Saramago, José (16 November 1922 -)
José Saramago (16 November 1922 -)
José N. Ornelas
University of Massachusetts, Amherst
See also the Saramago entries in DLB 287: Portuguese Writers and DLB Yearbook: 1998.
BOOKS: Terra do pecado (Lisbon: Minerva, 1947; corrected edition, Lisbon: Caminho, 1997);
Os poemas possíveis (Lisbon: Portugália, 1966; revised edition, Lisbon: Caminho, 1982);
Provavelmente alegria (Lisbon: Livros Horizonte, 1970; revised and augmented edition, Lisbon: Caminho, 1985);
Deste mundo e do outro (Lisbon: Arcádia, 1971);
A bagagem do viajante (Lisbon: Futura, 1973);
O embargo (Lisbon: Estúdios Cor, 1973);
As opiniōes que o Diáro de Lisboa teve (Lisbon: Seara Nova/Futura, 1974);
O ano de 1993 (Lisbon: Futura, 1975);
Os apontamentos (Lisbon: Seara Nova, 1976);
Manual de pintura e caligrafia (Lisbon: Moraes Editores, 1976); translated by Giovanni Pontiero as Manual of Painting and Calligraphy (Manchester, U.K.: Carcanet, 1994);
Objecto quase (Lisbon: Moraes Editores, 1978);
A noite (Lisbon: Caminho, 1979);
Levantado do chāo (Lisbon: Caminho, 1980);
Que farei com este livro? (Lisbon: Caminho, 1980);
Viagem a Portugal (Lisbon: Círculo de Leitores, 1981); translated by Amanda Hopkinson and Nick Caistor as Journey to Portugal: In Pursuit of Portugal’s History and Culture (New York: Harcourt, 2000);
Memorial do convento (Lisbon: Caminho, 1982); translated by Pontiero as Baltasar and Blimunda (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987; London: Cape, 1988);
O ano da morte de Ricardo Reis (Lisbon: Caminho, 1984); translated by Pontiero as The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991; London: Harvill, 1992);
A jangada de pedra (Lisbon: Caminho, 1986); translated by Pontiero as The Stone Raft (London: Harvill, 1994; New York: Harcourt Brace, 1995);
A segunda vida de Francisco de Assis (Lisbon: Caminho, 1987);
História do cerco de Lisboa (Lisbon: Caminho, 1989); translated by Pontiero as The History of the Siege of Lisbon (London: Harvill, 1996; New York: Harcourt Brace, 1996);
O Evangelho segundo Jesus Cristo (Lisbon: Caminho, 1991); translated by Pontiero as The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (London: Harvill, 1993; New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994);
In nomine Dei (Lisbon: Caminho, 1993);
Cadernos de Lanzarote, 5 volumes (Lisbon: Caminho, 1994–1998);
Ensaio sobre a cegueira (Lisbon: Caminho, 1995); translated by Pontiero as Blindness (London: Harvill, 1997; New York: Harcourt Brace, 1998);
Moby Dick em Lisboa (Lisbon: Expo ‘98, 1996);
Todos os names (Lisbon: Caminho, 1997); translated by Margaret Jull Costa as All the Names (London: Harvill, 1999; New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999);
O conto da ilha desconhecida (Lisbon: Expo ‘98/Assírio & Alvim, 1997); translated by Christine Robinson as The Tale of the Unknown Island (Lisbon: Expo ‘98/Assírio & Alvim, 1997); translated by Costa (London: Harvill, 1999; New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999);
Uma voz contra o silêncio (Lisbon: Caminho, 1998);
Discursos de Estocolmo (Lisbon: Caminho, 1999);
Folhas políticas, 1976–1998 (Lisbon: Caminho, 1999);
A caverna (Lisbon: Caminho, 2000); translated by Costa as The Cave (London: Harvill, 2002; New York: Harcourt, 2002);
A maior flor do mundo (Lisbon: Caminho, 2001);
O homem duplicado (Lisbon: Caminho, 2002); translated by Costa as The Double (London: Harvill, 2004; New York: Harcourt, 2004);
Ensaio sobre a lucidez (Lisbon: Caminho, 2004); translated by Costa as Seeing (London: Harvill, 2006; New York: Harcourt, 2006);
Don Giovani ou o dissoluto absolvido (Lisbon: Caminho, 2005);
As intermitências da morte (Lisbon: Caminho, 2005);
As pequenas memórias (Lisbon: Caminho, 2006).
OTHER: “Ouvido,” in Poeética dos cinco sentidos, edited by Figueiredo Magalhães (Lisbon: Bertrand, 1979), pp. 19–26.
In October 1998 José Saramago became the first writer of the Portuguese-speaking world to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Swedish Academy’s citation for Saramago called his novels “parables sustained by imagination, compassion, and irony,” an apt characterization of the universal significance of the writer’s work. In 1997 writer Edmund White had already declared that no candidate for the Nobel Prize had a better claim to lasting recognition as a novelist than Saramago. Although Saramago’s first novel, Terra do pecado (Land of Sin), appeared in print in 1947, he did not begin to receive national and international acclaim for his work until he was almost sixty years old. His rise to the top of the literary establishment was meteoric. Indeed, during the 1980s and 1990s no other Portuguese writer attained greater national and international recognition, a fact substantiated by the many prestigious awards that Saramago has received both in Portugal and abroad, the translation of many of his works into more than thirty different languages, and the multiple editions of his books in Portugal and in foreign countries.
Even though he is better known for his writings subsequent to the revolution of 25 April 1974, especially his novels, Saramago was already a published author prior to the 1974 events that ended the fascist dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar and his successor, Marcelo Caetano. Like many other writers of the postrevolutionary generation, Saramago was affected by the repression and the censorship associated with the Portuguese fascist state and by the long-lasting African colonial wars in which Portugal was involved during the 1960s and early 1970s. These wars affected the national psyche so profoundly and disrupted the lives of so many of its citizens that ultimately they created the conditions for the 1974 military coup, an event responsible for the creation of democratic rule in Portugal and for the independence of the Portuguese African colonies.
In this new political setting, which was initially defined by extreme revolutionary fervor and zeal eventually moderated by Portugal’s acceptance of Western European parliamentary democratic ideals, Saramago wrote most of his books. The author, like other writers of the postrevolutionary period, turned to Portuguese history as a source of inspiration for many of his writings. The turn to history occurred for two reasons. First, a more open political climate after the 1974 revolution allowed Saramago to deal with a subject, Portuguese history, that was off limits during the fascist period. Second, the changing political and social circumstances of the country created a need to reinvent Portugal through a revisionist recoding and reevaluation of Portuguese history as the country emerged from almost fifty years of a nationalistic fascist discourse that had completely distorted Portuguese history for political and ideological motives. Saramago felt that through an engagement with Portuguese history he would achieve a greater understanding of his own country, and he would also be able to contribute to a new imagery and identity for the nation.
Saramago was born in the small village of Azinhaga, in the province of Ribatejo, about a hundred kilometers northeast of Lisbon, on 16 November 1922, into a family of rural workers. His parents were José de Sousa and Maria da Piedade, but the registrar, on his own, decided to write the family’s nickname “Saramago” on the identity card. Thus, the boy was officially registered as José de Sousa Saramago, which was later shortened to José Saramago when he began grammar school. Before he turned two, his parents decided to move to Lisbon. Although he grew up in Lisbon and went to school there, he still spent long periods of his childhood and youth in the countryside with his grandparents, who greatly influenced his view of the world. In his Nobel lecture the writer addressed the simple but meaningful peasant life of his grandparents, and he acknowledged that he was so impressed by his illiterate grandfather Jerónimo that he imagined that Jerónimo was the master of all the knowledge in the world. Life in Lisbon was difficult for the Sousa family. A few months after the family settled in the city, Saramago’s only sibling, an older brother named Francisco, died.
Saramago was an excellent student in elementary school, but the financial situation of the family did not allow him to continue his studies in an academic high school. Consequently, he enrolled in a technical school to learn a trade. After finishing his studies in 1939, he worked for two years as a mechanic in a car repair shop. During this time he became more involved with literature, a subject in which he had developed a keen interest while he was in technical school. Lacking the financial means to buy books, he began to go to a public library during the evening hours to read. In 1944, when he was working with the Social Welfare Services as a civil servant, he married Ilda Reis, who bore his only child, Violante, in 1947. Coincidentally, that same year his first novel, Terra do pecado, was published.
Terra do pecado, with its anachronistic indebtedness to nineteenth-century naturalism, has mostly a referential interest for scholars of the author’s fiction. Most critics and the author himself consider it an experiment in fiction writing, an aesthetic practice destined to have a short life and written by an individual who was not yet ready to be a novelist. Saramago was conscious of the shortcomings of his initial incursion into the novel genre, and it took him another thirty years before he published another novel, Manual de pintura e caligrafia (1976; translated as Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, 1994). However, he did not remain totally silent during this period, since he published several collections of poetry, chronicles, and essays before he returned to the novel, the genre that eventually brought him international acclaim.
Terra do pecado does not fit into the aesthetic parameters of either modernism or neorealism, which were then in vogue in Portugal. Saramago was seemingly unaware of the existence of Jorge Amado, José Lins do Rêgo, and Graciliano Ramos, writers from the northeast region of Brazil whose influence paved the way for the development and the establishment of neorealism in Portugal. This literary movement was intent on producing socially and politically engaged works of art that focused on ending repression, classism, alienation, oppression, exploitation, and censorship. Neorealism, in which the representation of reality followed a strict and dogmatic Marxist perspective, had as its main ideological goal the undermining and subversion of Salazar’s regime. However, Terra do pecado, in its political intent and aesthetic conception, cannot be regarded as an ideological weapon in the war against state fascism. It is, rather, a work that has much in common with the nineteenth-century novel and its theories of evolution, which played an important role in the design of naturalist narrative. The novel undeniably has great affinities, in terms of plot and themes (especially those associated with sexual taboos), with the novels of Eça de Queirós and Camilo Castelo Branco, nineteenth-century Portuguese novelists who frequently focused on sordid sexual affairs and the moral degeneration of a decadent rural and urban bourgeoisie. Terra do pecado, through its focus on the sexual dissatisfaction of the main character, Leonor, and her blind obedience to sexual impulses, reveals that it follows closely the aesthetics of naturalism, in which a character’s behavior is subordinated to physiology and determined by the social and cultural space that he or she inhabits.
