José Saramago

José Saramago
José Saramago
Born José de Sousa Saramago
16 November 1922(1922-11-16)
Azinhaga, Santarém, Portugal
Died 18 June 2010(2010-06-18) (aged 87)
Tías, Las Palmas, Spain
Occupation Playwright, novelist
Nationality Portuguese
Period 1947–2010
Notable award(s) Nobel Prize in Literature
Spouse(s) Pilar del Rio (m. 1988)

José de Sousa Saramago, GColSE (Portuguese pronunciation: [ʒuˈzɛ sɐɾɐˈmaɣu]; (16 November 1922 – 18 June 2010) was a Nobel-laureate Portuguese novelist, poet, playwright and journalist. His works, some of which can be seen as allegories, commonly present subversive perspectives on historic events, emphasizing the human factor. Harold Bloom has described Saramago as "a permanent part of the Western canon".[2]

Saramago was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998.[3] More than two million copies of his books have been sold in Portugal alone and his work has been translated into 25 languages.[4][5] He founded the National Front for the Defence of Culture (Lisbon, 1992) with Freitas-Magalhães and others. In 1992, the Portuguese government, under Prime Minister Aníbal Cavaco Silva, ordered the removal of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ from the European Literary Prize's shortlist, claiming the work was religiously offensive. Saramago complained about censorship[6] and moved to Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, Spain, where he resided until his death.[7][8]

A proponent of libertarian communism,[9] Saramago came into conflict with some groups, such as the Catholic Church. Saramago was an atheist who defended love as an instrument to improve the human condition.

At the time of his death, Saramago was married to Spanish journalist Pilar del Rio, and had a daughter from a previous marriage.[8]



Early and middle life

Saramago was born in 1922 into a family of landless peasants in Azinhaga, Portugal, a small village in the province of Ribatejo some hundred kilometers northeast of Lisbon.[7] His parents were José de Sousa and Maria de Piedade. "Saramago", a wild herbaceous plant known in English as the wild radish, was his father's family's nickname, and was accidentally incorporated into his name upon registration of his birth.[7] In 1924, Saramago's family moved to Lisbon, where his father started working as a policeman. A few months after the family moved to the capital, his brother Francisco, older by two years, died. He spent vacations with his grandparents in Azinhaga. When his grandfather suffered a stroke and was to be taken to Lisbon for treatment, Saramago recalled, "He went into the yard of his house, where there were a few trees, fig trees, olive trees. And he went one by one, embracing the trees and crying, saying good-bye to them because he knew he would not return. To see this, to live this, if that doesn't mark you for the rest of your life," Saramago said, "you have no feeling."[10] Although Saramago was a good pupil, his parents were unable to afford to keep him in grammar school, and instead moved him to a technical school at age 12. After graduating, he worked as a car mechanic for two years. Later he worked as a translator, then as a journalist. He was assistant editor of the newspaper Diário de Notícias, a position he had to leave after the democratic revolution in 1975.[7]

After a period of working as a translator he was able to support himself as a writer. Saramago married Ilda Reis in 1944. Their only child, Violante, was born in 1947.[7] From 1988 until his death in June 2010 Saramago was married to the Spanish journalist Pilar del Río, who is the official translator of his books into Spanish.[7]

Later life and international acclaim

Saramago did not achieve widespread recognition and acclaim until he was sixty, with the publication of his fourth novel, Memorial do Convento (literally, Memoir of the Convent). A baroque tale set during the Inquisition in 18th-century Lisbon, it tells of the love between a maimed soldier and a young clairvoyant, and of a renegade priest's heretical dream of flight. The novel's translation in 1988 as Baltasar and Blimunda, by Giovanni Pontiero, brought Saramago to the attention of an international readership.[7][11] This novel won the Portuguese PEN Club Award.

He became a member of the Portuguese Communist Party in 1969 and remained so until the end of his life.[12] Saramago was also an atheist[13] and self-described pessimist.[14] His views have aroused considerable controversy in Portugal, especially after the publication of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ.[15] Members of the country's Catholic community were outraged by Saramago's representation of Jesus and particularly God as fallible, even cruel human beings. Portugal's conservative government would not allow Saramago's work to compete for the European Literary Prize,[7] arguing that it offended the Catholic community. As a result, Saramago and his wife moved to Lanzarote, an island in the Spanish Canaries.[16]

