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“Thoughts on culture and Europe” series: Exclusive interview with José Saramago

José Saramago
What is the role of politics in your work? Is art an effective, even subversive vehicle for addressing political questions?

J.S. Politics in itself does not play any role in my work as an author. In effect, the author is not an abstract concept, but a concrete figure living in a specific time in the framework of a specific set of circumstances. This means that all his words and actions are influenced, if not conditioned by, these circumstances. Every literary creation can be subjected to a political reading and in the same manner, with a fair probability of success, we can deduce the general outlines of an author’s intellectual world. As for the effectiveness or capacity of a work to be subversive, I believe that the less it is written as a political manifesto, the more effective it is. We should trust the readers’ intelligence.

You have recently been participating in the debate on the future of Europe. Do you think the danger of a divided Europe is a thing of the past?

J.S. What is united can be divided and so far the European Union has not acquired sufficient cohesion to allow us to speak about…union as such. The recent crisis, or rather the ongoing crisis, shows quite clearly that Europe still has a long way to go before becoming something concrete and capable of having a voice that is heard in the world.

Apart from a political project, Europe  reflects a cultural dimension as well. This, in terms of setting the boundaries of European culture and trying to pin down a European identity. Do you think it is feasible or even desirable? Where do you think such a process might lead?

J.S. No, there is no European identity and it would be preferable if there never was one. What would be the elements of such an identity? Would it be a mixture or the numerical average of several national or cultural entities? Would some prevail over others? The cultural wealth of Europe lies in diversity, not uniformity. It is positive that the peoples of Europe feel European but the imposition of any kind of common cultural denominator would be negative, even dangerous.

Your work has often been criticised for being ideological. Do you think literature should be criticised on the basis of such a criterion?

J.S. All works of men carry, to a greater or lesser degree, an ideological baggage. No one can live without ideology because no one can live without ideas. Those who accuse me of introducing ideological elements in my books are probably advocates of ‘thought unique’ and ‘political correctness’. But these too are forms of ideology which are presented in a guise of being free of ideological contamination…The Divine Comedy is clearly an ideological text, but nobody appears to be scandalised by this. Or isn’t religion a form of ideology?

Debate on globalisation usually assumes tension between the global and the local or national. Is your work inspired by this tension or do you believe the global and the local/national should be seen as complementary?

J.S. Globalisation interests me to the extent that it appears as a means by which economic and financial global spheres can dominate the political expression of citizens and peoples. Globalisation interests me to the extent that it endangers democracy. By exercising their democratic rights, the citizens of a state can replace one government with another. What they cannot do is replace the board of directors of a multinational corporation. Governments are becoming the ‘political commissars’ of economic power and democracy is being reduced to mere appearance, to nothing more than a ritual, to delusion and deceit.

How would you picture/write/direct something that you would call ‘European’?

J.S. A project in progress. I do not dare speak about the future, I am not a prophet…

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