Saramago, after his debut with Terra do pecado, waited another nineteen years before he published another book. His only excuse for not writing during such a long period of time was that he had nothing worthwhile to say. Between the publication of his first novel and his first collection of poetry Os poemas possíveis (1966, Possible Poems) he worked in different jobs; initially, he was employed with a metal company, and toward the end of the 1950s he got a job as a production manager with a publishing company. He also began to translate books from French into Portuguese in order to supplement his family income. His activities as a translator only stopped in 1981, when his increasing stature as an author allowed him to dedicate himself totally to his creative writing.
Between 1966 and 1975, Saramago produced three volumes of poetry: Os poemas possíveis, Provavelmente alegria (1970, Probably Joy), and O ano de 1993 (1975, The Year 1993). The author has said that whenever he reflects upon his poetry he has a sense of uneasiness because he feels he is expressing himself and creating an identity through the wrong genre. In a preface to the second edition of Os poemas possíveis (1982), an edition significantly revised by the author, Saramago observes that the book owes its merits to the themes and the obsessions present in his poetry that link it to his later novels. Several critics have commented on the connections between his poetry and the novels, especially O ano de 1993, a work viewed as a fundamental step toward his fiction, but they also point to an intrinsic organic coherence and a thematic unity in his poetry. In addition, his poems have a certain degree of originality, even if they conform to the tradition of the Portuguese modern lyric—the roots of his poetry can be found in Portuguese modernism, especially in the work of Fernando Pessoa, the most distinguished poetic voice of the first wave of modernism in Portugal in the early twentieth century.
Os poemas possíveis is divided into five sections: the first and the last have, respectively, forty-eight and sixty-seven poems, while the other three have altogether only thirty-two poems. These poems are, as a rule, short; the majority are one-stanza decasyllabic poems. Among the important themes present in Os poemas possíveis are the constant confrontation and struggle with poetic creation, the inability to find the proper word to convey meaning in a world of chaos, and simulation as the reality of poetry. In the three central sections, the writer focuses on oppression and solidarity and on love as a way to overcome death and time. He strikes out against censorship and the denial of freedom, and he constructs a world in which the creative act has been returned to humans since they have been abandoned by the gods. Although Saramago’s world vision may seem utterly pessimistic and dark throughout the book, the last section does restore a semblance of balance to his vision. A pessimistic tone, disillusionment, and an insistence on the insufficiency of the power of the word to stop the irreversible flow of time and/or construct the unity of the subject may still prevail in the last section, but these themes are counterbalanced by a more optimistic vision of the world that singles out physical and sensual love and eroticism as human attributes that can, through their redeeming qualities, stop the flow of time and foster rebirth. Poetry, love, and time are the structural bases for Saramago’s book. The author also seems to indicate that any meaningful knowledge of the world can be achieved only through a constant questioning of the multiple possibilities of language.
Provavelmente alegria extends and adds to the thematic lines established in the writer’s first book of poetry. Unlike Os poemas possíveis, this new volume is not divided into sections, and each poem is not constituted as part of a whole. The composition is much more fragmented, and some of his poetic compositions, especially the prose poems, anticipate the later fiction through their lyrical qualities and suggestive imagery. Through the very act of reading, encountering images that generate new surprises, discoveries, and illuminations, the reader makes sense of the text. These poems, through their visual imagery and the role played by the reader in uncovering their significance, reveal in their aesthetic beauty many similarities with Saramago’s mature texts.
It is difficult to classify the genre of O ano de 1993. There are indications that Saramago prefers the label of poetry, which is justifiable since the text is divided into thirty different parts that structurally resemble poems. However, some critics disagree with the author’s classification. Since O ano de 1993 resembles a narrative with a plot that develops until it reaches its climax, and it has a sententious and moralizing tone, they feel the book is closer to being a novel or a chronicle.
The title of this experimental text suggests strong affinities with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Like Orwell’s novel, Saramago’s work is a depiction of an imaginary and primitive futurist-dystopian world where repression and abuse of power run rampant. Unlike Nineteen Eighty-Four, however, O ano de 1993 does not resort to language to repress its citizens and to create a nightmarish world characterized by violence, terror, and anarchy. The book begins with an invasion of a city by nameless despotic forces. The inhabitants of the city are already sick with the plague; even light has been infected. Subsequently, an elevator malfunctions, and a man who leaves his home after curfew is subjected to an interrogation for many days. He is asked a question every sixty minutes for which he must give fifty-nine different answers. Without any explanation, the inhabitants of the city find themselves outside of the city walls, with wolves now occupying their former homes—inverting, as the author claims, the natural order of things. The despots occupying the city begin building mechanized elephants and eagles to hunt people down, and a witch doctor reduces the city to the size of a human body, so that when the commander of the occupying forces whips the body, all of its inhabitants get welts. Finally, crystal prisons are built with cells shaped like beehives so that all prisoners can be observed in their most intimate acts.
Slowly, the tribe that occupies the plateau outside the city begins to organize in a fraternal and human way with the objective of putting an end to the apocalyptic atmosphere in the city and to beat back the invading forces. As the tribe struggles against the despots, it receives support from the natural elements, which come to its defense. Trees begin attacking the invaders, and a bird destroys a mechanized eagle, which cannot defend itself since it has been programmed to attack only humans. Language, which had been lost, slowly emerges as a man and a woman look at each other during the sexual act, an act enveloped in silence but which eventually allows the painful birth of a new world. Sex, indeed, is a key element in making society whole again. Sexual acts, along with rites of fertility, occur prior to the insurrection of the terrorized tribe and its subsequent expulsion of the invaders from the occupied city.
In reality, O ano de 1993 is the narration of the cycle of life and death or of destruction and procreation through an imaginary construction of a futurist dystopia located in an urban space, which is eventually destroyed by sexual love, reproduction, and humanity. In a more political and ideological sense, the book illustrates the vision of an author who strongly believes that revolutionary acts can redeem humanity. Saramago’s construction of a dark and apocalyptic city space underscores his pessimistic view of the situation in Portugal one year after the 1974 revolution. Nevertheless, the conclusion of the book reveals that not all is hopeless, since change is always possible.
During the 1960s and 1970s, as he began to publish on a regular basis, Saramago kept busy with other professional activities. He was a literary critic for the review Seara Nova. In 1972 and 1973 he worked for the newspaper Diário de Lisboa (Lisbon Daily), where he wrote political essays and commentaries. For part of this period he was also in charge of the cultural supplement of the newspaper. In 1975, for a short period of time, he was the associate editor of the Diário de Nóticias (Daily News), a post he filled until 25 November, when the Portuguese government took a more rightward turn on the heels of a counterrevolution that blocked the ascendancy and the gains of the Left in the country. Saramago, a staunch defender of communism and its ideals (and still a card-carrying Communist), was fired by the newspaper. Nevertheless, his dismissal from Diário de Notícias paved the way for his career as a professional writer. He decided then to abandon his career as a journalist and to dedicate himself exclusively to creative writing.
While Saramago was writing and publishing his poetry during these decades, he was also trying his hand at writing chronicles. These works, which first appeared in newspapers, were later compiled by the author and published as volumes. Deste mundo e do outro (1971, From This World and From the Other) is a collection of texts that appeared in print between 1968 and 1969 in the daily A Capital (The Capital), and A bagagem do viajante (1973, The Traveler’s Baggage) assembles texts published between 1971 and 1972 in the same newspaper as well as in the weekly O Jornal do Fundão (The Fundão Daily). In addition to these volumes, the author published another two: As opiniōes que o Diário de Lisboa teve (1974, The Opinions That the Diário de Lisboa Had), texts that appeared first in print between 1972 and 1973 in the daily Diário de Lisboa, and Os apontamentos (1976, Notes), a collection of texts written between April and September of 1975 and published in the daily Diário de Notícias.
In the chronicles of the last two volumes, which are a compilation of Saramago’s political writings a few years prior to the 1974 revolution and during the revolutionary process itself, the author assumes an explicit and involved posture vis-à-vis the political situation and the events occurring in his country. In As opiniōes que o Diário de Lisboa teve the writer questions and attacks the repressive Portuguese political system and vents his indignation against the lack of freedom at a time when Caetano had already replaced Salazar as the leader of the country. In some chronicles there is a sense of expectation and hope that the political situation may change. In Os apontamentos the reader notices the writer’s deep involvement with the revolutionary events. He never fails to attack and criticize sharply what he considers are the failings of both the revolution and the democratic process.
Both books have greater historical and social value than literary value. Even though there is a strong ideological link between these chronicles and Saramago’s later novels, it is hard to make the case that they contribute significantly to the evolution of Saramago as a novelist. However, they help the reader understand the political intrigue, the maneuvers, the wishes and hopes, and the emotional state of mind of Portuguese citizens during the prerevolutionary period and also immediately after the 1974 revolution. The chaos, the struggle for the definition of democracy and freedom, and the constant ideological and interparty wars are also some of the postrevolutionary issues that Saramago addresses.
Unlike the two volumes that deal chiefly with political events and issues, Deste mundo e do outro and A bagagem do viajante anticipate in different ways the mature novelist. The writer himself has asserted that there is a strong correlation between these two books and his novels. Saramago’s comment in his 1998 interview with Carlos Reis that “everything is there” in the chronicles is well known. The creative impulse is already present in the chronicles, and the reader can discern in them the first rough sketches of the fictional characters that undergo greater development in his novels. The chronicles also focus on issues and themes to which he returns in the novels of the 1980s and 1990s: current events; the urban and rural landscapes; human types and personalities; the recuperation of the past through memory; the voyage through the cultural and historical landscapes; the act of writing; the interrelationship between history and fiction, history as fiction, and the reinvention of history; the use of the fantastic and the magic in the construction of reality; and the intersection of past, present, and future. Although Saramago is writing chronicles, he takes great pleasure in narrating stories with a variety of characters and personalities that reappear in his mature work: phantoms, apparitions, kings, animals, and a great variety of lovers. Moreover, the inquisitive, critical, ironic, and tender narrating voice that questions and makes comments about everything and everyone, which makes his novels so original, is already present in these chronicles.
Deste mundo e do outro and A bagagem do viajante, through their thematic and structural connection with Saramago’s mature work, play an important role in the transition between the author’s formative and mature literary phases; they open up narrative paths that the author reuses in his mature novels. In one of his chronicles, “Viagens na minha terra” (Travels in My Land), Saramago observes that chronicles are bridges that are hurled into the emptiness in search of firm ground.
