In antiquity, painting and writing were thought of as two aspects of the same science. The science was called antigraphy. As its title suggests, this is the theme of Nobel-Prize winner José Saramago’s first novel, Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, now translated into English and available for the first time in North America. Written in 1976, when Saramago was already fifty-five, the novel serves as an essay on art, a spiritual journey, a political manifesto, and even a love story. The main character H. makes a living by painting portraits for the upper-middle class Portuguese bourgeoisie. He feels he’s not a real painter, and he is tortured by this fact. Frustrated, he turns to writing an autobiographical novel, for both self-exploration and as a way to revive art under Salazar’s fascist state; fascism, Saramago writes, cripples art. Though H. attempts to find love and redefine himself as an artist, the real question underneath Saramago’s first novel is if Portuguese literature is possible under Salazar. Similarly, he asks if literature is possible under Franco, Mussolini, Stalin, or Hitler. Judging by the notable writers and artists to shape the culture of the countries before and after, but not during these fascist dictatorships, and judging by the fact that Saramago’s literary career could only take off the very year that Salazar’s regime fell, one must say that true art is only possible in a politically free country.
Though the tone of Manual of Painting and Calligraphy has certainly not matured into the iconic and irreverent tongue-in-cheek style Saramago fans know and love, Saramago’s trademark political opinions and anti-religious jabs are present. He quotes Marx for pages at a time, and proclaims sorts of political manifestos: “I declare that men are not brothers. Or, rather, not all men can be brothers. Capitalists like Rockefeller, Melo, Krupp, Schneider, Champalimaud, Brito, Vinhas, Agnelli, Dupont de Nemours are not my brothers, just as the police in their service are not my brothers.” Echoes of fascism are still found in Italy, where H. takes an extended vacation as a “serious art lover.” His autobiographical novel within the novel is about a previous trip from the north to the south of Italy, the chapters interspersed with scenes from H.’s present life: sexual encounters with his client’s secretary, breaking up with his girlfriend, dinner parties and jealous scenes with friends, each of whom describe themselves as “exploiters and social parasites” because of the professions they pursue. In the novel within the novel, H. describes, or lists, classic artworks that narrate the history of painting. In order to rediscover himself as an artist, H. must return to the source of modern art, the Renascence and the nation of its birth, Italy, which brings H. to his knees in a “state of total submission,” like a pilgrim entering Mecca. Travelling in the ancient cities and museums of the Italian peninsula, H. relearns something he has forgotten while living under fascist rule: that a work of art is freedom.
During the process of writing, H.’s painting becomes more abstract. In fact, the neo-industrialist S. cancels his portrait commission because the portrait “scarcely shows any likeness;” that is, because it is abstract rather than traditional. H’s painting is modern, and therefore the backward-looking aristocrats of Europe cannot understand it. But what’s the point of the artistic process? H. isn’t completely sure, other than to note that after writing two hundred or so pages, “certain things are now clearer.” Through writing, he has “liquidated” his past and previous behavior patterns, he razed his old self and “created a desert.” He had to completely empty himself of who he was and what he did, before he could feel complete, and do what he wanted to do. Symbolically – coincidentally – H. achieves this “emptying out” at the same that he falls in love with the sister of a friend who has been arrested, both of whom are Marxist activists. In the interest of saving their citizens from losing all rights, the military threatens Salazar’s regime, which made Portugal a veritable prison. The fascist state falls, as H.’s inner prison walls fall.
Clearly, the reader can see how much of Saramago’s characteristic style is a result of the humiliation and frustration that comes from living under a fascist state. Yet through the story of H. in Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, Saramago reminds us that politics is not everything; one needs to first liberate oneself artistically and spiritually in order to truly be free.
Translated from the Spanish by Giovanni Pontiero
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt