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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

José Saramago (1922-2010)


Portuguese writer, who combined in his work myths, history of his own country, and surrealistic imagination. José Saramago was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1998. Other names from Portugal, often mentioned in Nobel Prize speculations, have been António Lobo Antunes, and José Cardoso Pires. "The possibility of the impossible, dreams and illusions, are the subject of my novels," Saramago once said.

"In one sense it could even be said that, letter-by-letter, word-by-word, page-by-page, book after book, I have been successively implanting in the man I was the characters I created. I believe that without them I wouldn't be the person I am today; without them maybe my life wouldn't have succeeded in becoming more than an inexact sketch, a promise that like so many others remained only a promise, the existence of someone who maybe might have been but in the end could not manage to be." (from Nobel Lecture, 1998)

José Saramago was born in Azinhaga, in the province of Ribatejo, the son of José de Sousa, an artilleryman in the first world war, and Maria de Piedade. When Saramago was two, the family moved to Lisbon. Saramago's father took a job as traffic policeman and his mother worked as a domestic cleaner. During school holidays, he returned to Azinhaga, where his grandparents, illiterate peasants, lived and took care of him.

At an early age, Saramago was forced to abandon school in order to earn his living. He was educated as a technician, and before becoming a journalist, translator, and writer, he did a number of manual jobs. Saramago married in 1944 Ilda Reis, then a typist with the Railway Company, who was to become a respected engraver. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1970. Saramago's first novel, Terra do Pecado (1947, Country of Sin) was originally named A Viúva. It was his publisher, Manuel Rodrigues, who suggested the new title. The sales were poor. Saramago disowned the book.   

In 1969 Saramago joined the Communist Party of Portugal, which was forbidden during the military dictatorship. Between April and November  1975 he wasdeputy editor at the Lisbon newspaper Diário de Noticias. After the failed coup d'état on 25 November, Saramago and some other Communist journalist were accused of being too radical and they lost their jobs. "Being fired was the best luck of my life," he lated said in an interview. "It was the birth of my life as a writer." ('José Saramago, the Unexpected Fantasist' by Fernanda Eberstadt, The New York Times Magazine, Aug. 26, 2007)  Since 1979 he devoted himself entirely to writing. In 1988 Saramago married Pilar del Río, a journalist.

When Saramago won the Nobel Prize, the headlines in the Lisbon nespaper A Capital seeemd to suggest that he was not the best choice even by the author himself. A two-page centrefold spread was entitled, "Não nasci para isto" (I wasn't born for this). A headline in Record read "The Vatican criticises choice: 'They have given the prize to a Communist".

After government officials vetoed the nomination of his novel O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo (1991, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ) for the European Award for Literature, Saramago left Portugal and settled on the Spanish island of Lanzarote. (Christ is presented in the work as the son of a Roman soldier.)

Usually Saramago's political views did not make the front page. However, visiting in March 2002 Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah, he said: "What is  happening in Palestine is a crime which we can put on the same plane as what happened at Auschwitz, at Buchenwald. Even taking into account the differences in time and place, it is the same thing." (The World Turned Upside Down: The Global Battle over God, Truth, and Power by Melanie Phillips, 2011, p. 206) With this comment Saramago set off a storm of protests. The Israeli writer Amos Oz reacted by writing that "The Israeli occupation is unjust – but to compare it to the crimes of the Nazis is like comparing Saramago to Stalin." ('The militant magician' by Julian Evans, The Guardian, 28 December, 2002)

In his public appearances Saramago was always well dressed. He was tall, became bald on the top of his head, and wore thick eyeglasses. Saramago died after a long illness at his home on 18 June, 2010. His ashes were wee buried under an old olive tree that was brought from his hometown Azinhaga, to which he always remained attached. 

Saramago published plays, short stories, novels, poems, libretti, diaries, and travelogues. After the fall of Estado Novo, Saramago ended his silence as a novelist with Manual de Pintura e Caligrafia (1977), in which the central theme is the genesis of the artist, of a painter as well as a writer. In Viagem a Portugal (1981, Journey to Portugal) Saramago searched for the idea of Portugal, when the dictatorship was gone. To see his country with with fresh eyes and fresh wonder, Saramago used the third person, observing as much his surrounding as his own reactions: "Here he is forced to recognise his own shortcomings, and admit he has everything to learn. About miracles, as all else." Levantado do Chão (1980) was a three-generation saga of a poor sharecropper family from the post-World War I period through to the 25th April 1974, the date of the Portugese revolution. The story is presented through mixed forms of monologue and dialogue.