Thirty years after the publication of his first novel, Saramago returned to the genre with Manual de pintura e caligrafia, a work that was attuned to the contemporary literary environment of Portugal and Europe but that only received critical notice and praise after Saramago had become a highly regarded novelist in the 1980s. Thematic concerns that resurface in later novels, as well as the many digressions that are fundamental to the structure of the writer’s mature fiction, play a crucial role in the construction of the fictional world of Manual de pintura e caligrafia. These themes include the relationship between the self and the “Other,” the tensions between life and art and reality and imagination, the rejection of classical realism as a valid aesthetic form for the representation of reality, the unceasing questioning of truth or the plural truths of the text, the impossibility of ever reaching a singular truth because of its duplicitous nature, the discovery of narrative as revelation of the world, the constant subversion of canonized images and historical events, the writer as an artisan, the relationships between voyage and self-knowledge and narrative, and the novel as artifice. Finally, there is the author’s preoccupation with the crisis of representation and the (re) construction of reality through his focus on two essential facets of the act of creation: one that stresses the visual (painting), and one that emphasizes the evocative and signifying power of the word (calligraphy).
Manual de pintura e caligrafia, which Saramago considers his most autobiographical novel, is a first-person narrative about a mediocre painter, a portraitist, designated only by an initial, H. The story coincides chronologically with the last few months of the Portuguese Estado Novo (New State), the fascist dictatorship, and the beginning of the revolutionary period in 1974. In fact, the novel ends with the euphoria brought about by the unfolding events in the dawn of 25 April 1974. H., who is well aware of his limitations and ineptitude as a painter and who senses that he is trapped in a predictable and banal social network of friendships, makes a conscious decision to start writing a diary, which he hopes will lead him to self-knowledge, a goal that so far has eluded him as a portrait artist. He begins to write because he recognizes that through his previously chosen form of artistic expression he is condemned to be and do what others want him to be and do. As a painter he is conditioned by a system of patronage instituted by those who pay him sizable commissions for his portraits, a practice that places him at their mercy and forces him to paint within strictly defined aesthetic codes that are culturally institutionalized. Before H. has his existential crisis, which forces him to reflect on the function of art, he seems content doing the same repetitive things: he engages in loveless affairs; he separates from lovers without suffering; and he experiences time after time the same predictable adventures. In essence, he lives a life without history, a life of mediocrity and inertia, a life without any big or dramatic risks. His approach to painting mirrors these characteristics. In fact, there is a strong correlation between his personal and artistic lives.
When H. begins his diary, he finds himself restricted by the codes and conventions that bind language and the act of narration. Writing and painting seem to be following the same beaten and traditional paths. However, a journey to Italy, where he comes into contact with a variety of artistic manifestations, makes H. realize that only through imagination and magic is the artist free to shape the creative process. His diary reflects clearly this transformation. As the novel comes to a close, his love affair with M.—the female protagonist of the novel—reinforces his transformation, since it becomes a catalyst for H.’s further development as an artist. At this point H. decides not to paint a portrait commissioned by the “Senhores da Lapa” in a conventional manner. Instead, he opts to paint it using a risky and imaginative pictorial language that breaks all canonical rules, an act that indicates his rupture with a dying political system, a death that occurs with the 1974 revolution. The event also allows Portuguese society to undergo a transformation. With his decision to use imagination in the painting of a portrait, H. finally shows that he is capable of clinging to his ideals in a world that is still obsessed with material bourgeois values.
In 1978 Objecto quase (Almost an Object) became the first and only collection of short stories published by Saramago. The volume, which comprises six short stories mixing the fantastic and science fiction, focuses on themes that are valuable to the writer, such as the struggle against consumer society and totalitarian systems that have stripped individuals of their humanity and subjectivity and are the direct cause of their alienation. The stories of the collection are “Cadeira” (The Chair), “Embargo” (Embargo), “Refluxo” (Reflux), “Coisas” (Things), “Centauro” (Centaur), and “Desforra” (Revenge). The main objective of these stories is the restoration of the humanity that has been taken from the individual by alienating and repressive measures. Some of these stories are political or social allegories, such as “Cadeira,” “Embargo,” and “Refluxo,” while others, such as “Coisas,” portray a Kafkaesque vision of the world.
“Ouvido” (Hearing), another short story, appeared in 1979 in a collective volume titled Poética dos cinco sentidos (Poetics of the Five Senses). Besides Saramago, five other major Portuguese writers collaborated in the effort. The stories are all inspired by a famous tapestry belonging to the series La Dame à la Licorne, exhibited in the Cluny Museum in Paris. Saramago’s contribution on hearing is thematically related to Manual de pintura e caligrafia, since both works focus on the connection between writing and the plastic arts.
In the same year that “Ouvido” appeared, Saramago published his first play, A noite (The Night), which was followed in 1980 by another play, Quefarei com este livro? (What Will I Do with This Book?). The first play deals with events taking place on the night of 24 April 1974 in the editorial room of a newspaper, as the first signs of the Portuguese revolution are clearly felt. The second focuses on the poet Luís de Camões, the greatest literary figure of the Portuguese Renaissance, as his poetry and life become intertwined symbolically with the new revolutionary Portugal. Camões had been used in the official fascist discourse for different reasons: to bolster patriotism, belligerent nationalism, and glorification of the Portuguese past. Coincidentally, the play appeared in the same year that the fourth centenary of the poet’s death was being commemorated in Portugal.
On several occasions Saramago has claimed that he never had much of a vocation for the theater and that he has never been a great reader of plays. The four plays that he has written in his lifetime have, in his own words, always been written because of an invitation or a suggestion that he has received. Probably for these reasons, A noite and Que farei com este livro? as well as the other two plays, A segunda vida de Francisco de Assis (1987, The Second Life of Francis of Assisi) and In nomine Dei (1993, In the Name of God), do not display the linguistic innovations or the formal inventions that characterize his mature prose. Nevertheless, like his novels, his dramaturgy aims at transformation of society, and it is highly interventional. The focal point of Saramago’s theater is never the play as spectacle. Theater as a genre, however, is what allows the author to question writing and the multiple meanings of words, and to refocus the reader’s attention on problems relevant to contemporary Portugal through a dramatization of historical events.
The year 1980 represents a watershed in Saramago’s literary career; he emerged as a writer of great talent and significance with the publication of his novel Levantado do chāo (Raised from the Ground). The innovative use of narrative language in this novel and the ability to reflect upon Portuguese history in order to question its supposed objectivity and its role in the representation of events brought its author immediate critical acclaim. Saramago’s groundbreaking use of a novelistic language dispenses with orthodox punctuation, diacritical marks, periods at the ends of sentences, and quotation marks for dialogue, and only uses commas to indicate stops in the narrative. Saramago’s language also distinguishes itself by a variety of linguistic registers from every social class, which makes it closer to oral tradition. His prose, with its sudden shifts in tenses and voices, ironic interjections by the narrator, constant digressions, and fusion of the narrator’s perspective with that of the characters, has many affinities with the baroque style of Father António S.J. Vieira, a seventeenth-century Brazilian/Portuguese author known for his sententious sermons written in an ornate manner. The re-creation of language and the oral tone of the prose in Levantado do chāo become permanent features in most of Saramago’s subsequent novels. No less original in this novel is the author’s ability to mix and intersect the real and the historical with the fantastic and the imaginary, which not only allows Saramago to give the reader a more exact picture of reality but also links his writings to those of Gabriel García Márquez and other Latin American writers associated with magic realism.
The idea that all truths are plural and that all knowledge about history is filtered through the subjectivity that re-creates it—a lesson that H. in Manual de pintura e caligrafia learned well—also plays a fundamental role in the development of the plot of Levantado do chāo, a work dealing with three generations of rural workers from the Alentejo region: Domingos Mau-Tempo, his son João, and his grandchildren. At the beginning of 1976, Saramago had embarked on a journey to Alentejo to familiarize himself with the lives, the desires, and the economic and social problems of rural workers, with the purpose of writing a novel that would mark the presence of those who barely register in the social hierarchy. Levantado do chāo deals with his personal observations in rural Alentejo.
The novel begins a few years prior to the overthrow of the monarchy and the foundation of the Portuguese Republic in 1910 and ends just after the 1974 revolution. In between these major events others abound: World War I, Salazar’s Estado Novo, the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and the Portuguese colonial wars in Africa. All these events are seen through the eyes of different generations of the Mau-Tempo family, peasants working the land and struggling against the oppressive conditions imposed by the absent latifundium owners. The saga of the Mau-Tempo family, presented as an epic struggle for better living conditions, emancipation, and the attainment of human dignity, is the axis around which history becomes fiction and fiction becomes history, a dominant theme in all Saramago’s novels. It is extremely difficult for the peasant workers to effect change, because the laws of the powerful have turned them into voiceless creatures. However, the heroic struggle of the landless Alentejo farmhands against tyranny never dies. Their redemption finally takes place when the peasants take over the land and evict the latifundium owners from their lands or, better yet, evict their lackeys, those men who have enslaved and oppressed the rural workers in the name of absent landowners. The revolutionary action includes as one of its leaders the daughter of Joao Mau-Tempo, Maria Adelaide Espada, a woman who rises from the ground along with many male supporters to launch a new chapter in Portuguese history. Maria Adelaide inaugurates the presence of strong female characters in Saramago’s works.
When Saramago lived among the rural Alentejo workers in 1976, listening to their personal stories, he informed them that someday he would publish their narratives. He kept his promise by making sure that Levantado do chāo was the recorded oral testimony of those who were silenced by official history, those who construct the country but whose deeds are absent from official documents. The author’s objective in writing the book, as the title of the novel explicitly suggests, is to “raise from the ground” of Alentejo (and, by extension, of Portugal) those who are unable to raise themselves because they never had a voice in the writing of history.
With Levantado do chāo, Saramago’s career as an influential novelist was launched. Nonetheless, the fact that he had already toiled for years on his writing craft prior to the critical acclaim conferred on Levantado do chāo should not be overlooked, since it was that earlier work that prepared the writer for his seemingly overnight literary success, which for him arrived at the advanced age of fifty-eight. Although he is best known for the novels that he has published beginning with Levantado do chāo, a fact that reinforces the idea of the existence of two Saramagos—a more original writer after 1980 and a much lesser one before 1980—it would be wrong to assume this dichotomy in Saramago’s literary trajectory as some critics have done. Most critics have focused more on the innovative qualities of his prose in the 1980s and 1990s and have a tendency to overlook his earlier work, but his production prior to 1980 is still of high quality. As José Horácio Costa and Maria Alzira Seixo have shown through their analyses of the writer’s pre-1980 period, there are many formal and thematic connections between the pre-1980 and the post-1980 periods, which indicate that the programmatic roots and routes for the writer’s later development were already present in embryonic form in many of the chronicles, poetry, short stories, and novels of the first phase of his literary career.
