials and the tools which, at last, for better or for worse, in the sufficient and in the insufficient, in profit and loss, in all that is scarce but also in what is too much, would make of me the person whom I nowadays recognise as myself: the creator of those characters but at the same time their own creation. In one sense it could even be said that, letter-by-letter, word-by-word, page-by-page, book after book, I have been successively implanting in the man I was the characters I created. I believe that without them I wouldn’t be the person I am today; without them maybe my life wouldn’t have succeeded in becoming more than an inexact sketch, a promise that like so many others remained only a promise, the existence of someone who maybe might have been but in the end could not manage to be.
Now I can clearly see those who were my life-masters, those who most intensively taught me the hard work of living, those dozens of characters from my novels and plays that right now I see marching past before my eyes, those men and women of paper and ink, those people I believed I was guiding as I the narrator chose according to my whim, obedient to my will as an author, like articulated puppets whose actions could have no more effect on me than the burden and the tension of the strings I moved them with. Of those masters, the first was, undoubtedly, a mediocre portrait-painter, whom I called simply H, the main character of a story that I feel may reasonably be called a double initiation (his own, but also in a manner of speaking the author’s) entitled Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, who taught me the simple honesty of acknowledging and observing, without resentment or frustration, my own limitations: as I could not and did not aspire to venture beyond my little plot of cultivated land, all I had left was the possibility of digging down, underneath, towards the roots. My own but also the world’s, if I can be allowed such an immoderate ambition. It’s not up to me, of course, to evaluate the merits of the results of efforts made, but today I consider it obvious that all my work from then on has obeyed that purpose and that principle.
Then came the men and women of Alentejo, that same brotherhood of the condemned of the earth where belonged my grandfather Jerónimo and my grandmother Josefa, primitive peasants obliged to hire out the strength of their arms for a wage and working conditions that deserved only to be called infamous, getting for less than nothing a life which the cultivated and civilised beings we are proud to be are pleased to call – depending on the occasion – precious, sacred or sublime. Common people I knew, deceived by a Church both accomplice and beneficiary of the power of the State and of the landlords, people permanently watched by the police, people so many times innocent victims of the arbitrariness of a false justice. Three generations of a peasant family, the Badweathers, from the beginning of the century to the April Revolution of 1974 which toppled dictatorship, move through this novel, called Risen from the Ground, and it was with such men and women risen from the ground, real people first, figures of fiction later, that I learned how to be patient, to trust and to confide in time, that same time that simultaneously builds and destroys us in order to build and once more to destroy us. The only thing I am not sure of having assimilated satisfactorily is something that the hardship of those experiences turned into virtues in those women and men: a naturally austere attitude towards life. Having in mind, however, that the lesson learned still after more than twenty years remains intact in my memory, that every day I feel its presence in my spirit like a persistent summons: I haven’t lost, not yet at least, the hope of meriting a little more the greatness of those examples of dignity proposed to me in the vast immensity of the plains of Alentejo. Time will tell.
What other lessons could I possibly receive from a Portuguese who lived in the sixteenth century, who composed the Rimas and the glories, the shipwrecks and the national disenchantments in the Lusíadas, who was an absolute poetical genius, the greatest in our literature, no matter how much sorrow this causes to Fernando Pessoa, who proclaimed himself its Super Camões? No lesson would fit me, no lesson could I learn, except the simplest, which could have been offered to me by Luís Vaz de Camões in his pure humanity, for instance the proud humility of an author who goes knocking at every door looking for someone willing to publish the book he has written, thereby suffering the scorn of the ignoramuses of blood and race, the disdainful indifference of a king and of his powerful entourage, the mockery with which the world has always received the visits of poets, visionaries and fools. At least once in life, every author has been, or will have to be, Luís de Camões, even if they haven’t written the poem Sôbolos Rios … Among nobles, courtiers and censors from the Holy Inquisition, among the loves of yester-year and the disillusionments of premature old age, between the pain of writing and the joy of having written, it was this ill man, returning poor from India where so many sailed just to get rich, it was this soldier blind in one eye, slashed in his soul, it was this seducer of no fortune who will never again flutter the hearts of the ladies in the royal court, whom I put on stage in a play called What shall I do with this Book?, whose ending repeats another question, the only truly important one, the one we will never know if it will ever have a sufficient answer: “What will you do with this book?” It was also proud humility to carry under his arm a masterpiece and to be unfairly rejected by the world. Proud humility also, and obstinate too – wanting to know what the purpose will be, tomorrow, of the books we are writing today, and immediately doubting whether they will last a long time (how long?) the reassuring reasons we are given or that are given us by ourselves. No-one is better deceived than when he allows others to deceive him.