In the 1980s he gained an international reputation with his satirical novel Memorial do Convento. The novel is set in the first half of the 18th century. The Italian composer Corghi based his opera Blimunda on the novel. O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis (1984) takes its subject from the history in the form of a dialogue between the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), and his alternative authorial personality from the poem collection Odes de Ricardo Reis (1946). The story is set in the 1930s, the year of the onset of the Spanish Civil War, and the rise of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and Salazar. Again Saramago diverges from traditional historical commitment to the facts. Truth and lies are inseparable from each other, in fiction and in real life: "A word lies, with the same word one can speak the truth, we are not what we say, we are true only if others believe us." Symbolic A Jangada de Pedra (1986) tells a story of Portugal's exclusion from Europe: a series of supernatural events culminates in the severance of the Iberian peninsula so that it starts to float into the Atlantic, initially heading for the Azores. Saramago's tone is ironic -- he mixes different views from the Prime Minister and the US president to tourist officers and European Community. A group of people tries to find an explanation for the phenomenon, among them Joaquim Sassa, who threw a stone in the sea. In 2007 Saramago outraged his compatriots with his statement that it is inevitable that Portugal will end up joining with Spain.

Saramago's controversial novel, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, was excluded from the European Union literary contest Ariosto by Sousa Lara, Under-Secretary of State of Portugal, but after international protest it was returned to the list of candidates. Like Nikos Kazantzákis in his novel The Last Temptations of Christ, or Norman Mailer in The Gospel According to the Son, he interprets the key episodes from the Gospels from an iconoclastic point of view, inventing new miracles and prophesies. In the novel God and the Devil negotiate over evil, and Jesus questions his role and challenges God. All this Saramago paralles with the creative process of a writer: "The gaping mouth sends up a cry we shall never hear, for none of these things is real, what we are contemplating is mere paper and ink, nothing more." Maria Magdalene is a prostitute to whom Jesus gives his virginity. Joseph's feelings of guilt lead to his crucifixion. Jesus takes him down from the cross, helped by Maria. He repeats his father's fate and realizes in his last moments, that his sacrificial death had been planned in advance. " ... the human heart is never content, and that doing one's duty does not bring peace of mind, though those who are easily satisfied would have us believe otherwise."

Among Saramago's other later novels is All the Names (1995), in which he pays homage to the bureaucratic labyrinths of Kafka. It depicts a minor official, Senhor José, in a dismal registrar's office, who becomes obsessed with one of the names, an unknown woman, and begins to track her down. But instead of order, he finds chaos. In Blindness: a novel (1995) an epidemic of blindness starts to spread in a nameless city. An asylum or a concentration camp, is founded to isolate the blind who see only white light. A doctor's wife follows her husband to the asylum, and soon around them forms a small group of people who try to maintain some moral values among the internees, when violence starts to escalate. "... blindness is the good fortune of the ugly," Saramago wrote; actually the blind cannot see the ugliness of the world. "Absurd to say it, but the blindness in Saramago's novel is an allegory for not being able to see. What exactly it is we should see, what Saramago -- with all his years as a man and a writer and having lived through dictatorship and revolution -- fears we cannot see, is present in the writing, present abundantly, but it is not to be paraphrased." (Andrew Miller in the New York Times, October 4, 1998) The Cave (2000) is a story of a potter and his family, who are the "real" people, living the life of Plato's famous allegory of the cave. O Homem Duplicado (2002) played with an old literary cliché, the idea of a doppelganger. Saramago's protagonist, a schoolteacher, asks the existential question, which is the original and which the copy? One of them must die. Ensaio sobre a Lucidez (2004, Seeing), a political satire, was set in the same nameless capital city that Blindness, where a state of emergency is declared after voters cast blank votes in an election. Saramago's final novel was Caim (2009, Cain), in which the jovial character of his picaresque hero, Cain, is juxtaposed with God's coldness and tyrannousness. They misunderstand each other and at the end Saranago writes, "one thing we know for certain is that they continued to argue and are arguing still. The story, though, is over, there will be nothing more to tell."

For further information: José Saramago: rota de vida: uma biografia by Joaquim Vieira (2018); José Saramago: History, Utopia, and the Necessity of Error by Mark Sabine (2016); On Emerging from Hyper-nation: Saramago's "Historical" Trilogy by Ronald W. Sousa (2014); Dicionário de personagens da obra de José Saramago by Salma Ferraz (2012); Biografia José Saramago by João Marques Lopes (2010); Jose Saramago: El Amor Posible by Juan Arias (1998); Schreiben gegen Mythen: Die Romane von José Saramago by Andreas Schor (1997); José Saramago: aproximação a um retrato by Baptista-Bastos (1996); 'Saramago, Jose'  in World Authors 1985-1990, ed. Vineta Colby (1995); 'Ebb and Flow: Place As Pretex in the Novels of José Saramago' by M.L. Daniel, in Luso-Brazilian Review (Winter 1990)

Selected works:

