1998 Nobel Prize in Literature Presentation Speech

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1998 Nobel Prize in Literature Presentation Speech

by Professor Kjell Espmark, Member of the Swedish Academy, Chairman of Its Nobel Committee

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highness, Ladies and Gentlemen,

There is one type of writer who, like a bird of prey, circles time and again over the same territory. Book succeeds book, in progress towards a coherent picture of the world. José Saramago belongs to the opposite category, writers who repeatedly seem to want to invent both a world and a style that is new. In his novel The Stone Raft, he makes the Iberian peninsula separate and drift out into the Atlantic, an opening that provides a wealth of possibilities for a satirical description of society. But in his next book, The History of the Siege of Lisbon, no trace of this geological catastrophe is to be found. In Blindness: A Novel, the epidemic that deprives people of their sight is confined between the covers of the work. In his next novel All the Names, at the Population Registration Office nothing has been heard of any rampant spread of blindness, nor in previous works has there been anything to suggest the existence of this chillingly all-embracing agency. It is not Saramago’s ambition to portray a coherent universe. On the contrary, he seems every time to be trying out a new model to apprehend an evasive reality, fully aware that each model is a crude approximation that could permit other approximate values, indeed one that requires them. He explicitly condemns anything that claims to be “the only version”; it is merely “another version among many.” There is no overriding truth. Saramago’s apparently contradictory images of the world have to be placed alongside each other to provide their own alternative accounts of an existence that is fundamentally protean and unfathomable.

In each and every one of these versions, the rules of common sense are suspended in some way. This is not uncommon in recent fiction. But here we are dealing with something different from narrative in which anything can happen—and does so all the time. Saramago has adopted a demanding artistic discipline which allows the laws of nature or common sense to be violated in one decisive respect only, and which then follows the consequences of this irrationality with all the logical rationality and exact observation it is capable of. In his novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, he makes a flesh and blood character of a figure that has only existed in the imaginary world, one of the guises adopted by the poet Pessoa. But this miracle gives rise to a masterfully realistic picture of Lisbon in the 1930s. Again, the severance of the Iberian peninsula that allows it to drift off into the Atlantic is a one-off violation of the natural order; what follows is a hilariously precise description of the consequences of this absurd aberration. In The History of the Siege of Lisbon the accepted order of things is subverted more discreetly. A proof-reader introduces a “not” into a book about the war of liberation against the Moors, thus altering the course of history. As penance he is made to write an alternative history that delineates the consequences of his amendment; this is once again a version that denies any claim to be the only valid one. In the same spirit, Saramago has also published a new, wonderful version of the narrative of the gospels, a version in which the contravention of the expected order is to be found in God’s petty hunger for power so that the role of Jesus is redefined as one of defiance. Perhaps the greatest scope allowed to the fantastic is in Baltasar and Blimunda where the clairvoyant heroine gathers up the wills of the dying—energy that makes the aerial voyage in the book possible. But she too and her love are placed in an objectively described historical process, in this case the construction of the convent at Mafra that cost so much human suffering.

This rich work, with its constantly shifting perspectives and constantly renewed images of the world, is held together by a narrator whose voice is with us all the time. Apparently he is a story-teller of the old-fashioned omniscient variety, a master of ceremonies standing on the stage next to his creations, commenting on them, guiding their steps and sometimes winking at us across the footlights. But Saramago uses these traditional techniques with amused distance. The narrator is also adept in the contemporary devices of the absurd and develops a modern scepticism when faced with the omniscient claim to be able to say how things stand. The result is literature characterised at one and the same time by sagacious reflection and by insight into the limitations of sagacity, by the fantastic and by precise realism, by cautious empathy and by critical acuity, by warmth and by irony. This is Saramago’s unique amalgam.

Dear José Saramago,

Anybody who tries in a few minutes to portray your work will end up articulating a series of paradoxes. You have created a cosmos that does not want to be a coherent universe. You have given us ingenious versions of a history that will not allow itself to be taken captive. You have taken the stage as the kind of narrator we feel we have long been familiar with—but with all of our contemporary liberties at your fingertips and imbued with contemporary scepticism about definite knowledge. Your distinguishing mark is irony coupled with discerning empathy, distance without distance. It is my hope that this award will attract many people to your rich and complex world. I would like to express the warm congratulations of the Swedish Academy as I now request you to receive this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature from the hands of His Majesty the King.

[© The Nobel Foundation, 1998.]

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1998 Nobel Prize in Literature Presentation Speech

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