Here comes a man whose left hand was taken in war and a woman who came to this world with the mysterious power of seeing what lies beyond people’s skin. His name is Baltazar Mateus and his nickname Seven-Suns; she is known as Blimunda and also, later, as Seven-Moons because it is written that where there is a sun there will have to be a moon and that only the conjoined and harmonious presence of the one and the other will, through love, make earth habitable. There also approaches a Jesuit priest called Bartolomeu who invented a machine capable of going up to the sky and flying with no other fuel than the human will, the will which, people say, can do anything, the will that could not, or did not know how to, or until today did not want to, be the sun and the moon of simple kindness or of even simpler respect. These three Portuguese fools from the eighteenth century, in a time and country where superstition and the fires of the Inquisition flourished, where vanity and the megalomania of a king raised a convent, a palace and a basilica which would amaze the outside world, if that world, in a very unlikely supposition, had eyes enough to see Portugal, eyes like Blimunda’s, eyes to see what was hidden … Here also comes a crowd of thousands and thousands of men with dirty and callused hands, exhausted bodies after having lifted year after year, stone-by-stone, the implacable convent walls, the huge palace rooms, the columns and pilasters, the airy belfries, the basilica dome suspended over empty space. The sounds we hear are from Domenico Scarlatti’s harpsichord, and he doesn’t quite know if he is supposed to be laughing or crying … This is the story of Baltazar and Blimunda, a book where the apprentice author, thanks to what had long ago been taught to him in his grandparents’ Jerónimo’s and Josefa’s time, managed to write some similar words not without poetry: “Besides women’s talk, dreams are what hold the world in its orbit. But it is also dreams that crown it with moons, that’s why the sky is the splendour in men’s heads, unless men’s heads are the one and only sky.” So be it.
Of poetry the teenager already knew some lessons, learnt in his textbooks when, in a technical school in Lisbon, he was being prepared for the trade he would have at the beginning of his labour’s life: mechanic. He also had good poetry masters during long evening hours in public libraries, reading at random, with finds from catalogues, with no guidance, no-one to advise him, with the creative amazement of the sailor who invents every place he discovers. But it was at the Industrial School Library that The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis started to be written … There, one day the young mechanic (he was about seventeen) found a magazine entitled Atena containing poems signed with that name and, naturally, being very poorly acquainted with the literary cartography of his country, he thought that there really was a Portuguese poet called Ricardo Reis. Very soon, though, he found that this poet was really one Fernando Nogueira Pessoa, who signed his works with the names of non-existent poets, born of his mind. He called them heteronyms, a word that did not exist in the dictionaries of the time which is why it was so hard for the apprentice to letters to know what it meant. He learnt many of Ricardo Reis’ poems by heart (“To be great, be one/Put yourself into the little things you do”); but in spite of being so young and ignorant, he could not accept that a superior mind could really have conceived, without remorse, the cruel line “Wise is he who is satisfied with the spectacle of the world”. Later, much later, the apprentice, already with grey hairs and a little wiser in his own wisdom, dared to write a novel to show this poet of the Odes something about the spectacle of the world of 1936, where he had placed him to live out his last few 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 his way of telling him: “Here is the spectacle of the world, my poet of serene bitterness and elegant scepticism. Enjoy, behold, since to be sitting is your wisdom …”
The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis ended with the melancholy words: “Here, where the sea has ended and land awaits.” So there would be no more discoveries by Portugal, fated to one infinite wait for futures not even imaginable; only the usual fado, the same old saudade and little more … Then the apprentice imagined that there still might be a way of sending the ships back to the water, for instance, by moving the land and setting that out to sea. An immediate fruit of collective Portuguese resentment of the historical disdain of Europe (more accurate to say fruit of my own resentment …) the novel I then wrote – The Stone Raft – separated from the Continent the whole Iberian Peninsula and transformed it into a big floating island, moving of its own accord with no oars, no sails, no propellers, in a southerly direction, “a mass of stone and land, covered with cities, villages, rivers, woods, factories and bushes, arable land, with its people and animals” on its way to a new Utopia: the cultural meeting of the Peninsular peoples with the peoples from the other side of the Atlantic, thereby defying – my strategy went that far – the suffocating rule exercised over that region by the United States of America … A vision twice Utopian would see this political fiction as a much more generous and human metaphor: that Europe, all of it, should move South to help balance the world, as compensation for its former and its present colonial abuses. That is, Europe at last as an ethical reference. The characters in The Stone Raft – two women, three men and a dog – continually travel through the Peninsula as it furrows the ocean. The world is changing and they know they have to find in themselves the new persons they will become (not to mention the dog, he is not like other dogs …). This will suffice for them.
