Telling the truth – the star of Portuguese literature and journalism Jose Rodriguez dos Santos


As every day from the week, Jose Rodriguez dos Santos enters the headquarters of RTP to prepare the evening news programme. The enormous energy he radiates infects everyone around him. Born in Mozambique, he lived as a child in Macau, graduated in journalism in Lisbon, and covered military conflicts in the Balkans, the Middle East and Africa. Awarded with prestigious international awards for his work as a journalist. When he was 41, he began writing a short story and after 200 pages written in one breath, turned it into a novel. Fifteen years later, his books are bestsellers around the world.

Jose Rodriguez dos Santos: I am a man obsessed with the truth – both as a journalist and as a writer. And a person who realizes that it is easier to express the truth through fiction than through documentary. Because when there is no fiction, as in journalism or in historical discourse, or in legal norms, we must follow rules. Sometimes we know something, but we can’t prove it, so we can’t talk about it. While when I use fiction, I can say whatever I want, I have more freedom to express the truth. Basically, that’s me and that’s what I do.

 BNT: Apart from the way you tell the truth, how do the messages of the writer and the journalist differ?

Jose Rodriguez dos Santos: In the world of literature you can recreate the emotions of the subject. If I tell you that the Germans killed 6 million Jews during the Holocaust, this is abstract information. But if I show you the story of little David waiting in line to enter the gas chamber, and his mother was shot in the head the night before, then you begin to sympathize with the character and understand him through emotions. Stalin said that the death of one man was a tragedy, the death of millions a statistic. In journalism we often deal with statistics, and in novels we deal with tragedies, with the fate of one person and for me – this is the power of writers.

He does not stop travelling for meetings with his readers around the world, in every free moment from work in television. He has come to Bulgaria several times. Before each novel, he explores the topic meticulously and in depth.

Jose Rodriguez dos Santos: I love when I watch a film and at the beginning it says: „based on a true story“. I think readers like that too. I have conveyed in literature two things that are fundamental for a journalist – I try to write in an interesting way so that at the end of the page or in the chapter, the reader wants to turn the next one. This is a journalism technique. The second technique: I try to write clearly – that is, when you read the book, to understand everything. If the reader does not understand something, it is not his fault, but the writer’s. It is also a journalistic technique that helps readers enjoy the book.

José Rodríguez dos Santos writes with extreme ease. And his readers are doomed – the plot engulfs them from the first moment to the last line.

Jose Rodriguez dos Santos: I write very quickly. I have plenty of ideas. I love what I’m doing! Buddhists say – there is a way to spend your life without working a single day – when you do what you love. That’s the way it is with me! When you enjoy what you do, you always find time for it. How do I do it? I love to study the topic, I love the writing itself, I love to invent the plot, I love all the elements of writing a book. And I think that my enthusiasm for writing a book can be felt by the reader. If the writer himself is not excited by what he writes, there is no way for the reader to get excited!

BNT: Okay, but still, do you sometimes have difficulties in writing?

Jose Rodriguez dos Santos: Many people talk about writers’ crises – when a writer gets stuck, there comes a time when he doesn’t know how to develop the story… Something like this has never happened to me! I do the research, I create the plot, I always know from the beginning to the end how the events will develop and how everything will end. I may change something, but when I start writing, I always have a plan in my head, I hear the conversations of my characters, I see the situations, I try to write in a „visual“ way. For example, if you read and you are in Sofia in 2021 and suddenly you are no longer in Sofia, but you are in Macau in 1944 and the Japanese are preparing to enter the city. I do this in my books, I try to write in a visual way and so I hope to involve the readers in the material and make them like it.

His next book will be about a skilled magician who escapes Auschwitz thanks to his phenomenal skills. It is inspired by the true story of a 94-year-old American whom the writer met. The topic of pandemics also excites him.

BNT: If you had to write a book about the Covid-19 pandemic, what would be the end – what would be written on the last page?

