Skip to main content
Select Source:

Saramago, José

José Saramago

Novelist José Saramago (born 1922) is Portugal's most notable literary figure, and the first Portuguese-language author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Described by many as a "born storyteller," Saramago's charming and challenging cannon has assured him an esteemed place among Europe's literary elite.

Saramago was born November 16, 1922, in the provincial town of Azinhaga, Portugal. He and his parents and older brother lived with his grandparents on their property. The author revealed in an autobiography posted on the Nobel Prize Website that he would have shared his father's surname—de Sousa—but the registrar entered "the nickname by which [his] father's family was known in the village . . . saramago . . . a wild herbaceous plant, whose leaves in those times served at need as nourishment for the poor." Saramago's father—José de Sousa—and his mother—Maria da Piedade—were landless peasant laborers, but in 1924 the family moved to Lisbon which gave Saramago an unusual opportunity to receive an education, however brief. He divided his time between his parent's meager home in Lisbon, where he excelled in all academic subjects, and his grandparents' farm in Azinhaga, where he helped them work the land.

Sought Advanced Education

Saramago attended local Lisbon grammar schools until his family's dire economic circumstances made it impossible for him to continue with his formal academic education. He dropped out of school in his teen years and enrolled in a technical school for metal workers, where he learned the mechanic's trade. Although the vocational school required that its students focus on a trade, it did offer a sampling of academic courses that could be taken on the side. Saramago took full advantage of this opportunity and studied French and literature with the aim of mastering the art of literary translation.

Aside from earning numerous honorary doctorates from a wide range of universities later in life, Saramago's academic career never officially went beyond grammar school. He married his first wife, Ilda Reis, one of Portugal's top engravers, in 1944. They had one child, a daughter named Violante, in 1947, but would divorce in 1970. Meanwhile, in addition to working mechanical jobs he wrote and published a short novel at age 25 titled Land of Sin; the political climate was so unfavorable to such work that he abandoned further attempts to pursue fiction; he later denounced the novel as an immature effort at best. Saramago has stated in interviews that, contrary to popular opinion, he was not afraid to write because of the oppressive governmental environment. Rather, he felt he had nothing worthwhile to say at that time in his life.

Life as a Writer

Saramago soon traded in mechanical jobs to serve as the editor of a small Lisbon newspaper, Diario de Noticias, until the Portuguese government changed hands again in 1974. In 1969 he became a member of the then-illegal Portuguese Communist party, an affiliation he would maintain throughout his life. Losing the editorial position as a result of the rampant political intrigue of the time, Saramago then turned to translating French manuscripts into Portuguese to support himself, remaining at this task from 1975 to 1980. It was not long before the literature he was translating began to stoke his own creative fires, and he finally returned to novel-writing as an outlet for his self-expression.

Saramago's trademark fictional style mixes elements of magical realism—defined by Library Journal contributor Nancy Pearl as "any narrative that demonstrates the power of imagination to transform reality through the art of storytelling"—with sharp social observations. Known for being a fluent and persuasive author, Saramago has been praised for his ability to move from description to philosophizing to sharing popular wisdom. As Richard A. Preto-Rodas explained in World Literature Today regarding Saramago's extraordinary style, "Gone are the usual distinctions involving narrative, description, and dialogue. . . . The result . . . is unsettling as the reader opens to pages filled with lines of unbroken print. One may even lose one's way in the absence of capital letters, punctuation marks, and paragraph indentations."

In 1977 Saramago published what he considers his first novel, Manual of Painting and Calligraphy. This was followed by two more books in quick succession: 1978's Objecto quase (Quasi-Objects) and 1980's Levantado do chão (Raised from the Ground). Levantado do chão was well received by both press and public, and earned its author some degree of recognition within Portugal's literary scene. His 1982 novel Memorial do convento—translated into English in 1987 as Baltasar and Blimunda—was the first of Saramago's works translated and distributed widely enough to catch the attention of an international audience. A history of eighteenth century Portugal that weaves elements of social and political history into an account of King John V's construction of the Mafra Convent, the novel was praised for its mix of fact and fantasy. So well loved was it, in fact, that Memorial do convento it was eventually adapted as an opera and performed in 1990 at La Scala in Milan.

Saramago's next novel, 1984's O ano da morte de Ricardo Reis (The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis), is considered by many critics to be his tour de force. The novel revolves around the famous Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, and brings to life, through Saramago's characteristic mix of fact, fantasy, and folklore, Portuguese society during the 1930s, as the tide of fascism and socialism were sweeping through a Europe still unsettled by the Great War. In 1986 he released A jangada de pedra (The Stone Raft), a fantasy-allegory that finds Spain and Portugal cut off from the rest of Europe after a giant fault line appears in the Pyrenees. That same year the novelist met Spanish journalist Pilar del Rio, and the two wed in 1988. Saramago ended the 1980s with publication of his 1989 novel História do cêreco de Lisboa (The History of the Siege of Lisbon), a tale that twines the threads of a medieval love story with a modern one.

Saramago's next project, 1991's O evangelho segundo Jesus Cristo (The Gospel according to Jesus Christ), caused an uproar throughout Catholic Portugal, and was condemned by the Church for its depiction of a Jesus with human failings and desires. Portugal's conservative government contested the novel's entry into the running for a literary prize in 1992, and the slight prompted Saramago and his wife to leave Lisbon behind and settle in the Canary Islands. His next novel, Ensaio sobre a cegueira (Blindness), tells of an inexplicable and inescapable "white blindness" that sweeps through a seemingly orderly society, quickly dissolving it into a state of primitive chaos. Described by Andrew Miller in the New York Times Book Review as presenting "a clear-eyed and compassionate acknowledgment of things as they are, a quality that can only honestly be termed wisdom," Blindness catapulted Saramago's talents squarely in front of the public eye, paving the way for the accolades that were to come.