In 1981 Saramago published Viagem a Portugal (translated as Journey to Portugal: In Pursuit of Portugal’s History and Culture, 2000), a travel narrative that mingles characteristics of fiction, chronicles, and tourist guides. The book is a voyage through Portuguese culture, as a traveler, referred to in the third person, journeys throughout the country inciting the reader to other voyages. Although the narrative gives information and comments on the places visited by the traveler, the information has a subjective quality, since it distances itself from the stereotypical language found in a tourist guide. As Saramago claims in the introduction to the book, Viagem a Portugal is a history about a traveler and a voyage searching for a fusion between the one who sees and what is seen, an encounter between subjectivity and objectivity. By calling attention to the subjective nature of the book, Saramago underscores that the narrative act plays an important role in the traveler’s journey. He discusses constantly the different ways of narrating and describing. Instead of just describing what he sees, the traveler focuses on the act of seeing and on his feelings and reflections regarding what is seen. There is a strong correlation between the voyage to the interior of the self and the voyage through Portugal. In the interior voyage, the traveler finds out about himself; he constructs an autobiography. In the exterior voyage, he recaptures Portuguese culture and history through a personal focus on the manifestations and the voices of the people, as well as on small villages and other enchanting places and monuments, which are significantly related to Portuguese history and culture.
Memorial do convento (1982, Memoir of the Convent; translated as Baltasar and Blimunda, 1987) was Saramago’s first novel to win critical acclaim abroad. This novel, which mixes fantasy with reality, centers on the early-eighteenth-century construction of the Mafra Convent, a monument built to satisfy the megalomaniac desires and vanity of the Portuguese clergy, nobility, and king. It also describes the construction of an airborne vehicle by Father Bartolomeu Gusmão, with the help of Baltasar and Blimunda, the two protagonists, who are romantically involved. The Mafra Convent came to be built because of a pledge made by King John V, in return for the queen giving him an heir. Not withstanding the pledge, the construction of the convent, as Saramago highlights in his narrative, represents a victory for the forces of religious fanaticism, waste, and corruption, since thousands of peasants were involved for many years in the building of this monument, depriving Portugal of essential manual labor for farming and building the country up in other areas.
Memorial do convento is a satirical account of the pomp and ceremony that characterizes an era, the baroque period, known for its festivities, autos-da-fé, bullfights, convents as bordellos, and processions chiefly for the delight and the enjoyment of the upper classes. The work is a story about love (Baltasar and Blimunda), hope and idealism (the airborne machine), and lunacy and abuse (the construction of the Mafra Convent). In the context of the eighteenth century, the airborne machine, associated with the human will and dreams, is the antithesis of the Mafra Convent, a symbol of corruption and repression to satisfy the king’s dreams of vanity and grandiosity. The novel focuses on the monument and the machine for different reasons. The machine symbolizes the valuing of humanity and people’s ability to effect change and to realize dreams. The focus on the monument challenges the truth of official history, which has always credited the king for the convent construction. The novel narrates a different history of the convent, one with epic dimensions. The epic, in this instance, is not grandiose and heroic for those who write official history, since they never participate in its making. It is heroic for those, the lower classes, who sacrifice, suffer, and even die to carry out the lunatic dreams of a monarch. As the novel indicates, for the new heroes the task is painful and absurd. At the end, the construction is a hollow victory, because the workers are denied their role in the construction of the Mafra Convent in official documents—an omission that is rectified by Memorial do convento, the story of those who have not been written into history but who are, in reality, the true makers of history.
Saramago’s next novel, O ano da morte de Ricardo Reis (1984; translated as The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, 1991), is set in the early years of Salazar’s dictatorship and the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. The tale follows the romantic, social, political, psychological, and artistic adventures of Ricardo Reis through the labyrinthine streets of Lisbon and the village of Fátima. Reis, a poet-physician, was one of the many literary personae created by Pessoa, the most eminent Portuguese modernist poet; Saramago makes Reis a separate character. The novel is thus a continuation of Pessoa’s work. Reis has been in exile in Brazil since 1919 because of his monarchist sympathies; Saramago brings him back from exile to become reacquainted with Lisbon and its changing reality after he learns of Pessoa’s death. The narrative begins in late 1935 with the arrival of Reis from Brazil on the Highland Brigade, a British ship, just a few days after Pessoa’s death on 30 November. Pessoa himself is also brought back as a ghost who acts as an observer and critic of the events occurring in Portugal and the world in 1936 and as an adviser to his poetic creation, Reis. The two have heated discussions on politics, aesthetics, life, religion, history, and philosophy.
A negative image of political and social turbulence greets Reis upon his arrival in Lisbon in late 1935. To the newcomer, Lisbon looks like a silent and somber city enclosed within walls and facades, which on this particular day are being battered by a deluge. The severe weather and the violent storms that continue for days during the winter of 1935–1936 set the tone for a political landscape characterized by a climate of vigilance, fear, and repression affecting all Portuguese citizens. The gloominess of the city and its inhabitants is precipitated by the somber and suffocating images of a fascist state supported by the secret police, the military, paramilitary groups, censorship, newspapers, radio, and even the Church. As Reis begins to take daily walks through the Lisbon streets, the same negative images prevail. The cemetery where Pessoa is buried, which Reis visits, is a continuation of the city and completes it metaphorically. The cemetery, with all its streets, pathways, roads, avenues, and numbers, is a portrait of Lisbon and, by extension, Portugal. The inhabitants of the cemetery, just like those of the city, can only watch impassively as the political situation deteriorates and as events occurring in Portugal and in other countries limit personal freedom even further and threaten to create a more oppressive climate.
Reis, a classicist who is a strong believer in a philosophy of contemplation, indifference, and impassibility, is not truly interested in engaging actively with the city. Mostly, he walks aimlessly through the streets, attracted by the cultural and literary aspects of his surroundings, such as monuments, statues, and buildings, an attraction that gives rise to reflections and divagations. As Reis contemplates with indifference the spectacle of the real city, he imaginatively re-creates another that is an embodiment of different cultural and literary textures, patterns, tonalities, and allusions as well as stylistic harmonies, ambiguities, and discordances, which underscores his perception of the world as text. The fact that he only relates to the world through the texts with which he is familiar prevents him from understanding the political situation. Fascism does not really fit into his mental makeup or values. He reads about what is happening in the rest of Portugal, sees a movie being filmed for propagandistic reasons, participates in a political rally, hears about Adolf Hitler and his youth brigades, reads the many lies being published in newspapers, and is even harassed by the secret police; but he observes and feels everything through the prism of his classical detachment. He is simply content with the contemplation of reality.
A jangada de pedra (1986; translated as The Stone Raft, 1994) narrates the imaginary and futuristic separation of the Iberian Peninsula from the rest of Europe. In the Pyrenees Mountains, in the frontier dividing France from Spain, a deep crack occurs, which leads not only to the separation of the peninsula but also to its ensuing aimless voyage through the Atlantic as a gigantic stone raft. After changing direction several times, the peninsula ends up anchored in the South Atlantic, in a location that is exactly equidistant from Africa and South America. The inexplicable separation of the peninsula from Europe coincides with several strange and supernatural events that occur in both Portugal and Spain.
The novel was written at a time that an inflamed polemic on identity and nationalism was taking place in Portugal between individuals who supported the union of Portugal with the European Community (EC) and those who staunchly opposed it. Most government officials supported the integration, while many intellectuals opposed it. A jangada de pedra is written against the absorptive capacity of official history. A few years prior to the writing of the novel, the Portuguese geopolitical space had been reduced with the loss of the African empire. The country was still trying to figure out its new position in the European landscape, as well as its changing identity, when the political machinery decided to join the EC. Many intellectuals, including Saramago, felt that those in power, the creators of history, were in fact not allowing Portugal to have a new rebirth after the loss of the empire. They were strongly opposed to integration. Thus, A jangada de pedra must be interpreted as a counterintegration narrative. On the one hand, it seeks to dismantle the ideologies of the EC integration; on the other, it tries to suggest alternatives to integration and to rethink other political options before the two Iberian countries become full EC members. The writer himself has said that he did not write this novel because of a fear of loss of cultural identity. He wrote it because he believed that the peninsula needed to redirect itself toward something from which it had been cut: the countries of the Iberian-American and the Iberian-African spheres. Within this political context the peninsula-raft functions not as a sign of a debilitating isolationism but rather as a metaphor for the construction of a new Iberian history and culture that takes into account its linguistic, cultural, and social affinities with its American and African “Others.”
Saramago’s utmost desire in A jangada de pedra is to reject the integrative discourse through an imaginary search for a new national identity or a common Iberian identity, which conforms to his views on integration. The peninsula-raft voyage stresses the communal characteristics of the peninsula: it unites the Spaniards and the Portuguese; it forces the governments of the two countries to work in unison in order to solve the crisis and to prevent chaotic conditions; and it reveals the connections between the cultural productions of the two countries. The common pilgrimage of the Iberian Peninsula is a conscious authorial strategy of resistance against more-powerful European cultural productions, which the writer feels will impose themselves on Portugal and Spain if integration runs its full course. In fact, A jangada de pedra represents the revolt of the people against a peninsula ruled by foreign cultural and economic powers.
The play A segunda vida de Francisco de Assis, like many of Saramago’s novels, also resorts to history to craft its artistic world. In the play, Saramago, as he had done before with Pessoa in O ano da morte de Ricardo Reis, brings back to life an historical figure—St. Francis of Assisi—and places him in a modern city where he has to confront a capitalist, mercantilist, and computerized society. A segunda vida de Francisco de Assis, which is a political allegory, focuses on Francis’s return to a world of commercialism that is antithetical to his romanticized ideal of poverty. The Franciscan Company that he encounters, as opposed to the Company that he founded centuries before, is a capitalist enterprise regulated strictly by market forces. As he realizes that he is not going to be able to force the Company to return to the Franciscan ideal of poverty, he comes also to the conclusion that a life of poverty does not mean, as he believed before, sainthood and salvation. The new Francis accepts that only in the struggle against poverty will he find his humanity, his salvation. In essence, the play is about the transformation of Francis from saint to man, from Francis to João (John), which was Francis’s original name.
