José Saramago: The Gifted and Uncompromising Portuguese Nobel

The Portuguese author José Saramago was a man of strong convictions. He didn’t shy away from bluntly expressing his views, often causing controversy. But his work and talent shined brighter than any outcry, ideological difference or political disagreement. He published his first novel, Terra do Pecado, in 1947, and until 1966 it remained his only book. Born on 16 November 1922 in the village of Azinhaga, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998, being the only Portuguese writer to have had that honour so far.

When he wasn’t yet two years old, his parents moved to Lisbon, where he grew up. For economic reasons, he had to do a vocational course at a secondary technical school, and his first job was as a car mechanic. It was in a public library that he continued to learn and to cultivate his love for reading. Later, he also worked as a translator and a journalist. He died on 18 June 2010 on the island of Lanzarote (Spain), and his ashes were laid to rest beneath an olive tree near the river Tagus in Lisbon.

He wrote novels, non-fiction, short stories, poetry and plays. His novels challenge genre boundaries, as they mix elements from magical realism, historical and literary fiction. Many are allegories about the human condition and delve into a variety of social and moral issues through stimulating and funny considerations. His characters and narrators lose themselves in their thoughts. Their asides replicate, in a way, how we communicate orally.

Not only did José Saramago show a great ability to write a plot-based narrative interspersed with stream of consciousness, he also had a distinguishable prose style. He didn’t use quotation marks. The dialogues and thoughts of the characters are differentiated from the rest of the text through a comma followed by a capital letter. Although the sentences and paragraphs tend to be exceedingly long, his books are still surprisingly readable.

 

Stimulating novels

So far, I’ve read six of his novels. My favourite is O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis (The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis in the English translation), which is a great example of how Saramago used intertextuality in his work. In this book, Ricardo Reis, one of Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms, is a real person. He arrives in Lisbon at the end of 1935, after spending the last 16 years in Brazil, and mostly interacts with three characters – Lídia, a chambermaid at the hotel he is staying in; Marcenda, a young woman whose left hand is paralysed; and his deceased friend Fernando Pessoa.

This book paints a picture of the political and social landscape of Portugal at the time. The fascist regime was consolidating itself. But there are also mentions to the civil war in Spain and the rise of Nazism in Germany. In spite of not much happening in terms of plot, this is still a highly compelling novel. It’s amazing how Saramago managed to put to good use various details about Fernando Pessoa’s life, work and heteronyms.

Ensaio sobre a Cegueira (Blindness) is a much more universal novel. It delves into how people react when faced with an extreme situation. Readers are presented with the best and worst of humanity, as people in an unnamed city start going blind. Instead of being surrounded by darkness, all they see is a luminous white. This is a highly thought-provoking novel. I just wish I had connected a bit more with the characters, but what they had to endure was so extreme that I struggled to imagine a worse fate.

Set in the 18th century, at the time of the Inquisition, Memorial do Convento (Baltasar & Blimunda) was the second book that I read by José Saramago. It revolves around the construction of the Convent of Mafra. One of the workers is Baltasar. He falls in love with Blimunda, a woman with the power of seeing inside people. They become involved in the plan of the priest Bartolomeu de Gusmão to create a flying machine. I read it a long time ago but remember cherishing the interesting symbology and the portrayal of the characters.

The first and shortest book that I read by Saramago was As Intermitências da Morte (Death at Intervals). It’s a good place to start delving into his work. It is set in an unnamed country where people have stopped dying. ‘Death’ eventually returns to work, after many negative consequences, but takes a different approach to her role. This is a fairly funny book at times.

O Homem Duplicado (The Double) has a peculiarly named main character. Tertuliano Máximo Afonso discovers, while watching a film, that there’s a man who looks exactly like him. And he doesn’t take that lightly. The purpose of this novel is to showcase the possible consequences of a man realising that there is another person equal to him and not to learn why. It shows that people want to feel like they are unique. Throughout the book, there are many thought-provoking and hilarious asides, and there is even a representation of common sense.

My least favourite novel by Saramago from the ones that I’ve read is História do Cerco de Lisboa (The History of the Siege of Lisbon). It features two intersected strands. One takes place during the siege of Lisbon in the 12th century and is for the most part dull. The other focuses on the life of the main character, Raimundo Silva, a proofreader who is working on a book about the siege of Lisbon during the Reconquista. After feeling an irresistible urge, he adds a ‘no’ in a sentence. The book now incorrectly states that the Crusaders didn’t help the Portuguese to take the city. The publishing house doesn’t fire him, though. It hires a woman, Maria Sara, to oversee the work of all proofreaders. His feelings for her are poignantly described.

 

Controversies galore

Besides winning the Nobel, José Saramago was also a recipient, in 1995, of the Camões Prize, the most important prize for literature in Portuguese language, and received the Grand Collar of the Military Order of Saint James of the Sword. Nevertheless, he was also involved in various controversies.

He was an atheist who openly criticised the Catholic Church. His novel O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo (The Gospel According to Jesus Christ), published in 1991, caused huge controversy. The conservative Portuguese government in office at the time removed the writer’s name from the nominees for the European Literature Prize, saying that the book offended Portuguese Catholic convictions. The decision was heavily criticised and branded as censorship. As a result, Saramago moved to Lanzarote, an island on the Canaries (Spain).

During the fascist dictatorship, in 1969, Saramago joined the then clandestine Portuguese Communist Party. He didn’t later deny the criminal and horrific acts that occurred in communist regimes, though. He appeared to had been a supporter of the ideology and not of the way in which it was put into practice. In an interview with the Guardian in 2002, he said:

“I carry inside me a hormone that means I have no other choice than to be a communist. You can ask, ‘against everything’? What about the barbarities and crimes committed? My answer is that there is probably no difference between the negative, criminal, horrendous, horrible things done in the name of communism and everything that the human being has done throughout history in the name of the best intentions. Christianity is a good example: millions of people have been sacrificed for a doctrine which is its opposite, a doctrine that promised and still continues to promise forgiveness, love and compassion. Forgiveness, love and compassion are things we’re able to show now and then, but they have ended up being submerged by the mass of badness that we also carry. That is why I logically continue to be what I am.”

There is no need to agree with his political views in order to enjoy his work, however, as he doesn’t preach the communist ideology in his novels. There are many social and political considerations in the books that I’ve read by him for sure, but they are of a more general nature, often related to human rights.

In 2007, he created a cultural private institution, the José Saramago Foundation, to spread the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to promote culture in Portugal and to support environmentalism. It’s worth a visit for those who want to learn more about his life and work, as it hosts a permanent exhibition named The Seed and the Fruits. Furthermore, it is located in a gorgeous building with a view of the river Tagus.

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