In 1997 Saramago published Todos os nomes (All the Names), a novel described by Pearl in Library Journal as "in turns claustrophobic, playful, farcical, and suspenseful," and conveying "the human need for connection in a lonely world." He won the Nobel Prize for Literature the following year in 1998, at the age of 75, following which the world—and particularly the United States—began to sit up and take notice of his unique world view. As quoted on their Website, the Nobel Prize committee cited Saramago's ability to enable readers "to apprehend an illusory reality" with "parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony" as the reason for his accomplishment.

The next few years brought more publications—a small parable titled Conto da ilha descohecia (The Tale of the Unknown Island) in 1999, the travelogue Journey to Portugal in 2000, his 2002 novel La Caverna (The Cave), and his 2004 novel The Double. The last book received some mixed reactions from critics. Some, like Philip Graham in New Leader, called The Double "a deft reworking of a timeless theme and a virtuoso exercise in voice—from a writer who seems to produce masterpiece after masterpiece like clockwork." Others, like Jeff Giles in Newsweek, reported that the novel reads like "a short story that got too big for its binding." Despite his advanced age, Saramago has continued cultivate and maintain his public through interviews and radio broadcasts.

A Writer's Task

Saramago and his family split their time between their home on the Canary island of Lanzarote and a flat in Lisbon. His novels have been translated into over 30 different languages, and New York Times contributor Alan Riding identified Saramago's "unwavering concern for individual fate" as the quality that "gives his fiction its distinctive voice and independent character." On the basis of his fiction alone, Saramago has been lauded as among the most influential contemporary novelists working in Europe.

Since settling in Lanzarote, Saramago has compiled a set of annual journals titled Notebooks from Lanzarote. In World Literature Today Preto–Rodas explained that these entries reveal Saramago to be "a man who is obviously very much at peace with himself and devoted to his wife in their new home 'built entirely of books, from top to bottom' in a setting of volcanic hills, flowers, and the sea. "


Encyclopedia of World Literature in the Twentieth Century, Volume Four, St. James Press, 1999.

Newsmakers 1999, Gale, 1999.

The Oxford Companion to English Literature, sixth edition, Oxford University Press, 2000.


Europe, March, 2000.

Library Journal, March 15, 2003.

New Leader, September-October, 2004.

Newsweek, October 11, 2004.

New York Times, October 9, 1998.

New York Times Book Review, November 1, 1987; July 13, 1997; October 4, 1998.

U.S. News and World Report, October19, 1998.

World Literature Today, winter, 1999.


"José Saramago," Nobel Prize Website, (December 19, 2004).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Saramago, José." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Saramago, José." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . (December 12, 2017).

"Saramago, José." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from

Saramago, José

José Saramago (zhōōzĕ´ sär´ämä´gōō), 1922–2010, Portuguese novelist and short-story writer. He became a member of the Communist party in 1969 and was a staunch atheist and a strong opponent of globalization and the increasing power of multinational corporations. Saramago's first novel (never translated into English) was published in 1947. A subsequent novel, Skylight (1953), was misplaced by the publisher and did not appear until after his death (2011, tr. 2014). Saramago was essentially a journalist until a year after the 1974 Portuguese revolution. Fired from his newspaper job after a failed radical leftist coup led to reduced Communist influence in the government (1975), he devoted himself to his fiction. His second published novel (also as yet untranslated) did not appear until 1976; during the next decades it was followed by numerous other works of fiction. His best-known novels include Baltasar and Blimunda (1982, tr. 1987), The Stone Raft (1986, tr. 1994), The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991, tr. 1993), and Blindness (1995, tr. 1997). Often employing paradox and irony, mingling humor with melancholy and skepticism with fantasy, and blending elements of myth, allegory, and folktale with historical events, much of his fiction provides a Portuguese view of Iberian history. Saramago's stories are marked by elements of the surreal and are characteristically told by an unidentified narrator whose voice and attitude are distinctively sly, jocular, and pessimistic, with a kind of peasant wisdom; his protagonists are often portrayed resisting some kind of stifling and dehumanizing social institution.

Saramago's novels include Levantado do chão (1980; tr. Raised from the Ground, 2012); Memorial do convento (1982; tr. Baltasar and Blimunda, 1987), a picaresque love story set in the Portuguese Inquisition and the work that first brought him international acclaim; O ano da morte de Ricardo Reis (1984; tr. The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, 1990); A jangada de pedra (1986; tr. The Stone Raft, 1995); the controversial O evangelho segundo Jesus Cristo (1991; tr. The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, 1994); Ensaio sobre a cegueira (1995; tr. Blindness, 1998), perhaps his finest work, a political parable in which a city lapses into barbarism following a plague of blindness, and its sequel, Ensaio sobre a lucidez (2004; tr. Seeing, 2006); Todos os nomes (1997; tr. All the Names, 1999); A Caverna (2000; tr. The Cave, 2002); Homem duplicado (2002; tr. The Double, 2004), Intermitências da morte (2005, tr. Death with Interruptions, 2008); Viagem do elefante (2008, tr. The Elephant's Journey, 2010); and Caim (2009, tr. Cain, 2011), his last novel. Saramago also wrote poetry, essays, plays, journals, and two memoirs. After the Portuguese government blocked the nomination of his 1991 novel about Jesus for a literary prize, he moved (1992) to Lanzarote in the Canary Islands in a symbolic act of self-exile. Critics have noted that the novels written after the move are more austere, stylized, allegorical, and universal than his previous Portugal-themed works. Saramago was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998, the first Portuguese-language writer to achieve the honor.

See study by H. Bloom, ed. (2005).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Saramago, José." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Saramago, José." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (December 12, 2017).

"Saramago, José." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from