História do cerco de Lisboa (1989; translated as The History of the Siege of Lisbon, 1996) is Saramago’s novel that most explicitly focuses on the relationship between history and fiction. The interplay between the two occurs because the plot of the book contradicts the official version of the siege of Lisbon in the Middle Ages. In the twelfth century, the Portuguese had taken over Lisbon from the Moors with the help of the crusaders. However, in Saramago’s novel, the protagonist, Raimundo Silva, who is a proofreader correcting the galley proofs of a history book about the siege of Lisbon, decides to change the official history of Portugal through a creative act. He inserts a not in the galleys in the passage referring to the aid that the crusaders rendered the Portuguese in their conquest of Lisbon. By inserting a not, the proofreader subverts and inverts one of the great foundational myths of Portugal: the altered text now falsely claims that the crusaders did not come to the aid of the Portuguese. The falsified version of the siege should not be interpreted as a lesser truth; it is just a different truth, another version of a registered historical event that leads to the transformation of past reality. As the protagonist finds out, changing the past also changes the present.
Raimundo’s creative act, which makes him realize that he has the power to produce meaning, must be viewed as a necessary correction of Portuguese history. The new history takes into account the blending of Christian and Muslim cultures occurring during the Middle Ages in Portugal. The proofreader’s subversive act restores Muslim culture to its rightful place in the construction of Portuguese national identity, since the focus of the altered historical document is on the acceptance of Muslim culture rather than its rejection.
Although Raimundo’s text may be considered a novel within a novel, it ultimately becomes História do cerco de Lisboa, a text that simultaneously deconstructs the official and inherited history of Portugal and also questions the very nature and essence of historical truth and how it relates to fiction. Raimundo’s quest leads him to the realization that there are no certainties and that truth is just as absent from history as it is from fiction. The conclusion is that truth is always constructed in a specific context by human beings. The novel may have started with an alteration of factual reality, but it subsequently evolves into a questioning of the capacity of history to represent a single and objective truth. Even the epigraph of the book, which is taken from an imaginary Book of Exhortations, addresses the issue of the importance of correction in seeking truth.
Through a defiant act, the insertion of one small word in an historical narrative, Raimundo is redeemed by liberating himself from the conventions that control his existence. Through the free rein of his imagination, he finally allows himself to love someone for the first time: Maria Sara, one of the editors in the publishing house where Raimundo works, becomes his lover and confidante. He is a confirmed bachelor in his fifties who, as far as anyone can tell, has never had a love affair before in his life. With his newly acquired freedom, he is able to narrate another story that acts as a counterpoint to his affair with Maria Sara: the affair between Mogueime and Oruana, two lovers from the time of the real siege of Lisbon. This parallel affair, which sheds light on Raimundo’s affair, informs the reader that the past explains the present and interprets it critically, and vice versa.
Saramago’s novel O Evangelho segundo Jesus Cristo (1991; translated as The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, 1993) created an uproar in Portugal because of its controversial subject. In this bitter satire of an apocryphal biography of Jesus, a mean-spirited God uses the innocently human Jesus to found a repressive religion, Catholicism, which has spawned violence and intolerance through time. Like Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1951), the story of a self-doubting Savior, O Evangelho segundo Jesus Cristo is also a rewriting of Christ’s life, an account of Jesus’ journey on Earth from Bethlehem to Gethsemane that departs from traditional interpretations. The Portuguese Church attacked the novel as heresy, and a member of the conservative Portuguese government took the book out of competition for the 1992 European Literary Prize for which it had been nominated, on the grounds that it was an attack on the Christian values and the religious faith on which Portugal was founded. The decision, which Saramago called a case of censorship, prompted the author to leave Portugal and to take up residence in Lanzarote, in the Canary Islands, where he lives with his wife, the Spanish journalist Pilar del Río (María del Pilar del Río Sanchez), whom he married in 1988. (Saramago had been divorced from his first wife since 1970.)
The book, which begins and ends with Jesus’ crucifixion, is narrated by an unnamed evangelist whose authority comes from his wide range of knowledge about different historical periods. There is some ambiguity about who fathers Jesus, since at his nonvirginal conception God mixes his seed with Joseph’s. As in most of Saramago’s novels, supernatural and fantastic occurrences also play an important role in the plot of O Evangelho segundo Jesus Cristo. Jesus’ youth follows the normal pathways found in the Bible, although the composition of his family is decidedly different, including several brothers and sisters. Joseph fails to warn the other parents when he finds out about Herod’s planned massacre of all boys under three; he simply runs away with his family to escape it. Joseph’s guilt about this failure results in his crucifixion at the hands of the Romans for a crime he did not commit.
In O Evangelho segundo Jesus Cristo Jesus is not really God disguised as a man; he is someone who is victimized by God in a cynical and selfish ploy in order for God to extend his influence over the whole world, not just in Judea. The powers given to Jesus are meant only to convince the rest of the world that he is God’s son. Jesus does not wish to be the son of God or to make miracles to help God’s cause. Neither is he willing to sacrifice himself, as determined by God, to create the illusion of a loving and caring God who gives his life for others.
God in this novel is sly, bloodthirsty, vengeful, and interested in power for power’s sake. God’s ambition allows him finally to achieve his ultimate goal: the establishment of a church, a symbol of his power, which will be dug in flesh, its walls made of agony, anguish, and death. After God’s reference to the establishment of his church, he begins a litany of sorrows, tears, tortures, and deaths that human beings suffer for his sake. The litany goes on for four pages—in alphabetical order, so as not to hurt any feelings about precedence and importance.
For a time, the pressure of God over Jesus is so strong that the son reluctantly accepts his destiny. Nevertheless, as the novel is about to conclude, Jesus begins to question the role that he has been coerced into playing and denies his divinity. He becomes a leader of a revolutionary group fighting against Roman power. He is imprisoned and condemned to die on the cross as an enemy of Rome. He is certain he will die as a son of man and not as the son of God. However, as he is about to die, God appears in the heavens and proclaims him his beloved son. Jesus responds by inverting the famous words that he said on the cross: men forgive him, for he knows not what he has done.
The irony of the final words focuses on God’s inhumanity and Jesus’ humanity. God is the authoritarian figure who only understands the languages of power and self-interest, and Jesus is the symbol of generosity and human life when he becomes one with all men. In O Evangelho segundo Jesus Cristo Jesus learns from several sources: his biological parents, his pastor, and God. However, he learns the most from Mary Magdalene. Jesus, through his relationship with Mary, awakens to sexual life and learns the true meaning of freedom, something that God does not allow any individual in the novel to enjoy, particularly the one person he chooses to be his son. Thus, the novel may be construed as an exaltation of human love combined contrapuntally with the nonhuman dogmatism of transcendental power.
Saramago’s fourth play, In nomine Dei, was published in 1993. As in previous plays and most of the author’s novels of the 1980s, history continues to be an object of scrutiny. Religion, the theme of both O Evangelho segundo Jesus Cristo and A segunda vida de Francisco de Assis, is also the author’s main concern in this play. A blind and fanatic religious dogmatism plays a crucial role in the dramatic events. In nomine Dei focuses on the fights between Catholics and Protestants in Münster, Germany, from 1532 to 1535, which led to the destruction of the city and the perpetration of horrendous crimes against humanity, all in the name of God.
In nomine Dei is divided into three acts, which are preceded by a prologue focusing on religious intolerance and irrationality and followed by a chronology of events taking place in Münster. The play clearly aims to tackle issues of abuse of power, intolerance, and incendiary fanaticism, all by-products of different and opposing religious points of view. In nomine Dei depicts the consequences that befall humanity when certain individuals are totally guided by fanaticism, intolerance, and violence in their attempt to achieve their religious objectives. The play is also a condemnation of those who surrender to blind faith and irrationality, metaphors of a dehumanized world.
Every year from 1994 to 1998, Saramago published a diary. These five volumes are titled collectively Cadernos de Lanzarote (Notebooks from Lanzarote). Saramago’s diaries focus on a variety of themes ranging from the documentary to the literary, the political, and the philosophical. On the documentary level, the diaries record many of the author’s private moments and experiences, address domestic problems, and recount his many travels to attend congresses, to receive prizes, or to be interviewed. On other levels, he registers his reactions to specific events, such as Portugal’s integration into the EC, the polemic unleashed by the publication of O Evangelho segundo Jesus Cristo, and the success of In nomine Dei. He also comments on such prevailing and relevant issues as religious intolerance, atrocities committed against humanity, the multiplicity of mechanisms used by power to repress world citizens, and censorship, especially as it relates to the publication of O Evangelho segundo Jesus Cristo and his self-exile to Lanzarote because of the ensuing controversy. Furthermore, Saramago uses his diaries to engage in dialogue or polemic with other writers, to discuss the act of writing, and to comment about books he has published or is writing.
Ensaio sobre a cegueira (1995, Essay on Blindness; translated as Blindness, 1997) initiates a new cycle in Saramago’s literary career. Ensaio sobre a cegueira and the novels Todos os nomes (1997; translated as All the Names, 1999) and A caverna (2000; translated as The Cave, 2002) constitute a trilogy that addresses concerns and themes that are more universal in character than those in previous novels, since these earlier works were deeply rooted in Portuguese history. The three novels, which do not make specific references to time and space, fall within the mode of allegorical fiction.
In Ensaio sobre a cegueira the characters, beginning with a man who is stopped at a traffic light, are struck with a white blindness. Within a few days, everyone in the city seems to have gone blind, with the exception of the wife of the doctor who had examined the first blind man. She remains unaffected by the malady throughout the whole novel. The devastating epidemic that strikes the city and country (which, like the characters, are unnamed) creates havoc everywhere and brings a reign of terror with nightmarish conditions: a state of moral and social degradation and abjection characterized by gang rapes, murders, filth, lack of hygiene, humiliation, a total breakdown of technical support, and even exploitation at the hands of other blind men. As the blindness epidemic spreads, those who have fallen victim to it are quarantined in a mental asylum, where they are subjected to cruel and inhuman conditions. Abandoned by an outside world that is fearful of the contagious disease and full of bigots, a group led by the optometrist’s wife (who has feigned her blindness) begins to organize itself in response to the abusive behavior of the other inmates. These inmates have also organized themselves to preserve their selfish interests, privilege, and power, which translates into better living accommodations, greater quantities of food, and even sexual favors in exchange for food. The group led by the optometrist’s wife is founded on principles of the humane aspects of all relationships: generosity, solidarity, respect for others, and self-sacrifice. However, as the optometrist’s wife finds out, there comes a moment when killing someone is a moral obligation, if humanity is to survive. Her killing of a violent leader of a rival gang must be viewed within this context, since it averts a complete meltdown of civilization.
