A Christmas miracle

It’s the end of the year now and I think we’re all ready for a break and a rest from wrangling and thinking and arguing and worrying. Not everyone gets a break and not everyone can stop worrying, but I hope you can. I would like to present you, as my final offering of the year, with a Christmas story that makes me very happy.

Like all good Christmas stories it starts unhappily and ends well, and holds out the hope that perhaps nothing is ever truly lost and that sometimes miracles happen and everyone gets what they deserve. It goes like this:

In 1953 a young Portuguese man named José submitted a novel to a publishing house in Lisbon. He was nearly 30 years and a motor mechanic, and this was the first thing he had tried to write. He had been writing it for several years, coming home to his tiny apartment after days spent in the workshop, up to his elbows in grease, plying a trade he thoroughly disliked. Night after night, deep into the small hours of the morning, he sat hunched at the tiny kitchen table, tapping away with two fingers at a second-hand typewriter whose letter r didn’t work.

It was a novel about the characters of a tenement building in a working class area of Lisbon. There were weak men and strong women, living lonely, yearning lives, finding solace in small moments of beauty and courage and sometimes in books. José had no university education, knew no writers and had no connections in the world of artists, intellectuals or publishers. He didn’t know if this was what a book should be or what it should look like. He told no one he was writing it, showed it to no one. He was embarrassed by it, astonished at his own nerve in trying it, and much more than half convinced he was wasting his time.

José finished just before Christmas and gathered up the loose pages of manuscript, stained and spattered with grease and cooking oil, and carried them down the steep hill to the publishing house. The streets were hung with Christmas lights in the shape of candles and there was a nativity scene in Rossio Square.

He went home and waited for word. He waited and waited. If he had had another copy, he might have submitted it somewhere else while he waited, but he didn’t, so he just waited. Christmas passed and New Year and six months and another New Year. José never heard from them. At first he was annoyed, then he was ashamed. He sold the typewriter to a second-hand store in Baixa, near the river. For twenty years, he didn’t write another thing.

Shame is a difficult thing for anyone to navigate. With some effort and some strength and some friends we can all manage rejection and failure. There is no shame in rejection. Rejection just means that you didn’t happen to win the game you were playing, but shame is the feeling that you have no right to play the game at all. Shame is the feeling not merely that we did wrong, but that we are wrong, that we are not enough, that we are not whole, and that this is a secret that has been revealed to the world. We are all sometimes right to be embarrassed; we are never right to feel shame.

After twenty years, when he was in his 50s, José finally started writing again. He wrote poems at first, but finally he found his way back to novels. The next novel he completed, he submitted to a different publishing house and they accepted it, and the ones after that. People bought his books. He started winning prizes. In 1988 one of his books was translated into English, and soon they all were. In 1989 José Saramago was 67 years old and a bestseller both in Portugal and around the world. Soon he would win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

One morning in December 1989, not long before Christmas, while he was at the basin shaving, the telephone rang. It was that first publishing house, the one who had never replied. They were moving offices, they said, and had found his manuscript in a drawer. It was wonderful, they said. They would love to publish it.

José finished shaving and walked down to meet the management of the company. In his courteous respectful way he explained to them that no publisher is obliged to publish anything, but that, being human beings, they are obliged to treat people with respect, that the maximum and minimum to which each of us is entitled from each of us is the simple dignity of acknowledgement. He took the pages home with him and kept them in his drawer.

José Saramago died in 2010, and following his instructions, as a final gift to his heirs, his first novel Claraboia (Skylight) was published by his second publishers. It became a bestseller. I bought it at a Christmas market in Lisbon, and I’m reading it now. It’s quite wonderful.

The Times, 18 December 2019