  • Os Poemas Possíveis, 1966 (poems)
  • Provavelmente Alegria, 1970
  • Deste Mundo e do Outro, 1971
  • A Bagagem do Viajante, 1973
  • As Opiniões que o DL Teve, 1974
  • O Ano de 1993, 1975
  • Os Apontamentos, 1977
  • Manual de Pintura e Caligrafia, 1977
    - Manual of Painting and Calligraphy (translated by Giovanni Pontiero, 1994)
  •  Objecto Quase, 1978
  • Poética dos Cinco Sentidos. O Ouvido, 1979
  • A Noite, 1979
  • Levantado do Chão, 1980
    - Raised from the Ground (translated by Margaret Jull Costa, 2012) 
  • Que Farei com Este Livro?, 1980
  • Viagem a Portugal, 1981
    - Journey to Portugal. In Pursuit of Portugal's History and Culture (translated by Amanda Hopkinson and Nick Caistor, 2000)
  • Memorial do Convento, 1982
    - Baltasar and Blimunda (translated by Giovanni Pontiero, 1987)
    - Baltasar ja Blimunda (suom. Pirjo Suomalainen-Pedrosa, 1989)
    - Basis for the three-act opera by the Italian composer Azio Corghi, libretto by J.S., staged for the first time in MÜnster, Germany, 1993
  • O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis, 1986
    - The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (translated by Giovanni Pontiero, 1991)
    - Ricardo Reisin viimeinen vuosi (suom. Sanna Pernu, 2012)
  • A Jangada de Pedra, 1986
    - The Stone Raft (translated by Giovanni Pontiero, 1995)
    - Kivinen lautta (suom. Jyrki Lappi-Seppälä, 1994)
    - Film 2002, dir. George Sluizer, starring Ana Padrao, Gabino Diego, Iciar Bollain, Diogo Infante, Federico Luppi
  • História do Cerco de Lisboa, 1989
    - The History of the Siege of Lisbon (translated by Giovanni Pontiero, 1996)
    - Lissabonin piirityksen kirjuri (suom. Antero Tiittula, 2015)
  • O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo, 1991
    - The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (translated by Giovanni Pontiero, 1994)
    - Jeesuksen Kristuksen evankeliumi (suom. Erkki Kirjalainen, 1998)
  • In Nomine Dei, 1993
  • Cadernos de Lanzarote. Diario I- IV, 1994-1997
  • Ensaio Sobre a Cegueira, 1995
    - Blindness: A Novel (translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero, 1997)
    - Kertomus sokeudesta (suom. Erkki Kirjalainen, 1997)
    - Film version 2008, dir. Fernando Meirelles, starring Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Gael Garcia Bernal, Danny Glover, Sandra Oh
  • O Conto da Ilha Desconhecida, 1997
  • Todos os Nomes, 1997
    - All the Names (translated by Margaret Jull Costa, 1999)
    - Kaikkien nimet (suom. Erkki Kirjalainen, 2000)
  • Cadernos de Lanzarote IV, 1998
  • O Conto da Ilha Desconhecida, 1998
    - The Tale of the Unknown Island (translated by Margaret Jull Costa, 1999)
    - Kertomus tuntemattomasta saaresta (suom. Erkki Kirjalainen, 1998)
  • A Caverna, 2000
    - The Cave (translated by Margaret Jull Costa, 2002)
    - Luola (suom. Erkki Kirjalainen, 2003)
  • O Homem Duplicado, 2002
    - The Double (translated by Margaret Jull Costa, 2004)
    - Toinen minä (suom. Erkki Kirjalainen, 2005)
    - Enemy (2013), directed by Denis Villeneuve, screenplay by Javier Gullón, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mélanie Laurent and Sarah Gadon 
  • Ensaio Sobre a Lucidez, 2004
    - Seeing (translated by Margaret Jull Costa, 2006)
    - Kertomus näkevistä (suom. Erkki Kirjalainen, 2007)
  • As Intermitências da Morte, 2005
    - Death with Interruptions (translated by Margaret Jull Costa, 2008)
    - Oikukas kuolema (suom. Erkki Kirjalainen, 2008)
  • As Pequenas Memórias, 2006
    - Little Memories (translated by Margaret Jull Costa, 2009) / Small Memories (U.S. title, 2011)
  • A Viagem do Elefante, 2008
    - The Elephant's Journey (translated by Margaret Jull Costa, 2010)
    - Elefantin matka (suom. Sanna Pernu, 2011)
  • O Caderno, 2009
    - The Notebook (translated by Amanda Hopkinson and Daniel Hahn, 2010)
  • Caim, 2009
    - Cain (translated by Margaret Jull Costa, 2011)
  • Clarabóia, 2011
    - Skylight (translated by Margaret Jull Costa, 2014)
  • Alabardas, 2014 (com textos de Fernando Gómez Aguilera, Roberto Saviano; ilustrações de Günter Grass)
  • O lagarto, 2016 (woodcuts, J. Borges)
    - The Lizard (woodcuts, J. Borges; translation, Nick Caistor & Lucia Caistor, 2019)
  • The Poems Possible, 2017 (translated by John M. Kinsella in cooperation with Stuart Blazer, José F. Costa, and Leonor Simas-Almeida)
  • Último caderno de Lanzarote: o diário do ano do Nobel, 2018

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