The people who are quarantined finally regain their freedom because all the outside forces that have kept them imprisoned have become blind as well. As the group led by the optometrist’s wife journeys through the city, they discover that the same apocalyptic conditions of the asylum now prevail in the city: thirst, hunger, cold, filth, and chaos. In such a world there can only be “a government of the blind trying to rule the blind, that is to say, or nothingness trying to organize nothingness.” The group eventually ends up at the home of the optometrist’s wife; and just as mysteriously as they had lost their sight, they regain it, one by one. The recuperation of sight occurs when the characters realize that life is organization and death is disorganization, and that individuals must act and have faith in each other in order to regain their reason, their lucidity. The blindness in the novel is not a physical ailment but rather a political and philosophical illness. The novel is an allegory of irrationality, of a contemporary society that has lost its will to be rational and human, that is, to see. However, the recovery of sight at the end suggests that humanity is still alive and that utopia is still a possibility.
Unlike in Ensaio sobre a cegueira, in Todos os nomes there is not a breakdown of order. On the contrary, this novel-parable offers a nightmarish vision of order taken to its extreme. An inflexible bureaucratic hierarchy that reduces every employee to a function within the organization runs the Registry where protagonist José works. He is the only character with a name in the novel, and he has just a first name, an indication of the insignificance of the person. The room where the clerks work is arranged according to hierarchy in a harmonious way, which reveals a connection between aesthetics and authority.
The Kafkaesque world of Todos os nomes, as the description of the Registry indicates, has reduced human life to some dates and statistics and a few other inconsequential and meaningless details recorded in a file. In the apparently tranquil and secure space of the Registry, the human spirit is really entrapped. One eveningJosé sneaks without authorization into the Registry to pick five card indexes of important figures, to further his hobby of collecting information on famous people, but in his haste to retrieve the indexes he picks up six instead of five, which he brings home. In the sixth index, the name (which is never divulged to the reader) and birth, marriage, and divorce dates of an ordinary female citizen are recorded. Two days later, José decides to begin a quest to find out more about this woman.
José’s search for the real person who lies behind the few biographical details on an index card is also a search for self-knowledge. His quest, which he considers absurd, is something that he needs to undertake anyway in order to find his own identity. Through an act of insubordination, he has taken the first step to free himself from the quasi-mythical space of the Registry with its suffocating and deadening atmosphere. His quest, which acquires mythical overtones, leads him to seek information about the woman from several individuals, including her parents, and to break into a school where she had been a student to find out more about her. When he finally locates her, he discovers that she had committed suicide only a few days earlier. Thus, he never gets a chance to meet the woman who has become the source of his obsession and with whom he has fallen in love. He can only go to the cemetery where she is buried.
At the end of the novel, as he returns home one evening, José finds the Registrar in his house. The Registrar is not there to reprimand José or to fire him, however; he is there to tell him that he admires what José has done, because through his actions José has revealed to the Registrar the real meaning of life. The Registrar decides that it is totally absurd to separate the dead from the living, and he even suggests that José place the woman’s file among those of the living. The Registrar’s subversive notion of no longer viewing the past as death and the present as life will change the whole organizational structure of the Registry. The dead will also partake of the present, because the files of the dead will no longer be separated from the living. The dead will live in the memory of the living and their love.
In 1999 Saramago published Discursos de Estocolmo (Stockholm Speeches) and Folhas polítkas, 1976–1998(Political Papers, 1976–1998). Discursos de Estocolmo is a compilation of Saramago’s speeches related to his being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1998. The speeches shed light on the public and the private Saramago, since they deal with the author’s personal background, his family, and his reflections on some controversial issues. Folhas políticas is a compilation of political articles written by the author between 1976 and 1998 and published in newspapers and magazines, both in Portugal and abroad. About half of the essays were published prior to 1980; the others appeared in print after that date.
Although the essays that were written in the 1980s and 1990s are not as concerned with political transformation as those written earlier, they are still political in nature, as the author deals with such controversial topics as the 1994 uprising of the Zapatista National Liberation Army in Chiapas, Mexico; the ETA (a terrorist organization seeking an independent Basque state in Spain); and the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the later essays, the writer also examines and reflects on issues of globalization; immigration; transnational relations, especially those between Portugal and Brazil; the relationship between the political and the cultural; the effects on writers and the reading public as a result of certain political trends; and the role of the writer in society, national identity, and local culture. In a few of the essays there is a nostalgic look at the past, specifically at the Portuguese revolution with its promise of liberty, which leads the writer to question whether that moment in 1974 was a dream or a perfect moment in his life.
A caverna, Saramago’s first novel after receiving the Nobel Prize, closes the trilogy about urban dystopias that began with Ensaio sobre a cegueira and was followed by Todos os nomes. Teresa Cristina Cerdeira da Silva has called these novels “a triptych reflecting humanity’s quest for meaning in the midst of its end-of-millennium crisis.” A caverna, which is not a re-creation of Plato’s allegory of the cave but has many affinities with it, is an allegorical satire of the shopping center as a symbol of consumer society, the new cave where humanity is currently entrapped. As the author claims, the shopping center is the new cathedral or university of commercialism and free-market capitalism, which have transformed reality into virtual reality. The people living in the Center, a residential and commercial compound in a nameless metropolis, inhabit a world in which they assume that the shadows they see going by on the walls are reality. The writer satirizes this gigantic space of global consumer capitalism multiplying rapidly like a mirror game creating deceitful illusions that pass for reality. The Center, which threatens to swallow everything in its periphery, including a city, is a micro-world that determines and programs everything and controls the movement of its inhabitants, as well as their leisure activities, through the creation of virtual recreational spaces. The dwellers have become virtual prisoners of the Center; all their needs are satisfied within its walls.
A caverna is not only about a nightmarish urban dystopia, as exemplified by a Center that controls the destiny of its dwellers; it is also the story of Cipriano Algor, a sixty-four-year-old potter living in a nearby village, who sells his earthenware vessels to the Center. He lives with his daughter, Marta, who is married to Marçal Gacho, a security guard at the Center. Marçal anxiously awaits a promotion to resident guard so that he can actually move into the Center with his family. In his current position, he has to work ten-day shifts before he has a few days off, which leads to long separations from his wife. When the promotion arrives, the young couple and Cipriano relocate to the Center. Cipriano is reluctant to move, because the Center has unscrupulously canceled the sales contract it has with him, claiming that Center consumers prefer objects made from a plastic that imitates clay. With the termination of the contract, Cipriano decides to produce 1,200 decorative figurines, which the Center also rejects because a survey of its dwellers indicates that consumers are not interested in buying them. Cipriano, realizing that he is no longer necessary to the functioning of the world, moves to the Center with his family, all along disguising his sadness for having abandoned his rural home, a home that is harmoniously integrated with his trade. In fact, the home is an extension of himself.
Dissatisfied with the Center, Cipriano rebels subtly against its organization and rules. Eventually, he trespasses into a cave within the Center where archaeological excavations are being undertaken. He and his son-in-law enter the off-limits area—Plato’s cave, as a billboard posted in the Center soon advertises—and discover inside six petrified figures, the stone bodies of six individuals who had failed to understand the meaning of defiance. As a consequence of their failure, they were condemned to live in a world of shadows without any possibility of escape. In a sense, they were the ones who rejected light and liberty by their lack of action. By choosing illusion and simulacrum instead of reality, and ignorance instead of knowledge, they became petrified. Cipriano realizes that the petrified figures in the cave are really bodies of individuals, like him, who have failed to defy the encroachment of commercialism. The discovery of this dystopian vision of the world changes Marçal’s dependent and submissive relationship with the Center, and he and his wife decide to leave, just like Cipriano.
As the novel comes to a close, the three characters—accompanied by Isaura, Cipriano’s new love interest—are seen leaving in search of a new life, but not before Marta states that they are finished with the Center, that the pottery has come to an end, and that from one day to another they have become strangers in this world. Notwithstanding her words, the journey to the unknown holds the promise of life: Marta is pregnant. There is no final triumph of the spirit over the inhuman and evil forces of the Center, only a hint that not all is lost yet. Although the novel does not offer any concrete solutions to limit the growth and the devouring power of the Center, Saramago shows that unless human beings are willing to fight and reject the apocalyptic images of the Centers of the world, as the four characters have done, then humankind is condemned to live in a world of virtual reality characterized by deceit, shadows, and mirror games.
O homem duplicado (2002; translated as The Double, 2004) narrates the story of a high-school history teacher, Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, who becomes obsessed with his apparent double, António Claro, after seeing him playing a minor role as a hotel clerk in a video that he had rented. This actor, whose name does not even appear in the credits of the movie, is Tertuliano’s exact look-alike: they are the same age (thirty-eight years old); their voices match in timbre and tone; they are the same size; and they are a mirror image of each other in physical appearance for they have the same face, eyes, hair, and identical scars and moles in exactly the same places on their bodies. Even some of Tertuliano’s experiences seem to echo those of his double, or twin. Although both characters are absolutely identical in physical appearance, they are markedly different in terms of their temperament: Tertuliano is a passive, dull, timid, and indecisive individual who has just gone through a bitter divorce and does not want to commit himself to any long-term relationship with his current fiancée, Maria da Paz, while António, who uses the screen name of Daniel Santa-Clara, is an aggressive, impulsive, sleazy, and philandering actor married to Helena.
Tertuliano’s video encounter with his mirror self shatters his peaceful and boring existence, as it brings to the fore issues related to his individual integrity and uniqueness in the world. In fact, the essential things that make the protagonist a singular individual cannot any longer be sanctioned or sustained. His individuality or sense of identity, which rests on a fixed and relatively stable set of customs, beliefs, rituals, practices and meanings, sociological categories, and unique experiences falls apart as a result of the traversing of another individual into his coherent sense of self and personal space. As a consequence, he becomes obsessed with António Claro, the individual responsible for the usurpation of Tertuliano’s ontological integrity and uniqueness. Thus, he begins to see many of António’s movies, about thirty in all, in order to find out not only who the usurper of his coherent sense of self is but also to exact some sort of revenge from the imposter, for he represents an affront to Tertuliano’s inner desire for continuity and integrity. After identifying his mirror self and anguishing through a long and extended section of the narrative, Tertuliano finally contacts his double, António, who, in turn, also becomes obsessed with his mirror self, Tertuliano. One day, António shows up at Tertuliano’s door and informs him of a plan that he has devised to seduce Maria da Paz, Tertuliano’s fiancée. The plan is much in keeping with his philandering nature.