Jose Rodriguez dos Santos: I will have to think. But I wrote a book that is about immortality and touches on the subject of the pandemic. The action takes place in China, using artificial intelligence, which plays a role in combating pandemics. So, in fact, I’ve already touched on the subject of pandemics – in this novel. During this pandemic, I had the feeling of a bad fantasy film. If in 2019 someone had not said that in a few months the world will suddenly stop, everyone will be locked in their homes, people would say – oh, this is a bad Hollywood movie! However, this happened. It was a crazy period! We realized how fragile everything is, how we take everything for granted, but we also found a way to respond to these challenges and now we are back on our feet! It was a story about the power of nature and the power of man as part of nature.

In the last year, the news related to Covid-19 has invariably been the main ones on Portuguese television broadcasters. Tonight, the newscast begins with news related to the recovery after the pandemic and the spending of European Union funds.

BNT: Portugal is an example of a very successful response to the pandemic, more than 80% vaccinated, all restrictions lifted. What is the reason for this success – the actions of the authorities, the spirit of the nation?

Jose Rodriguez dos Santos: I would say – the spirit of the nation – and it is built on a single feeling – fear. The Portuguese were very afraid of dying. When the pandemic started and we saw what happened in Italy, in Spain, then the government said – schools will remain open, but suddenly the schools remained empty. In practice, the population closed the schools! And when the government saw that no one was coming to school, it closed them. They also saw that people stopped going to the supermarkets. And they closed the malls and introduced an organization for visits to supermarkets. We suddenly realized that, although very chaotic, we are very disciplined in this situation. The population, the people were the ones who put a lot of pressure on the authorities and made them be strict, the message was – this is a great threat to our lives, let’s take it seriously! The government followed the current. At first they didn’t want to do it, but eventually did. Last Christmas, the authorities decided that people could socialise and there was a surge in the number of infections, we became the country in the worst situation in the world – in January and February. We were worse in numbers compared to the UK, America, Brazil. We had 300 deaths a day! And since Portugal is similar in scale to Bulgaria, imagine 300 deaths a day in Bulgaria! This was in January and February. Then things started to calm down, people started getting vaccinated. Initially, vaccination was entrusted to a politician, but corruption immediately arose, and people „skipped“ the queues for vaccines in order to be vaccinated sooner. Then the president said: That’s enough! And entrust the vaccination process to the military. The military took over the whole operation, all the logistics. There was a very high level of trust in the army, and the admiral, who took over everything, enjoyed a high level of trust. And everything calmed down. He managed things very well. We even reached a point where we vaccinated 1% of the population every day! That means 7% for 1 week! And so we reached 85% of the population.

BNT: If you could travel in time – where would you go – in the past or in the future – and which secret of the universe would you most like to learn?

Jose Rodriguez dos Santos: That is a big question. To some extent, I travel through time writing my books. For example, in The Last Secret – the book, which also has a Bulgarian character, is about a serial killer who murders people all over the world and murdered a man in Plovdiv (this is actually my Plovdiv publisher – I joked with him). In this novel, I travel through time, readers travel through time to the birth of Christ, when Christianity was born from Judaism. This book explains to you what Christianity is, it says things the church doesn’t tell us. This is a journey through time. When you read God’s Formula or the novel about immortality and artificial intelligence, it’s a conversation about the future. In „God’s formula“ the topic is about God, whether it exists and whether there is scientific evidence for it. This is a completely different reading from the one that religion gives us. I try to write about the mysteries of the universe using the knowledge of science. I try to look for the philosophical dimensions of scientific discoveries. This happens in God’s Formula and the Key to Solomon, where I try to explain through quantum physics what happens when we die. I realized that some of the discoveries of quantum physics give us answers related to the mystery of death. I am sure that both in Portugal and in Bulgaria, everyone wants to know – what happens when I die, what is the end of everything. And this is the answer to your time travel challenge – I do it by using science.

Reporter: Tsvetelina Yordanova

Camera operator: Atanas Atanasov