Then the apprentice recalled that at a remote time of his life he had worked as a proof-reader and that if, so to say, in The Stone Raft he had revised the future, now it might not be a bad thing to revise the past, inventing a novel to be called History of the Siege of Lisbon, where a proof-reader, checking a book with the same title but a real history book and tired of watching how “History” is less and less able to surprise, decides to substitute a “yes” for a “no”, subverting the authority of “historical truth”. Raimundo Silva, the proof-reader, is a simple, common man, distinguished from the crowd only by believing that all things have their visible sides and their invisible ones and that we will know nothing about them until we manage to see both. He talks about this with the historian thus: “I must remind you that proof-readers are serious people, much experienced in literature and life, My book, don’t forget, deals with history. However, since I have no intention of pointing out other contradictions, in my modest opinion, Sir, everything that is not literature is life, History as well, Especially history, without wishing to give offence, And painting and music, Music has resisted since birth, it comes and goes, tries to free itself from the word, I suppose out of envy, only to submit in the end, And painting, Well now, painting is nothing more than literature achieved with paintbrushes, I trust you haven’t forgotten that mankind began to paint long before it knew how to write, Are you familiar with the proverb, If you don’t have a dog, go hunting with a cat, in other words, the man who cannot write, paints or draws, as if he were a child, What you are trying to say, in other words, is that literature already existed before it was born, Yes, Sir, just like man who, in a manner of speaking, existed before he came into being, It strikes me that you have missed your vocation, you should have become a philosopher, or historian, you have the flair and temperament needed for these disciplines, I lack the necessary training, Sir, and what can a simple man achieve without training, I was more than fortunate to come into the world with my genes in order, but in a raw state as it were, and then no education beyond primary school, You could have presented yourself as being self-taught, the product of your own worthy efforts, there’s nothing to be ashamed of, society in the past took pride in its autodidacts, No longer, progress has come along and put an end to all of that, now the self-taught are frowned upon, only those who write entertaining verses and stories are entitled to be and go on being autodidacts, lucky for them, but as for me, I must confess that I never had any talent for literary creation, Become a philosopher, man, You have a keen sense of humour, Sir, with a distinct flair for irony, and I ask myself how you ever came to devote yourself to history, serious and profound science as it is, I’m only ironic in real life, It has always struck me that history is not real life, literature, yes, and nothing else, But history was real life at the time when it could not yet be called history, So you believe, Sir, that history is real life, Of course, I do, I meant to say that history was real life, No doubt at all, What would become of us if the deleatur did not exist, sighed the proof-reader.” It is useless to add that the apprentice had learnt, with Raimundo Silva, the lesson of doubt. It was about time.