The ensuing dialogue between the two men has all the characteristics of a language power game with many arguments and counterarguments regarding the demeaning but Machiavellian plan that António has conjured up in order to conquer his rival’s fiancée, a game that António ultimately wins. At the end of the dialogue, Tertuliano reluctantly accepts that the other has won the battle and the prize that comes with it, a one-night stand with Maria da Paz. Although António wins the first battle, he loses the second, for Tertuliano takes advantage of his double’s meeting with Maria da Paz to seduce Helena, António’s wife. In the end, there are only losers. Maria da Paz and António are killed in a car crash the morning after the one-night stand, a crash most likely caused by a fight between the two while António is driving back to Tertuliano’s apartment. It seems that Maria da Paz had realized that the man she was with was not her fiancé, and the ensuing argument caused the car crash. As a consequence of the tragic accident, Tertuliano is condemned to live a life acting as if he is António, the actor, and thus twice an actor, Helena has to pretend that she is married to Tertuliano. Carolina Máximo, Tertuliano’s mother, has to simulate that her son is dead, even though she knows that he is really alive.
All of the characters who are still alive are playing different roles, a fact that undermines perceived notions of solidity and coherence inhering in one’s identity and placement in a given social and cultural space. The notion conveyed in O homem duplicado that individuals are actors, as role-playing becomes the norm in the narrative, and that the construction of identity is a game of duplication, doubling, and mirroring call into question the idea of an identity that is unitary and firmly rooted within specific boundaries. The conception of an authentic self is further destabilized at the end of the novel when Tertuliano receives a call from another man claiming that he is the mirror image of Daniel Santa-Clara, the screen name of António, whose role is now being played by Tertuliano. This man gives enough information about his physical appearance and marks on his body that Tertuliano (or is it António now, given that they are interchangeable?) is convinced that mirroring and duplication is a never-ending game and that he is condemned to live with its tragic consequences. His initial quest to ascertain that he is the original and not the copy has just become more complicated with additional plot twists.
Although Saramago’s fascination with the literary double or the doppelganger motif in O homem duplicado may be viewed as a postmodern questioning of identity characterized by instability and contingency and/or of the dual tendencies of the psyche or self-duplication, it also reflects many other germane concerns that demonstrate that this particular novel is in lockstep with the author’s previous works. Indeed, the work focuses on topics and narrative strategies that characterize Saramago’s novelistic production: the questioning of the workings of power, the exploration of the real and the magic and/or fantastic, the relationship between truth and fiction, and, ultimately, the act of writing for the author exploits in a playful and self-conscious fashion many of the devices and stratagems associated with the plot of a detective novel to construct his narrative.
Saramago’s next novel, Ensaio sobre a lucidez (2004; translated as Seeing, 2006), has many affinities with a previous work, Blindness. Aside from the similarity of their Portuguese titles and that in both novels all characters are nameless, in Seeing the author returns once more to the same unnamed city and country, which four years earlier had been struck by a blindness epidemic, to narrate another strange episode that creates much turmoil in the country, especially in the corridors of power. In this instance, the exceptional mass phenomenon that takes place is related to municipal elections. On the morning of the election, a powerful downpour prevents all but a few people from showing up at the polling stations. When the weather finally clears up around four o’clock in the afternoon, people rush to the polling booth to vote. What initially appeared as an election with almost no votes cast turns into an election with a heavy voter turnout. However, many of the votes cast are blank, more than 70 percent of the total, to be exact. A mandatory second election takes place the following week, and the result is basically identical. In fact, this time more than 80 percent of the votes cast are blank.
As a result of the large number of blank ballots cast, a sign of no confidence in the political parties and an act that is subversive of the electoral process, governmental leaders decide to declare a state of emergency in the country, soon followed by a state of siege. In addition, other measures are taken in order to force the “blankers,” as those who cast blank ballots are called, to come to their senses. People are subjected to interrogations; the police begin to spy on the citizens of the country to uncover signs of conspiracy; the government blows up a railway station and blames it on terrorists and/or foreign agitators to create panic in the city; and, in conjunction with a press that has sided with those in power, it works behind the scenes to incite violence and turmoil during a peaceful demonstration. However, none of the governmental maneuvers has its desired effect, for the citizens of the country see through the actions of the governmental officials and remain calm and peaceful. Moreover, with their reaction, they expose the incompetence of bureaucracy and the impotency of the government to control events and to force its citizens to accept the democratic process. Even when the government decides to abandon the capital in order to put an end to what it feels is an assault on democratic rule, the city does not surrender to chaos or mass hysteria. In fact, people in the capital carry on business as usual, since no one really notices or heeds the exodus of the government.
The imminent catastrophe predicted by both the government and the mass media, as a result of the drastic measures that have been taken to put an end to the civil disobedience, does not occur. Consequently, the government is forced to find new ways, other repressive measures, to compel the citizens of the country to listen to reason and to put a stop to their subversive state of blankness or whiteness. The latter word, which is a reference to the epidemic of white blindness that had afflicted the population four years before in Blindness, seems to indicate, as suggested by those in power, that the country has been infected by yet another epidemic, now in the form of blank ballots or the state of blankness. In fact, the population is not suffering from blindness but rather the leaders of the country, who blindly assume that those citizens who exercised their rights and cast blank ballots are imperiling not only the political system but democracy itself. Indeed, the blindness of political power forces the leaders to use exceptional measures that are repressive and tyrannical in nature to eradicate the evil and the deviation from the norm caused by the blank ballots. Their sole objective is a return to a príor state of normalization, the state of subjugation and passivity where those in power manipulate the very rules of the democratic process, which, as the writer has said on many occasions, is a masked dictatorial process.
The novel itself, as exemplified by the actions of the political leaders, seems to stress that there is nothing democratic about the democratic process. The quest to find a scapegoat for the so-called conspiracy of the blank ballot only seems to accentuate the undemocratic nature of a government that is not above breaking sacred democratic rules and conventions and using violence in order to derive benefit from its hold on power. A scapegoat for the conspiracy is found: the ophthalmologist’s wife from Blindness, the only person to have escaped the blindness epidemic that had infected the whole country. She is accused of being the instigator for all the blank ballots and thus of being guilty of a new blindness, which has introduced into the democratic system the microbe of perversion and corruption. The police commissary, one of three men in charge of the investigation of the conspiracy and one of the interrogators of the ophthalmologist’s wife, realizes early on that she is not really guilty of any crime and advises her to flee and hide somewhere until the crisis is resolved. Unfortunately, both the commissary and the woman are assassinated at the orders of the interior minister. The commissary is assassinated for his role in unmasking the deceitful schemes employed by the authorities to prove that the woman was guilty of the conspiracy and also for warning her about the real intentions of the political elite, while the woman is assassinated because the government feels that her political elimination has the potential to restore normalcy to the country. Moreover, the political assassination of the scapegoat/conspirator can then be used by the authorities to serve notice on those who through their subversive actions may wish to undermine the proper functioning of the democratic system. In the end, the political authorities accomplish nothing. They reveal themselves to be undemocratic, make a mockery of the democratic process, abuse power for political gain, and become, through their ineptitude, the subjects of a scorching political satire. Even the restoration of normalcy, which is supposedly the real motive behind all the repressive and brutal measures undertaken by the government, is not conclusively assured.
With the publication in 2005 of the play Don Giovanni, ou o dissoluto absolvido (Don Giovanni or the Debauched Pardoned) Saramago once again returns to a genre for which he is not well known. In fact, his previous play, In nomine Dei, had been published in 1993. Contrary to his other plays, whose subject is history, Don Giovanni revisits the myth of Don Giovanni or Don Juan, a myth that had already been the subject of works by such writers as Tirso de Molina; Molière; George Gordon, Lord Byron; William Hoffman; Alexandre Dumas père; and Lorenzo da Ponte. Many thinkers-including philosophers, psychologists, feminists, and literary critics—have also dealt with the legend of Don Juan. Saramago’s Don Giovanni is a take on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, or, The Debauched Punished, whose libretto was written by da Ponte. Like da Ponte’s libretto, Saramago’s play is intended as a libretto for an opera by composer Azio Conghi, who has already adapted some works by the Portuguese author into operas. The opera itself had its premiere in Lisbon on 18 March 2006 rather than at La Scala in Milan because of a strike.
As the English title of Saramago’s play, Don Giovanni, or, the Debauched Pardoned, indicates, this literary version of the Don Giovanni/Don Juan legend has an entirely different focus from that of Mozart’s opera. In fact, Saramago’s play begins precisely at the moment where Mozart’s opera ends, that is, when the sinner or the prototype of the womanizer, the man who has deceived/seduced 2,065 women, is condemned to hell. The new play questions and deconstructs many of the long-held assumptions about the legend of Don Giovanni. Its main objective is not really the demystification of Don Giovanni but rather of Donn’Ana, Don Ottavio, and Elvira, who are shown to be much less virtuous than they give the impression of being. Thus, the play unmasks the hypocrisy of many characters that have long been considered innocent victims of the debauched Don Giovanni. Saramago’s Don Giovanni, contrary to Mozart’s version of the same character, finds redemption in his life. Zerlina, one of the main characters in the play, inverts the tables on Don Giovanni, as she becomes the seducer and he the seduced. The end result is the denial of his legend through an act of seduction or, better yet, through the appropriation of his body, as he has done to countless numbers of women. With the inversion of the myth, given that Don Giovanni becomes the seduced rather than the seducer, he must learn how to be an ordinary man. No longer a superman or a supermacho, he thus regains his humanity; he is pardoned and forgiven for he has become a mere mortal, a human being.
In 2005 Saramago published a second book, As intermitências da morte (The Intermittences of Death). The novel, which begins with “[o]n the following day no one died,” focuses on the hypothetical and absurd notion that death has been conquered or banished. The event, which takes place in a small country of about ten million inhabitants, probably Portugal, initially is celebrated and welcomed by almost all of its citizens. The banishment of death from the unnamed country, for death has decided to go on strike, brings about much joy and patriotic fervor. Death is a source of many negative feelings and emotions such as anxiety, hate, fear, suffering, misery, angst, despair, grief, distress, sadness, and foreboding. Thus, the citizens look at the conquering of the evil of death as an unparalleled accomplishment. Through the eradication of death, they realize they can triumph over their greatest enemy, death as the denial of life, and attain, in the process, their greatest dream and wish: absolute eternity.
