José Rodrigues dos Santos is a bestselling author of ten novels, including Portuguese blockbusters ‘Codex 632′ and ‘The Einstein Enigma’, both long listed for the 2010 and 2012 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award respectively. José is also a journalist, and presents RTP’s Evening News. As a war reporter he has covered many conflicts including Angola, East Timor, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iraq, Bosnia and Libya, and he has been awarded three times by CNN for his reporting and twice by the Portuguese Press Club. He will deliver the keynote speech on ‘Should Literature Be Political? ‘ this weekend at the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference: Lisbon. He was the Portuguese delegate at the inaugural Conference sessions in Edinburgh 2012.
EWWC: Let’s go back, first of all, to that week in Edinburgh eight months ago. You spent a week discussing, listening, and conversing with fellow writers from all over the world in an effort to assess, collaboratively, why literature is important, and what challenges and issues it faces today. What sticks out most clearly in your memory from the Conference?
JRS: Actually, method. I enjoyed the concept of having someone starting a discussion and then having the writers contribute at their will. I thought this was a good and lively way of approaching things. As for contents… well, I guess one way or the other we’ve all previously considered the issues raised in the conference.
EWWC: You are by trade, originally, a journalist specialising in war reporting, with a varied and illustrious career in that arena under your belt. You have also achieved international recognition and success with a string of bestselling novels. One of the subjects being discussed this weekend in Lisbon is The Future of the Novel. Do you see any parallels or similarities between the changes affecting these two writing genres (journalism and novels) as technology advances and reading habits adjust and change?
JRS: That’s a hard one. We can only guess, I suppose. Journalists are still needed to sort out what is reliable information or not. We’ve all seen how un-mediated news is prone to manipulation on the internet, haven’t we? It’s the right atmosphere for innuendo and rumours. That’s why journalists are still needed – to separate news from innuendo. As for writers, they surely will always be around, even if their works aren’t written in books, but in other media. I’m told that the best American writers don’t write books anymore – they write scripts. The point is, they write. They will always write, even if they don’t end up as traditional books.
EWWC: Your subject this weekend will be ‘Should Literature be Political?’ In your dual careers as reporter and novelist, are there any particular novels with a political element or message which have informed your thinking?
JRS: My point is that every book is political, even if unintended. Agatha Christie is political - and so is Donald Duck.
EWWC: In Edinburgh one of the clearest interventions you made was in the Style vs Content debate, when you brought up the subject of translation. You said that “some works which are based on style [alone] are untranslatable”. You underscored this point by saying that you felt that, for example, “Jose Saramango’s Blindness is untranslatable in English” – a point rebutted by Ali Smith.
JRS: Sure some books are untranslatable. Look at the Italian author Andrea Camilleri. Signore Camilleri’s books feature il comissario Montalbano and are hugely popular in Italy, but not so much in other countries. Why? The thing is, Italians laugh at the way Montalbano talks – you see, he uses a very peculiar and funny Sicilian jargon. When he says “Montalbano sono”, Italians burst out in laugher as this is a very funny Sicilian way of talking. But how can you translate that into English, Japanese or Portuguese? Will you use a Scottish accent? Or a Welsh one? If you do, won’t it sound strange that a Southern Italian policeman talks with a Scottish accent? And is there a funny way for a Scotsman to say “Montalbano sono”? It’s bloody untranslatable!!!
EWWC: And finally … If you had to be exiled permanently to one of the EWWC cities – Edinburgh, Berlin, Cape Town, Toronto, Krasnoyarsk, Cairo, Jaipur, Beijing, Izmir, Brussels, Lisbon, Port of Spain (Trinidad), St Malo, Kuala Lumpur & Melbourne – which would you choose and why?
JRS: I happen to know most of the cities you mentioned and I have to say that Lisbon is still unbeatable. Why? Well, I live in a forest, under a medieval castle, 30 minutes away from Lisbon. Five minutes away from my home there are beaches with golden sands, a marina, a casino, cheap and delicious fish restaurants, the weather’s mild and sunny, the people are soft and nice, the airport’s 30 minutes away and I can be in London or Paris in less than 3 hours. Just point me a city in the list you presented that could beat this.
EWWC: Thank you Jose!
The Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference: Lisbon will take place this Saturday 25th May at the Lisbon Book Fair, presented by The British Council Portugal, European Union National Institutes for Culture (EUNIC) and APEL (Association of Editors and Publishers in Portugal). Participating writers include José Rodrigues dos Santos, Rute Pinheiro Coelho, Denise Mina, Mathias Enard, Rosa Liksom, Dulce Maria Cardoso and João Tordo. The two sessions will be livestreamed on this website at 4pm and 6.30pm WEST.