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Published on May 20, 1999

The movement of the waters

Meeting José Sarney at the Brazilian ambassador’s residence in Cairo, you would not suspect that this was a man who once said there was “great anguish” in being simultaneously a politician and an intellectual. Demure, dapper, charming yet somehow withdrawn, it is as hard to imagine him guiding his country out of authoritarianism and towards civilian rule, with all the attendant risks of chaos, as it is to see him as the inventor of Cristório, the elemental fisherman hero of his wildly-successful novel The Master of the Sea. Perhaps, I wondered, he was enjoying a well-earned break from the trials of both writing and public life. Sarney smiled: “The politician is a man of reality and the writer is a man of abstraction,” he said. “I have spent most of my life struggling to reconcile the two.”

I reminded him that he once remarked that, as an intellectual, he wanted to “change the world” while, as a politician, he sought to “administer the world”. Was that still his goal today?

“I would like to rephrase that,” he replied. “The writer wants to create a new world, an imaginary world. The politician wants to make the real world a better place.”

“Of course,” he added, “there are many bad politicians. A good politician is one who wants to change the world. He refuses to accept injustice and inhumanity, and is willing to work for the benefit of his country, his people and the rest of humanity.”

Sarney still believes passionately that the writer can, pace WH Auden, make things happen. Politics has no privileges, in this sense. “I think the writer possesses the same instrument as the politician: the word. In his own way, a writer may help to change the world with his ideas. But I don’t think a novelist can actually change the world through his novels.”

Sarney’s inspiration as a writer is deeply rooted in the culture of his native Brazil. His compatriot Pedro Braga once wrote that Sarney’s work captured the beauty in the banality of everyday life. “As Brazilian writers, our material is the land which we know so well,” he explained. “This is also the source of popular culture in Brazil.”

Though ideas may change society, the purpose of writing — its intrinsic beauty — is not to add to the world, but to render fully what is already there. “It is much more important for the writer to harvest what already exists,” said Sarney. “His role is to eternalise those instants through words.”

O Dono do Mar is set in Maranh‹o, Sarney’s hometown. Yet he denies that the book is in any sense a disguised autobiography. “It is not exactly my life, but something that was very close to me,” he said. “I was a witness.”

In this novel, Sarney does for the fishermen of Maranh‹o what Jorge Amado did for the peasants of the cocoa plantations and Zé Lins for the workers in the sugarcane mills. In doing so, he has virtually invented a whole new theme for Brazilian literature, which had previously turned its back on the sea. Sarney is obviously fascinated by the men whose lives he describes: “I think the fishermen have something very special, very fascinating in their life and work. They deal with the mystery of the sea. Their lives are regulated by mythology. They are mythology. They do not look at the sea as we do. They do not see the sea as we do, but as a primitive sea, a mysterious sea, the sea of legends.”

And in a sense, it is for them that Sarney wrote O Dono do Mar — as a contribution to the memory of those who work by the sea, rather than to universal literature. Yet he insists the fishermen are themselves universal. Certainly, his theme is: “The main character is the sea.”

His use of the conventions of magical realism may raise hackles in certain circles, but it is never simply gratuitous, stemming from a profound belief in the need to revalorise the imagination in a world where its rights are constantly denied. “More and more, men are saturated with reality. They are reaching a limit where they can no longer stand this reality they have to put up with. They need to hear stories and, above all, stories about the sea.”

It is this same need which produces Sarney’s work. He insists he had no plan to produce a best-seller: “I wrote this book because writing, for me, is compulsive. It is a life motivation. If many people are happy to share this story with me, well and good, but if they are not, I will still keep on writing the same way.” His eye is on posterity, not fame or money: “In the future, the book will survive by its poetry. Poetry does not need a market.”

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