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The Saramago Reward

The Siege of Libson.

The Siege of Leningrad.

The Siege of Navajo.

"Like any story it can be told in ten words, or a hundred, or a thousand, or never end."  (Saramago, The History of the Siege of Libson

I am obssessed with the archive.  What resides there?  What is disappeared?  People, stories, intonation, time and silence--one sufferes at the hand of another.

Saramago's proof-reader of the siege changes a yes to a no and "until he made the change, had remained prisoner of the particular fatality we call facts."  In doing so he causes an "earthquake on the page."

I stumbled on this book thinking it was a "real" History of the Siege of Lisbon.  I was working on a a short piece, Portugal, about an old Coyote, Isaac Manygoats, who is working against the art of extinction and filling the archives with fakes.  What an appropriate slap in the face to open this novel, scant in paragraph breaks, lacking dialogue attributions, and full of shifts in time.  Which history is fact, which fiction? 

"If proof-readers were given their freedom and did not have their hands and feet tied by a mass of prohibitions more binding than the penal code, they would soon transform the face of the world, establish the kingdom of universal happiness. . .giving drink to the thristy, food to the famished, peace to those who live in turmoil . . ."  (Saramago, The History of the Siege of Lisbon)

We all intervene in the archives and in the creative project of History in our own way, but Saragamo's highlights one reality, "The truth is that history could have been written in many different ways and this idea of infinitude and variation are the essence of my writing.  The possibility of the impossible, dreams and illusions, are the subject of my novels."  (Saramago in the afterword to The History of the Siege of Lisbon)

Truth stands outside of fact or fiction.  In his afterword to Malaparte's Kaputt, Dan Hofstadter writes:   "Readers have a right to feel puzzled, and to wonder what merit a book may have that values the truth so lightly."  Yet, Kaputt—a book truly beyond genre, yet closer to a novel than anything else—gets at something, this same something Saramago describes as "bearing in mind that the whole thing is a lie, useful to some extent, the ultimate disgrace, simply because we did not have the courage to correct it or know how to replace it with the honest truth."  (Saramago, The History of the Siege of Lisbon)

Anna Reid works by this light—through archives and with young people who already know the story—yet the story they know is not the story the survivors wanted Reid to tell.  The story the young know is clean.  The survivors know the nasty details.  They want the young to know them as well.  Looking through diaries and logbooks Anna Reid is able to get through lies to an honest truth.

"The deliberate starvation of Leningrad was the most notorious example of the Nazis' policy of killing by hunger, which in the early 1940's caused the death of four million Soviet citizens in the western parts of the Soviet Union they occupied."  (Timothy Snyder's NYRB June 12, 2012)

I work and write in an oral tradition with access to a rich body of literature popularly discounted as myth or philosophy (folklore).  I also write about people that failed to leave a legitimate trace (slaves and their descendants).  This is my point of entry and my point of departure.  My own history, my own archive, sifting silence and absence into audible noise, an honest truth, a voice.

Kit Carson gave sworn testimony regarding his policy of destroying Navajo fields:  "At this point it took me and three hundred men most one day to destroy a field of corn. . ."  In a 45 page letter to the Indian Peace Commisioner S. J. Tappan, Special Indian Agent John Ward lauded Carson's scorch and burn policy as evidence of the wealth of Navajo land and our skills as gardeners.  Noting that during Carson's summer of 1863, he destroyed fields for seven days straight, breaking and moving camp.  He followed this path destroying our fine fields in two, three and four day increments.

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