Nobel Prize

Saramago was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. The announcement came when he was about to fly to Germany ahead of the Frankfurt Book Fair, and caught both him and his editor by surprise.[7] The Nobel committee praised his "parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony", and his "modern scepticism" about official truths.[11]

Death and funeral

Saramago died on 18 June 2010, aged 87, having spent the last few years of his life in Lanzarote, Spain.[17] He was reported to have eaten breakfast and chatted with his wife for a time before ill health overcame him and killed him.[18] The Guardian described him as "the finest Portuguese writer of his generation",[17] while Fernanda Eberstadt of The New York Times said he was "known almost as much for his unfaltering Communism as for his fiction".[4] Saramago's translator, Margaret Jull Costa, paid tribute to him, describing his "wonderful imagination" and calling him "the greatest contemporary Portuguese writer".[17] Saramago had continued his writing until his death. His most recent publication, Cain, was published in 2009, with an English translation made available in August 2010. Saramago had suffered from pneumonia a year before his death. Having been thought to have made a full recovery, he had been scheduled to attend the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August 2010.[17]

Portugal declared two days of mourning.[6][9] There were verbal tributes from senior international politicians: Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Brazil), Bernard Kouchner (France) and José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (Spain), while Cuba's Raúl and Fidel Castro sent floral tributes.[9]

Saramago's funeral was held in Lisbon on 20 June 2010, in the presence of more than 20,000 people, many of whom had travelled hundreds of kilometres, but also notably in the absence of right-wing President of Portugal Aníbal Cavaco Silva who holidayed in Azores as the ceremony took place.[19] Silva, the Prime Minister when Saramago's name was removed from the shortlist of the European Literary Prize, said he did not attend Saramago's funeral because he "had never had the privilege to know him".[6] Mourners, who questioned Silva's absence in the presence of reporters,[6] held copies of the red carnation, symbolic of Portugal's democratic revolution.[19] Saramago's cremation took place in Lisbon,[19] with his ashes being scattered in his birthplace of Azinhaga and in Tias in Lanzarote, his home until his death.[9]

Style and themes

Saramago at Teatro Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in Bogotá in 2007.

Saramago's experimental style often features long sentences, at times more than a page long. He uses periods sparingly, choosing instead a loose flow of clauses joined by commas.[7] Many of his paragraphs extend for pages without pausing for dialogue, (which Saramago chooses not to delimit by quotation marks); when the speaker changes, Saramago capitalizes the first letter of the new speaker's clause. His works often refer to his other works.[7] In his novel Blindness, Saramago completely abandons the use of proper nouns, instead referring to characters simply by some unique characteristic, an example of his style reflecting the recurring themes of identity and meaning found throughout his work.

Saramago's novels often deal with fantastic scenarios, such as that in his 1986 novel The Stone Raft, in which the Iberian Peninsula breaks off from the rest of Europe and sails around the Atlantic Ocean. In his 1995 novel Blindness, an entire unnamed country is stricken with a mysterious plague of "white blindness". In his 1984 novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (which won the PEN Award and the Independent Foreign Fiction Award), Fernando Pessoa's heteronym survives for a year after the poet himself dies. Additionally, his novel Death with Interruptions (also translated as Death at Intervals) takes place in a country in which, suddenly, nobody dies, and concerns, in part, the spiritual and political implications of the event, although the book ultimately moves from a synoptic to a more personal perspective.

Using such imaginative themes, Saramago addresses the most serious of subject matters with empathy for the human condition and for the isolation of contemporary urban life. His characters struggle with their need to connect with one another, form relations and bond as a community, and also with their need for individuality, and to find meaning and dignity outside of political and economic structures.

When asked to describe his daily writing routine in 2009, Saramago responded, "I write two pages. And then I read and read and read."[20]


Saramago was a proponent of anarcho-communism,[9] and a member of the Communist Party of Portugal.[8] As a member of his PCP he stood for the 1989 Lisbon Local election in the list of the Coalition "For Lisbon" and was elected Alderman and presiding officer of the Municipal Assembly of Lisbon.[21] Saramago was also a candidate of the Democratic Unity Coalition to the European Parliament in all the elections from 1989 to 2009, usually in positions with no possibility of being elected.[21] Saramago was a critic of the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.[7]

In his novel Blindness, the communist principle of from each according to his ability, to each according to his need is stated in a positive light.[22] In a 2008 press conference for the filming of Blindness he stated, in reference to the global financial crisis, that "Marx was never so right as now"[23]

