:: Article

Digital Notebooking

By Christopher Madden.


José Saramago, The Notebook, Verso 2010.

In September 2008 the Nobel Prize laureate José Saramago was convinced by friends to join the twenty-first century in earnest by embracing the weblog, one of the defining forms of the age. Except that it also seems that Saramago never actually sat down before an interface to thrash out his ideas on screen; instead, as indicated by the title of this volume from Verso, he wrote his blog entries by hand in notebooks for his colleagues Sérgio Letria and Javier Muñoz to realise digitally for all the world’s pleasure. Written in Portuguese, Amanda Hopkinson and Daniel Hahn have translated Saramago’s constantly engaging snapshots of ‘blogging’ for an English audience.

So that’s somewhat removed from the original thoughts of the man who inspired them. Any blogger would be emboldened to assert that this threefold process of translation militates against the entire point of the enterprise, which is to communicate ideas, thoughts, reflections and whatnot in more or less real time, to be read likewise by a global audience. Putting the content of Saramago’s entries aside, The Notebook forces its readers to question the nature of blogging. In an entry from July 6 2009, Saramago himself frames this enquiry by way of reference to a review by José Mário Silva of O Caderno, presumably the Portuguese edition of the present English volume. His gripe is that Saramago is not a real blogger; without including links, engaging with your reading public online and as close to real time as possible, he has failed to honour its formal requirements. However, by the same token, there are aspects of Saramago’s style – his register, the brevity of the entries, the episodic structure which faithfully reflects the ebb and flow of global news events – that throw the criticism back at those who think like Mário Silva: in other words, does blogging not entail deeper formal parameters beyond the inclusion of new media tools such as hyperlinks and quasi-livechat?

All of this depends on how much you agree with the idea of blogging as a rhizomatic structure, which involves the kind of referential simultaneity, the existing on many levels, only new media tools can provide. Or is this necessarily the case? Blogging, after all, is ordered chronologically; tagging and labelling lend rhizomatic flavouring. Date order cannot be expunged from any writing form that pretends to respond to events as and when they happen. The essence of real time clings to linearity. Beyond these elements, we have the content of the writing, and it seems to me that blogging is most rhizomatic in its resistance to the linear development of ideas. In other words, like the events of life itself, ideas come and go, and blogging exists to reflect, perhaps in many cases mimic, this unpredictable waywardness.

Amidst all this flux, we should be glad of certain constants. Saramago’s gentle but unwavering humanity is one of these, making us think again that it is better to exist in a world in which people like him live. Or lived: The Notebook was published around the time of Saramago’s death in June, an event which cannot fail to influence our view of the book as precious and valuable documentation of one person’s humanity. And since blogging expands the omnivorous reader’s desire for plenty, it is poignant indeed to reflect on the way in which most of the subject matter upon which Saramago alighted will no longer be updated in the spirit of its writer’s support of particular causes. The diversity of issues which receive Saramago’s recurrent attention range from Palestine, Barack Obama, gender equality, and Silvio Berlusconi, through to the financial crisis, the shifting identities of Portugal and Spain, and the increasingly importunate treatment received by immigrants and migrants within the border of supposedly civilised nation-states. Binding all of these subjects is the groundswell of a left-wing mindset (the trials and tribulations of the left another constant theme) buoyed by a humanitarian sensibility that befits a writer who once described himself as a libertarian Communist.

This reader wonders how it is that the geopolitical events that pass the attention of Saramago’s firm humanitarianism never once inflame the writer’s ire. Perhaps they did. Perhaps the time that elapsed between absorbing a news event and the decision to thrash it out on the blog allowed for a period of alchemical transfer from rage to register: as one of the twentieth and twenty-first century’s major fiction writers, Saramago is able to filter the melancholy and/or anger provoked by the world through the shape-shifting contours of high-level sarcasm, irony, and the elegiac turn embraced by the blogger almost as matter of habit.

Unsurprisingly, the summit of sarcasm is reserved for the sinister clown that is Berlusconi, whom Saramago describes as ‘the Berlusconi-thing’ (June 8 2009), a specially confected compound noun expressing nothing short of imperious contempt. ‘This thing, this disease, this virus that threatens moral death to the land of Verdi is a deep sickness that needs to be wrested from the Italian consciousness’, is Saramago’s line, and I could not agree more. I have read nothing that comes close to Saramago’s wider point about Berlusconi heralding future strife for the country he is so intent on abusing for his own avaricious ends. In short, I found myself repeating internally the mantra of ‘Italian voters need to sort themselves out before it’s too late’. Arguably for Britain it is too late. It is a credit to Saramago’s international probity that he wades in on the expenses scandal that distorted this year’s General Election, reminding us that ‘David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, [who] submitted to the government a bill for the £92,000 he spent on his second home’ (May 13 2009). And they voted him in!

Exasperation and rage are two of the more familiar by-products of the repetition of blogging. The return of the already said – made all the more banal as a result of precisely the same predictable repetitions occurring in news events themselves – builds the reader to a climax, urging them on to some sort of activism. Or the climax heralds stagnation of affect: you blog to hammer out the repetitiveness of life – writing as daily escape route. Saramago modulates the inevitable return of particular material (that Berlusconi-thing again) and bypasses the deadening of style that sometimes makes blogging akin to the texture of fudge. In an entry about Barack Obama’s mention of 106-year-old Ann Nixon Cooper in his Inauguration Speech, Saramago reminds the reader of a similar world-historical black woman named Rose Banks (November 6 2008). Wide-eyed at this woeful inaccuracy (which depreciates the point he is making about the urgent need to know and remember the past), I turned the page to find the error corrected, and the civil rights icon Rosa Parks restored to her rightful place in history (November 9 2008). Saramago is beside himself, but his mistake offers up yet more space to dedicate to his recurrent theme of the centrality of historical memory to living life in the present. Ironic, then, that a form privileging the present tense should lure the writer to commit, however unwittingly, the faux pas against which he is speaking.

Saramago’s slip testifies to the fact that though it lacks his direct touch, his blogging never wants for touch of the human kind. After all, fallibility is part and parcel of this author’s commitment to the daily confrontation with the questions and issues that test the strength of our humanity. It is with this force that you are compelled to read his illuminating and ultimately reassuring reflections on the world, day in, day out.


Christopher Madden has just completed his doctoral thesis on W.G. Sebald at the University of Sheffield.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, September 24th, 2010.