José Saramago and the Reconstruction of Novel as an Inner Monologue

Jose Saramago

After having weathered the post-modernist deconstructionist storm of the last fifty years, I think the novel format has found its reconstructionist master in the person of José de Sousa Saramago (pronounced Sa-ra-ma-YU in Portugese), the late Portugese writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998 and passed away in June 2010.

Saramago writes in long breathless sentences and paragraphs, long freight-train of a narrative that usually runs for pages before breaking for a breather. Compared to commercial titans of the novel format like James Patterson, for example, who writes in easily digestible chunks of description and dialog and chapters as short of two pages, Saramago is an anomaly.

However, whether he outsells Patterson or not (and the answer is decidedly NOT), from a historic perspective I think he has accomplished something revolutionary: he revived the novel form as a pure unadulterated inner monologue. He is a “fundamentalist” and “purist” in that regard.

First, consider the following typical passage from his novel CAVE:

This was when Cipriano Algor said, Don’t worry, we’ll get there on time, I’m not worried, replied his son-in-law, only just managing to conceal his anxiety, Of course you’re not, but you know what I mean, said Cipriano Algor.

Normally, we would expect this passage written as:

This was when Cipriano Algor said:

“Don’t worry, we’ll get there on time.”

“I’m not worried,” replied his son-in-law, only just managing to conceal his anxiety.

“Of course you’re not, but you know what I mean,” said Cipriano Algor.

So, what happened here? The quotation marks have disappeared, together with the pause and white space which usually signals shifting from one character to another or from dialog to description, etc.

The traditional spatial arrangement of the narrative is broken and then slammed together into one seamless string of inner monologue.

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I say “inner monologue” because isn’t that really the way we “think” inside our heads? Isn’t it the way we end up vocalizing internally what we read, as a raging river of ideas, images, linguistic components, sounds, etc?

There are no quotation marks in that inner monologue but an internal recognition, a mental bookmark that the speaker has changed, or that we are thinking of a description instead of a dialogue, etc.

Thus by writing in that format, Saramago is already doing the “internal monologing” for us upfront, just like a mother bird chews the food before depositing it into the mouths of her fledgling chicks.

Let’s remember that quotation marks and the way dialogue is written on its own separate lines in “codex” (book format) have its own history. That is, there was a time way back when writers (or “scribes”) did not write any dialogue in between double quotation marks.

I’ve heard of a history professor at University of Illinois who actually studied the evolution of the format but since I haven’t read her work I don’t want to name-drop here.

But I still feel comfortable in claiming that Saramago’s stylistic preference harkens back to those early times when dialogue and description were not this separated from each other; when the novel was not this “objectified” a format.

Reading Saramago is not easy for the sheer physical effort it requires to go through his long passages and breathless run-on sentences. But if you persevere, you’ll be rewarded with the strange sensation that you’re actually watching your own inner voice taking a walk over a landscape so deep, so nuanced and so delicate that other “objectified” forms of narration like movies or stage plays can never capture the same with their reliance on what can be depicted only through five senses.

Find a quiet corner and dive deep into a Saramago novel today and see what you’ve been missing while chewing and spitting out one formulaic “best seller” after another for all these years.

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