Well, probably it was this learning of doubt that made him go through the writing of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. True, and he has said so, the title was the result of an optical illusion, but it is fair to ask whether it was the serene example of the proof-reader who, all the time, had been preparing the ground from where the new novel would gush out. This time it was not a matter of looking behind the pages of the New Testament searching for antitheses, but of illuminating their surfaces, like that of a painting, with a low light to heighten their relief, the traces of crossings, the shadows of depressions. That’s how the apprentice read, now surrounded by evangelical characters, as if for the first time, the description of the massacre of the innocents and, having read, he couldn’t understand. He couldn’t understand why there were already martyrs in a religion that would have to wait thirty years more to listen to its founder pronouncing the first word about it, he could not understand why the only person that could have done so dared not save the lives of the children of Bethlehem, he could not understand Joseph’s lack of a minimum feeling of responsibility, of remorse, of guilt, or even of curiosity, after returning with his family from Egypt. It cannot even be argued in defence that it was necessary for the children of Bethlehem to die to save the life of Jesus: simple common sense, that should preside over all things human and divine, is there to remind us that God would not send His Son to Earth, particularly with the mission of redeeming the sins of mankind, to die beheaded by a soldier of Herod at the age of two … In that Gospel, written by the apprentice with the great respect due to great drama, Joseph will be aware of his guilt, will accept remorse as a punishment for the sin he has committed and will be taken to die almost without resistance, as if this were the last remaining thing to do to clear his accounts with the world. The apprentice’s Gospel is not, consequently, one more edifying legend of blessed beings and gods, but the story of a few human beings subjected to a power they fight but cannot defeat. Jesus, who will inherit the dusty sandals with which his father had walked so many country roads, will also inherit his tragic feeling of responsibility and guilt that will never abandon him, not even when he raises his voice from the top of the cross: “Men, forgive him because he knows not what he has done”, referring certainly to the God who has sent him there, but perhaps also, if in that last agony he still remembers, his real father who has generated him humanly in flesh and blood. As you can see, the apprentice had already made a long voyage when in his heretical Gospel he wrote the last words of the temple dialogue between Jesus and the scribe: “Guilt is a wolf that eats its cub after having devoured its father, The wolf of which you speak has already devoured my father, Then it will be soon your turn, And what about you, have you ever been devoured, Not only devoured, but also spewed up”.
Had Emperor Charlemagne not established a monastery in North Germany, had that monastery not been the origin of the city of Münster, had Münster not wished to celebrate its twelve-hundredth anniversary with an opera about the dreadful sixteenth-century war between Protestant Anabaptists and Catholics, the apprentice would not have written his play In Nomine Dei. Once more, with no other help than the tiny light of his reason, the apprentice had to penetrate the obscure labyrinth of religious beliefs, the beliefs that so easily make human beings kill and be killed. And what he saw was, once again, the hideous mask of intolerance, an intolerance that in Münster became an insane paroxysm, an intolerance that insulted the very cause that both parties claimed to defend. Because it was not a question of war in the name of two inimical gods, but of war in the name of a same god. Blinded by their own beliefs, the Anabaptists and the Catholics of Münster were incapable of understanding the most evident of all proofs: on Judgement Day, when both parties come forward to receive the reward or the punishment they deserve for their actions on earth, God – if His decisions are ruled by anything like human logic – will have to accept them all in Paradise, for the simple reason that they all believe in it. The terrible slaughter in Münster taught the apprentice that religions, despite all they promised, have never been used to bring men together and that the most absurd of all wars is a holy war, considering that God cannot, even if he wanted to, declare war on himself …
Blind. The apprentice thought, “we are blind”, and he sat down and wrote Blindness to remind those who might read it that we pervert reason when we humiliate life, that human dignity is insulted every day by the powerful of our world, that the universal lie has replaced the plural truths, that man stopped respecting himself when he lost the respect due to his fellow-creatures. Then the apprentice, as if trying to exorcise the monsters generated by the blindness of reason, started writing the simplest of all stories: one person is looking for another, because he has realised that life has nothing more important to demand from a human being. The book is called All the Names. Unwritten, all our names are there. The names of the living and the names of the dead.
I conclude. The voice that read these pages wished to be the echo of the conjoined voices of my characters. I don’t have, as it were, more voice than the voices they had. Forgive me if what has seemed little to you, to me is all.
Translated from the Portuguese: Tim Crosfield and Fernando Rodrigues
Their work and discoveries range from the formation of black holes and genetic scissors to efforts to combat hunger and develop new auction formats.
See them all presented here.