Saramago Still Inspires

José Saramago, (born November 16, 1922, Azinhaga, Portugal—died June 18, 2010, Lanzarote, Canary Islands, Spain), was a novelist and man of letters who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998.

The son of rural labourers, Saramago grew up in great poverty in Lisbon. After holding a series of jobs as a mechanic and metalworker, Saramago began working in a Lisbon publishing firm and eventually became a journalist and translator. He joined the Portuguese Communist Party in 1969, published several volumes of poems, and served as editor of a Lisbon newspaper in 1974–75 during the cultural thaw that followed the overthrow of the dictatorship of António Salazar. An anti-communist backlash followed in which Saramago lost his position, and in his fifties he began writing the novels that would eventually establish his international reputation.

His work, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, positions Christ as an innocent caught in the machinations of God and Satan. The outspoken atheist’s ironic comments in The Gospel According to Jesus Christ were deemed too cutting by the Roman Catholic Church, which pressured the Portuguese government to block the book’s entry for a literary prize in 1992. As a result of what he considered censorship, Saramago went into self-imposed exile on the Canary Islands (here on Lanzarote) for the remainder of his life.

After his death his beautiful mountain-top home in Tias was transformed into a magnificnet Library and Museum that was thriving until covid plunged the whole island into lockdown.

Four or five years ago we visited A Casa in Tias, because our grown up son, who lives in South Korea, said he had read on-line about á great writer who used to live in Tias. The house turned out to be everything a writer´s house should, full of grand, bound books, and whole and important collections, and some note-pads and pencils, and great works of art and panoramic views down to the coast, two miles away, a strange rock chair in the garden that was his thinking place, some lovely furniture and,… oh, yes, a Nobel prize on the wonderful writing desk. We took a tour of the premises guided by smiling and knowledgeable staff. Thanks to the re-opening these tours will resume on a regular schedule once more. Check out https://acasajosesaramago.com

We had a coffee at the same kitchen table that Jose used to sit at, apparently, and we fell into conversation with a young, female literary student, herself from Portugal, who obviously greatly admired her countryman and his work. We subsequently posted on to this blog on 10th December 2019 an article entitled A Writer And His House Of Books. It is still available in our extensive but easy to negotiate archives, so to learn more about the wonderful property, just type its owner´s name, Jose Saramago, into our search engine facility in our archives.

José de Sousa Saramago, GColSE , was a Portuguese writer and recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature. His works, some of which can be seen as allegories, commonly present subversive perspectives on historic events, emphasizing the theopoetic human factor. In 2003 Harold Bloom described Saramago as “the most gifted novelist alive in the world today´ and in 2010 said he considered Saramago to be ´a permanent part of the Western canon”, while James Wood praises ´´the distinctive tone to his fiction because he narrates his novels as if he were someone both wise and ignorant´. Bloom and Saramago met when Saramago presented Bloom with an honorary degree from the University of Coimbra; according to Bloom: ´A warm acquaintanceship ensued, marked by an exegetical disagreement concerning The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, which continued in correspondence and at a later meeting in New York City´. More than two million copies of Saramago’s books have been sold in Portugal alone and his work has been translated into 25 languages. A proponent of libertarian communism, Saramago criticized institutions such as the Catholic Church, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. An atheist, he defended love as an instrument to improve the human condition. In 1992, the Government of Portugal under Prime Minister Aníbal Cavaco Silva ordered the removal of one of his works, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, from the Aristeion Prize’s shortlist, claiming the work was religiously offensive. Disheartened by this political censorship of his work, Saramago went into exile on the Spanish island of Lanzarote, where he lived alongside his Spanish wife Pilar del Río until his death in 2010. Saramago was a founding member of the National Front for the Defense of Culture in Lisbon in 1992, and co-founder with Orhan Pamuk, of the European Writers’ Parliament (EWP).

Saramago was born in 1922 into a family of landless peasants in Azinhaga, Portugal, a small village in Ribatejo Province, around one hundred kilometers northeast of Lisbon. His parents were José de Sousa and Maria de Piedade. Saramago, the Portuguese word for Raphanus raphanistrum (wild radish), was his father’s family’s nickname, and was accidentally incorporated into his name upon registration of his birth.

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.´´ 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. At this time Saramago had acquired a taste for reading and started to frequent a public library in Lisbon in his free time. He married Ilda Reis in 1944. Their only daughter, Violante, was born in 1947. By this time he was working in the Social Welfare Service as a civil servant. Later he worked at the publishing company Estúdios Cor and 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 1974.

Saramago published his first novel, Land of Sin, in 1947. It remained his only published literary work until a poetry book, Possible Poems, was published in 1966. It was followed by another book of poems, Probably Joy, in 1970, three collections of newspaper articles in 1971, 1973 and 1974 respectively, and the long poem The Year of 1993 in 1975. A collection of political writing was published in 1976 under the title Notes. In the late nineteen seventies Saramago published the novel Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, a collection of short stories, The Lives of Things, and two plays, before his writing became almost entirely dedicated to novels.

Saramago did not achieve widespread recognition and acclaim until he was sixty, with the publication of his fourth novel, Memorial do Convento. 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. This novel won the Portuguese PEN Club Award.

Followed by acclaimed novels such as The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis and The History of the Siege of Lisbon, Saramago was hailed by literary critics for his complex yet elegant style, his broad range of references and his wit.
For the former novel Saramago received the British Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The multi-layered The History of the Siege of Lisbon deals with the uncertainty of historical events and includes the story of a middle-aged isolated proof-reader who falls in love with his boss. Saramago acknowledged that there is a lot of himself in the protagonist of the novel, and dedicated the novel to his wife. Following the divorce from Ilda Reis in 1970, in 1986 he met Spanish journalist Pilar del Río. They married in 1988 and remained together until his death in June 2010. Del Río is the official translator of Saramago’s books into Spanish.

Saramago joined the Portuguese Communist Party in 1969 and remained a member until the end of his life. He was a self-confessed pessimist. His views aroused considerable controversy in Portugal, especially after the publication of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. 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, led by then-prime minister Aníbal Cavaco Silva, did not allow Saramago’s work to compete for the Aristeion Prize, arguing that it offended the Catholic community. As a result, Saramago and his wife moved to Lanzarote, an island in the Canaries.

In 1998 Saramago was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature with the prize motivation: “who with parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony continually enables us once again to apprehend an elusory reality´.

The European Writers’ Parliament (EWP) came about as a result of a joint proposal by Saramago and fellow Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk. Saramago was expected to speak as the guest of honour at the EWP, but he died before the opening ceremony in 2010.

Saramago suffered from leukemia. He died on 18 June 2010, aged 87, having spent the last few years of his life in Lanzarote, Spain. His family said that he had breakfast and chatted with his wife and translator Pilar del Río on Friday morning, after which he started feeling unwell and died. The Guardian described him as the finest Portuguese writer of his generation´, while Fernanda Eberstadt of The New York Times said he was ´known almost as much for his unfaltering Communism as for his fiction´.]

Saramago’s translator, Margaret Jull Costa, paid tribute to him, describing his ´wonderful imagination” and calling him ´´the greatest contemporary Portuguese writer´. Saramago had continued his writing until his death. His most recent publication, Claraboia, was published in 2011, after his death. 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.

Portugal declared two days of mourning. There were 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 flowers.

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 was holidaying in the Azores as the ceremony took place. Cavaco Silva, the Prime Minister who removed Saramago’s work from the shortlist of the Aristeion Prize, said he did not attend Saramago’s funeral because he “had never had the privilege to know him´. Mourners, who questioned Cavaco Silva’s absence in the presence of reporters, held copies of the red carnation, symbolic of Portugal’s democratic revolution. Saramago’s cremation took place in Lisbon, and his ashes were buried on the anniversary of his death, 18 June 2011, underneath a hundred year old olive tree on the square in front of the José Saramago Foundation (Casa dos Bicos).

The José Saramago Foundation announced in October 2011 the publication of a so-called “lost novel” published as Skylight (Claraboia in Portuguese). It was written in the 1950s and remained in the archive of a publisher to whom the manuscript had been sent. Saramago remained silent about the work up to his death. The book has been translated into several languages.

Saramago’s experimental style often features long sentences, at times more than a page long. He used periods sparingly, choosing instead a loose flow of clauses joined by commas. 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. 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. In his 1986 novel The Stone Raft, 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.

Saramago addresses serious 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.”

Saramago was an atheist. The Catholic Church criticised him on numerous occasions due to the content of some of his novels, mainly The Gospel According to Jesus Christ and Cain, in which he uses satire and biblical quotations to present the figure of God in a comical way. The Portuguese government lambasted his 1991 novel O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo (The Gospel according to Jesus Christ) and struck the writer’s name from nominees for the European Literature Prize, saying the atheist work offended Portuguese Catholic convictions.

The book portrays a Christ who, subject to human desires, lives with Mary Magdalene and tries to back out of the crucifixion. Following the Swedish Academy’s decision to present Saramago with the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Vatican questioned the decision on political grounds, though gave no comment on the aesthetic or literary components of Saramago’s work. Saramago responded: ´The Vatican is easily scandalized, especially by people from outside. They should just focus on their prayers and leave people in peace. I respect those who believe, but I have no respect for the institution´.

Saramago was a proponent of anarcho-communism, and a member of the Communist Party of Portugal, however, in his: ‘Lanzarote Notebook 1’, José Saramago cites a comment by Gabriel García Márquez, during a meeting in Santiago de Compostela, called by Manuel Fraga: ‘You the Stalinist don’t believe in reality’. As such ‘communist’ 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. Saramago was also a candidate of the Democratic Unity Coalition in all elections to the European Parliament from 1989 to 2009, though was often in positions thought to have no possibility of being elected. He was a critic of European Union (EU) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) policies.

Although many of his novels are acknowledged political satire of a subtle kind, it is in The Notebook that Saramago made 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´. His political engagement 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´,

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´.

During the Second Intifada, while visiting Ramallah in March 2002, Saramago said: ´What is happening in Palestine is a crime we can put on the same plain as what happened at Auschwitz … A sense of impunity characterises the Israeli people and its army. They have turned into rentiers of the Holocaust´. Some critics of these words contended that they were anti-semitic. Six months later, Saramago clarified. ´To have said that Israel’s action is to be condemned, that war crimes are being perpetrated – really the Israelis are used to that. It doesn’t bother them. But there are certain words they can’t stand. And to say Auschwitz there … note well, I didn’t say that Ramallah was the same as Auschwitz, that would be stupid. What I said was that the spirit of Auschwitz was present in Ramallah. We were eight writers. They all made condemning statements, Wole Soyinka, Breyten Breytenbach, Vincenzo Consolo and others. But the Israelis weren’t bothered about those. It was the fact that I put my finger in the Auschwitz wound that made them jump´.

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´.

He was also a supporter of Iberian Federalism. In a 2008 press conference for the filming of Blindness he asked, in reference to the Great Recession, ´Where was all that money poured on markets? Very tight and well kept; then suddenly it appears to save what? lives? no, banks.´ He added, ´Marx was never so right as now´, and predicted “the worst is still to come´

The Swedish Academy selected Saramago as 1998 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The announcement came when he was about to fly to Germany for the Frankfurt Book Fair, and caught both him and his editor by surprise. The Nobel committee praised his ´parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony´, and his ´modern skepticism´ about official truths.

The José Saramago Foundation was founded by José Saramago in June 2007, with the aim to defend and spread the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the promotion of culture in Portugal just like in all the countries, and protection of the environment. The José Saramago Foundation is located in the historic Casa dos Bicos in the city of Lisbon.

The President of the Government of Spain, Pedro Sánchez, holidayed here on Lanzarote last year but I don´t suppose the top man ever gets any real down time. He certainly performed some light public duties while here and In a speech to celebrate the re-opening, after lockdown, of the wonderful Saramago House and Library in Tias on Wednesday 11th August, The President said of the late writer José Saramago, who lived on the premises, that his life and works should inspire others to face challenges and difficult decisions..

This observation was made by President Sánchez during a speech at the ceremony to celebrate not only the re-opening of ‘A Casa’, the beautiful and historic building in Tias but also the centenary of the birth of writer José Saramago, which took place in that very building and where The President´s speech concluded the official ceremonies.

Sánchez has admitted that it is a ´great pleasure to take advantage´ of his stay on the island of Lanzarote, where he was spending a few days on vacation, to return to Saramago’s house and to celebrate its reopening after it had been forced to close by the coronavirus pandemic. He considers the re-opening, he said, to be ´one more sign of hope´ for the ´new time´ we are approached thanks to the vaccine.

The President explained he was grateful for the work in general carried out by the Writer’s Foundation because spaces like this are ´essential and, above all, today much more´, since he pointed out that ´it is not just about remembering moved by affection or even out of nostalgia, but to vindicate José Saramago because all societies, especially in times like these, need reference points, especially references like José Saramago “.

He added that one of the reasons for keeping alive the memory of ´great women and men is that they continue to serve as inspiration when facing challenges and decisions´, stating that in the pandemic these have been “difficult” to adopt.

Sánchez has alluded to the novel ‘La balsa de piedra’, in which Saramago wrote “energies always return when hope returns´, a phrase that he pointed out ´many recovered during the long months of confinement´, encouraging them to resist with all available means. or by creating new ones if necessary.

In this sense, he stressed that this Canary Islands knows “very well because they were the preferred object of instruments´´ that had to be created in order to ´survive´, thus referring to ERTE, autonomous benefits, ICO loans, direct aid, support for the tourism sector – citing 100 million euros for the resilience of the tourism sector in the Canary Islands, or the five million euros of the sustainability plan for Lanzarote; ´all essential to save jobs and companies and try to reduce the tear´ that the pandemic sliced across society

Given all this, he affirmed that although the energies ´grow more and more every day with solid and well-founded hopes´.

For his part, the President of the Canary Islands, Ángel Víctor Torres, highlighted Saramago’s commitment to ´not only ´beauty and aesthetics, but also to society and the environment´.

As a way of officially commemorating this centenary, the President of the José Saramago Foundation, Pilar del Río; and the president of the Cabildo de Lanzarote, María Dolores Corujo. also attended the event.  In addition, the former president of the Government José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, as well as the Minister of Health, Carolina Darias, and the Government delegate, Anselmo Pestana, were also present.

Since that re-opening we have not yet been able to find the time for a forty mile round trip to Tias to spend three or four hoiurs of utter serenity whilst browsing through books, listening to a guided tour through our earphones, marvelling at the nobel prize on display and looking down to the coast with diamons dancing on the sea.

We have decided this weekend that we must return over the next couple of weeks to pay homage again to a wonderful writer. Maybe we will see you there?