Although many of his novels are acknowledged political satire of a subtle kind, it is in The Notebook that Saramago makes his political convictions most clear. The book, written from a Marxist perspective, is a collection of his blog articles for the year September 2008 to August 2009. According to The Independent, "Saramago aims to cut through the web of 'organized lies' surrounding humanity, and to convince readers by delivering his opinions in a relentless series of unadorned, knock-down prose blows."[24] His political engagement has led to comparisons with George Orwell: "Orwell's hostility to the British Empire runs parallel to Saramago's latter-day crusade against empire in the shape of globalisation."[25] When speaking to The Observer in 2006 he said "The painter paints, the musician makes music, the novelist writes novels. But I believe that we all have some influence, not because of the fact that one is an artist, but because we are citizens. As citizens, we all have an obligation to intervene and become involved, it's the citizen who changes things. I can't imagine myself outside any kind of social or political involvement."[26]

During a visit to Ramallah in March 2002 during the second intifada, Saramago compared the Palestinian city, which was blockaded at the time by the Israeli army, to concentration camps. Some critics claimed Saramago's statement was antisemitic.[8][27][28][29][30][31]

During the 2006 Lebanon War, Saramago joined Tariq Ali, John Berger, Noam Chomsky, and others in condemning what they characterized as "a long-term military, economic and geographic practice whose political aim is nothing less than the liquidation of the Palestinian nation".[32]

He was also a supporter of Iberian Federalism.


Title Year English title Year ISBN
Terra do Pecado 1947 Land of Sin ISBN 9722111450
Os Poemas Possíveis 1966 Possible Poems
Provavelmente Alegria 1970 Probably Joy
Deste Mundo e do Outro 1971 This World and the Other
A Bagagem do Viajante 1973 The Traveller's Baggage
As Opiniões que o DL teve 1974 Opinions that DL had
O Ano de 1993 1975 The Year of 1993
Os Apontamentos 1976 The Notes
Manual de Pintura e Caligrafia 1977 Manual of Painting and Calligraphy 1993 ISBN 1857540433
Objecto Quase 1978 Quasi Object
Levantado do Chão 1980 Raised from the Ground 2011
Viagem a Portugal 1981 Journey to Portugal 2000 ISBN 0151005877
Memorial do Convento 1982 Baltasar and Blimunda 1987 ISBN 0151105553
O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis 1986 The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis 1991 ISBN 0151997357
A Jangada de Pedra 1986 The Stone Raft 1994 ISBN 0151851980
História do Cerco de Lisboa 1989 The History of the Siege of Lisbon 1996 ISBN 015100238X
O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo 1991 The Gospel According to Jesus Christ 1993 ISBN 0151367000
Ensaio sobre a Cegueira 1995 Blindness 1997 ISBN 0151002517
Todos os Nomes 1997 All the Names 1999 ISBN 0151004218
O Conto da Ilha Desconhecida 1997 The Tale of the Unknown Island 1999 ISBN 0151005958
A Caverna 2001 The Cave 2002 ISBN 0151004145
A Maior Flor do Mundo 2001 Children's Picture Book
O Homem Duplicado 2003 The Double 2004 ISBN 0151010404
Ensaio sobre a Lucidez 2004 Seeing 2006 ISBN 0151012385
Don Giovanni ou o Dissoluto Absolvido 2005 Don Giovanni, or, Dissolute Acquitted
As Intermitências da Morte 2005 Death with Interruptions 2008 ISBN 1846550203
As Pequenas Memórias 2006 Small Memories 2010 ISBN 9780151015085
A Viagem do Elefante 2008 The Elephant's Journey 2010 ISBN 9789722120173
Caim 2009 Cain 2011 ISBN 9786071103161

