On "fragments of life," with Pilar del Río

Written by
Dylan Blau Edelstein
April 17, 2023

On Wednesday, April 5, 2023, the Brazil LAB, together with the Departments of Spanish and Portuguese and Anthropology, celebrated the centennial of Portuguese Nobel Laureate José Saramago, with a conversation between Pilar del Río, Lilia M. Schwarcz, and Kathryn Bishop-Sánchez, moderated by Pedro Meira Monteiro. The discussion was conducted in a mix of Portuguese and Spanish.

There is perhaps no better person to discuss Saramago’s legacy than Pílar del Río. The Spanish journalist and writer is the translator of Saramago’s work into Spanish, the president of the José Saramago Foundation, and was married to the Portuguese author for the final decades of his life. Indeed, she most recently published La intuición de la isla (2022), which creatively recounts moments and anecdotes from their life together, especially while living on the Spanish island of Lanzarote. 

Towards the beginning of the event, Professor Meira Monteiro noted that, earlier that day, Pilar had visited Firestone Library’s Special Collections with librarian Fernanda Acosta, where she viewed documents she was not aware were here in Princeton. Describing the emotional experience, she noted, “They were probably just documents for scholars like you all, but for me, they were fragments of life.”

Fragments of life might be the best description for what del Río offered during this discussion on such a revered and discussed writer. Towards the end of the discussion, for instance, Pilar read a passage from her book narrating the scene of Saramago winning the Nobel from the perspective of their dogs.

The Nobel, indeed, was a point that she returned to a few times, as she emphasized how the award was important in bringing new readers to Saramago’s work, but also how it had limited impact on the author’s actual outlook on life and writing. In fact, early in the discussion, when Katherine Bishop-Sánchez asked Pilar to recount a decisive moment in Saramago’s life beyond winning the Nobel, Pilar answered broadly: his childhood. Growing up in the Portuguese countryside and passively internalizing the voices of the people who lived there, she argued, was crucial in the formation of the “Saramago style” (a plurality of voices, free indirect speech, among other elements).

Other topics that emerged during the discussion included the process of translating Saramago into Spanish, the importance of the island space to his later career, Saramago’s relationship with Latin American and African writers, as well as his relationship with his editors (for which Lilia Schwarcz’s presence was important, as she maintained a close relationship with both del Río and Saramago during the process of publishing their books in Brazil).

The recording of the event is available on the Brazil LAB YouTube Channel.