See also

  • Magical realism


  1. ^ a b c d e "Small Talk: José Saramago". "Everything I’ve read has influenced me in some way. Having said that, Kafka, Borges, Gogol, Montaigne, Cervantes are constant companions."
  2. ^ "Fond Farewells". TIME. Harold Bloom. 15 December 2010.
  3. ^ "José Saramago - Autobiography". Retrieved 2010-07-27. 
  4. ^ a b Eberstadt, Fernanda (18 June 2010). "José Saramago, Nobel Prize-Winning Writer, Dies". The New York Times (The New York Times Company). Retrieved 18 June 2010. 
  5. ^ "Nobel Writer, A Communist, Defends Work". The New York Times. 12 October 1998. Retrieved 18 June 2010. 
  6. ^ a b c d "President defends Jose Saramago funeral no-show". BBC News (BBC). 21 June 2010. Retrieved 21 June 2010. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Quoted in: Eberstadt, Fernanda (August 26, 2007). "The Unexpected Fantasist". The New York Times. Retrieved August 14, 2009. 
  8. ^ a b c d Nobel-winning Portuguese novelist Saramago dies, Associated Press 18-06-2010
  9. ^ a b c d e "Portugal mourns as Nobel laureate's body returned". The China Post. 21 June 2010. Retrieved 21 June 2010. 
  10. ^
  11. ^ a b Jaggi, Maya (22 November 2008). "New ways of seeing". The Guardian (London). 
  12. ^ "Nobel Prize citation, 1998". Retrieved 2010-06-20. 
  13. ^ The God Factor[dead link]
  14. ^ "Langer, Adam. "José Saramago: Prophet of Doom." ''Book Magazine'' November/December 2002". 2002-10-31. Archived from the original on 2002-10-31. Retrieved 2010-06-20. 
  15. ^ "Austin, Paige. "Shadows on the Wall." ''The Yale Review of Books'' Spring 2004". Retrieved 2010-06-20. 
  16. ^ ""José Saramago: Autobiography." 1998.". Retrieved 2010-06-20. 
  17. ^ a b c d Lea, Richard (18 June 2010). "Nobel laureate José Saramago dies, aged 87". The Guardian (London: Guardian Media Group). Retrieved 18 June 2010. 
  18. ^ "Nobel-wiining(sic) novelist Saramago dies aged 87". The Hindu. 18 June 2010. Retrieved 18 June 2010. 
  19. ^ a b c "Portuguese Nobel laureate Saramago's funeral held". Xinhua News Agency. 21 June 2010. Retrieved 21 June 2010. 
  20. ^ Maloney, Evan (4 March 2010). "The best advice for writers? Read". The Guardian (Guardian Media Group). Retrieved 4 March 2010. 
  21. ^ a b Communist Party of Portugal: Short Biographical note on Jose Saramago
  22. ^ Blindness, Harvest Book Series, José Saramago, translated by Giovanni Pontiero, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999
  23. ^
  24. ^ The Notebook by José Saramago, London Independent
  25. ^ Saramago and Orwell), Rollason, C.
  26. ^ Stephanie Meritt, "Interview: Still a street-fighting man," Observer (30 April 2006).
  27. ^ Portuguese Nobel Laureate's Remarks on Jews and the Holocaust Are "Incendiary and Offensive", Anti-Defamation League (ADL) - Press release, October 15, 2003.
  28. ^ ADL Outraged by Nobel Laureate Comparison of Ramallah to Auschwitz, Anti-Defamation League (ADL) - Press release, March 26, 2002.
  29. ^ De las piedras de David a los tanques de Goliat by José Saramago, El Pais 21/Abril/2002 (in Spanish).
  30. ^ Bigotry in Print. Crowds Chant Murder. Something's Changed by Paul Berman, The Forward (available online here) May 24, 2002.
  31. ^ David Frum: Death of a Jew-hater by David Frum, National Post, June 19, 2010.
  32. ^ "Israel, Lebanon, and Palestine" statement, July 19, 2006


  • Baptista Bastos, José Saramago: Aproximação a um retrato, Dom Quixote, 1996
  • T.C. Cerdeira da Silva, Entre a história e aficção: Uma saga de portugueses, Dom Quixote, 1989
  • Maria da Conceição Madruga, A paixão segundo José Saramago: a paixão do verbo e o verbo da paixão, Campos das Letras, Porto, 1998
  • Horácio Costa, José Saramago: O Período Formativo, Ed. Caminho, 1998
  • Helena I. Kaufman, Ficção histórica portuguesa da pós-revolução, Madison, 1991
  • O. Lopes, Os sinais e os sentidos: Literatura portuguesa do século XX, Lisboa, 1986
  • B. Losada, Eine iberische Stimme, Liber, 2, 1, 1990, 3
  • Carlos Reis, Diálogos com José Saramago, Ed. Caminho, Lisboa, 1998
  • M. Maria Seixo, O essential sobre José Saramago, Imprensa Nacional, 1987
  • "Saramago, José (1922–2010)." Encyclopedia of World Biography. Ed. Tracie Ratiner. Vol. 25. 2nd ed. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2005. Discovering Collection. Thomson Gale. University of Guelph. 25 Sep. 2007.

External links

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