However, the state of euphoria is short-lived, given that the abolition of death creates many unexpected problems and a complete state of chaos in the country. The citizens, who initially only saw the positive aspect of the abolition of death, now begin to see also the negative side. Consequently, the narrative changes direction and begins stressing all the negative consequences associated with the disappearance of death and focusing on the people and the institutions that are harmed by the strange phenomenon. Life without death is not bliss, as it turns out. The church realizes that it is becoming inconsequential and irrelevant because without death there is no resurrection, the raison d’être of religion; its doctrine, with its singular focus on the explanation of eternal questions, loses its validity, for it cannot create a new doctrine with new explanations. Furthermore, the government has to spend exorbitantly for social welfare programs, since there is a huge rise in the number of beneficiaries of social security (old people) without an equivalent rise in the number of contributors to the fund (young people); hospitals and geriatric wards become so overcrowded that the medical staff cannot any longer give proper medical care to those in need; dying persons have to live in a continuous and desperate state of dying; insurance companies and funeral homes go bankrupt; the lives of lawyers, doctors, politicians, and journalists are turned upside down and become extremely stressful; and, finally, even philosophers become inconsequential, because they can no longer depend on death in order to speculate about the meaning of life. The end result of the disappearance of death is a total collapse of all political, social, economic, and religious institutions.
With all the chaotic conditions and problems created by the demise of death, death demonstrates that it is absolutely necessary to give meaning to life. In a sense, death rationalizes life; it becomes an imperative of life, since no one can really live without death. Its absence becomes a nightmarish hell in Saramago’s novel, and people and all institutions begin to clamor for its return. Indeed, the country is perceived as much better off with death than without it. The strike of death demonstrates that life is part of death, as well as death is part of life. The two are intrinsically bound together; they are concomitant entities, considering that the existence of one implies the existence of the other.
The second part of As intermitèncias da morte deals precisely with the return of death and the restoration of a more orderly society. Death returns to the country with a radical new blueprint: those who are given a death sentence receive with a week’s notice a violet envelope in which there is an enclosed letter informing them of their impending death seven days after notification. The one-week advance notice is a signal, or warning, to those citizens who will soon die that they should put their affairs in order and prepare themselves for dying. Unfortunately, even with a week’s advance notice the citizens of the country do not take care of their personal affairs. They do not write their wills; they do not say the proper farewells to friends and family; and they do not ask for forgiveness for their bad acts or make peace with their enemies. In a sense, the one-week grace period before death becomes sort of a marker for the characterization of society and how people deal with their own deaths and define themselves. With all its new rules and conventions, the return of death also brings a certain chaos, anxiety, and despair to society, albeit these conditions and emotions are different and less nightmarish than those associated with the previous period.
The third section of the novel deals with a specific case of a letter that is returned to the sender—death; the failure of the letter to reach the addressee means that the intended recipient, a violoncellist, has cheated death, at least, temporarily. Since the letter has not been delivered, death decides to search for the addressee in order to hand the man the letter personally. Death disguises itself as a beautiful woman in her thirties and sets out to look for the musician. The musician is a solitary man who plays in the city orchestra and lives in an apartment with a dog. After meeting the violoncellist and hearing him play, death becomes interested in finding out more about him and what kind of person he really is. The interaction between the musician and death humanizes death, and she begins to feel passion and compassion for the human being to whom she had all the intentions of delivering a death sentence: the violet letter. Death masked as a woman falls in love both with a man and his music, and through art and the contact with another human being she redeems herself. She becomes human. At the end of the novel, death, which never sleeps, falls inexplicably asleep in the arms of the musician, and the narrator says, as in the beginning of the text, “On the following day no one died.”
The publication of Saramago’s latest work As pequenas memórias (2006, Memoirs) coincided with the author’s eighty-fourth birthday in November 2006. The book, which had been an ongoing project of long gestation, was originally titled “O livro das tentações.” With this book Saramago turns to a genre that had never been part of his literary repertoire: the autobiography. As pequenas memórias are memoirs, as the title indicates, of the author’s life from infancy to the age of sixteen. In fact, only one episode from the age of sixteen is narrated, and only in the last page of the book.
The intent of the author when he wrote As pequenas memórias was to comprehend and discover in the child and his many childhood experiences the character (the self) of a man responsible for a great body of literary work. Thus, the memoirs may be read simultaneously as self-formation and self-reflection of the adult. The project took a long time because Saramago himself did not know how to approach the subject and because many other projects also demanded his attention, thus forcing the author to set aside the writing of the book on many occasions. Many of the pages of an autobiography—whose main objective, as the author has said, was to recuperate, reconstruct, and get to know the child—were written more than fifteen years before.
The main focus of the author’s memoirs is the rural life of the little village Azinhaga in the region of Ribatejo, where the author was born. Although Saramago came at a tender age to live in Lisbon, he still feels that the rural environment defines who he is as a person even today. In the book, the author reminisces constantly about the many episodes of his childhood and how those episodes marked him as a child and contributed to the formation of the adult Saramago. Most of the episodes have to do with his contact with the natural environment of his place of birth: the trees, the river, the water, the animals, fishing, walking around barefooted, and taking care of the pigs and other farm animals. Also important are those episodes dealing with the life lessons that he learned from his grandfather Jerónimo, the smartest man that Saramago has ever met, according to Saramago’s Autobiographical Statement to the Swedish Academy on the occasion of the ceremony for Nobel Prize winners, and also his grandmother Josefa. These episodes truly show how much affection and appreciation the writer has for the role that his grandparents played in the modeling of his identity and character. From his grandparents and also from many others in his close-knit group of friends and family, including his mother and father, Saramago received many life lessons that still define him and have served through the years to construct the man that he is. Nevertheless, the author is aware that in all of these episodes and reminiscences about his childhood, memory plays a salient role in recuperating the past and that at times it simply fails. Consequently, memory has to turn to fiction to complete that past. For this reason, the child and the man as a by-product of the life experiences of that child are not totally grounded on an objective reality. They are also a product of the imagination; they are both completed by fiction.
One of the author’s main objectives in writing As pequenas memórias was to show that in his life there is still a sense of continuity between the past and his present life and that there is a feeling that he is like others that he encountered in his childhood and who in many different ways formed the adult Saramago. As pequenas memórias clearly evidences that the feeling of wholeness that Saramago possesses today had its gestation in that past, especially in his experiences in rural Ribatejo.
José Saramago has achieved literary mastery in a wide range of genres. Even though he is better known for the novels that he has written in the 1980s and 1990s, the reader can find the major thematic concerns of the more-mature work in the writer’s earlier works, those published in the 1960s and 1970s. In addition, those earlier works already display the fantastic and supernatural elements that Saramago incorporates in most of his novels, including those in which the subject matter is more deeply rooted in Portuguese history, such as Memorial do convento, O ano da morte de Ricardo Reis, and A jangada de pedra. As Saramago’s fiction takes a more allegorical turn, especially in his dystopian trilogy, the reader encounters a writer who has a gloomier view of the world and no longer seems to believe that individuals have the capacity to stop the continuous destruction of human dignity and values or to confront the evil power of a mercantilist and commercialized society. Despite Saramago’s increasing pessimism regarding humanity’s capacity to effect change, to use reason to curb abusive power, and to stop the dehumanizing tendencies of all institutions, he continues to call attention to the destructiveness and irrationality that afflict the world. Saramago may not really believe that a work of art has the potential to change human nature; but he, through his focus on the role played by human beings in confronting political tyranny and the forces that blind humanity, seems to be suggesting that not all is lost yet.
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Mary Lou Daniel, “Ebb and Flow: Place as Pretext in the Novels of José Saramago,” Luso-Brazilian Review, 27, no. 2 (1990): 25–39;
Daniel, “Symbolism and Synchronicity: José Saramago’s Jangada de Pedra,” Hispania, 74, no. 3 (1991): 536–541;
Ana Paula Ferreira, “Cruising Gender in the Eighties: From Levantado do chão to the History of the Siege of Lisbon,” Portuguese Literary & Cultural Studies, 6 (2001): 221–238;
Attore Finazzi-Agrò, “Da capo: O texto como palimpsesto na História do cerco de Lisboa,” Colóquio/Letras, 151–152 (1999): 341–351;
Douwe Fokkema, “The Art of Rewriting the Gospel,” Colóquio/Letras, 151–152 (1999): 395–402;
David Frier, “Ascent and Consent: Hierarchy and Popular Emancipation in the Novels of José Saramago,” Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, 71, no. 1 (1994): 125–138;
Frier, “In the Beginning Was the Word: Text and Meaning in Two Dramas by José Saramago,” Portuguese Studies, 14 (1998): 215–226;
Frier, “José Saramago’s Stone Boat: Celtic Analogues and Popular Culture,” Portuguese Studies, 15 (1999): 194–206;
Frier, “Writing Wrongs, Re-Writing Meaning and Reclaiming the City in Saramago’s Blindness and All the Names,” Portuguese Literary & Cultural Studies, 6 (2001): 97–122;
Orlando Grossegesse, “Journey to the Iberian God: Antonio Machado Revisited by José Saramago,” Portuguese Literary & Cultural Studies, 6 (2001): 167–184;
Adrián Huici, “Perdidos en el laberinto: El camino del héroe en ‘Todos os nomes’,” Colóquio/Letras, 151–152 (1999): 453–462;
Maria Joaquina Nobre Júlio, Memorial do convento de José Saramago: Subsídios para uma leitura (Lisbon: Replicação, 1999);
Helena Kaufman, “A metaficção historiográfica de José Saramago,” Colóquio/Letras, 120 (1991): 124–136;
Kenneth Krabbenhoft, “Saramago, Cognitive Estrangement, and Original Sin?” Portuguese Literary & Cultural Studies, 6 (2001): 123–136;
Giulia Lanciani, ed., José Saramago. Il bagaglio dello scritore (Rome: Bulzoni, 1996);
Isabel Pires de Lima, “Dos ‘anjos da História’ em dois romances de José Saramago: Ensaio sobre a cegueira e Todos os nomes,” Colóquio/Letras, 151–152 (1999): 415–426;
Lilian Lopondo, ed., Saramago: Segundo terceiros (São Paulo: Humanitas, 1998);
Conceição Madruga, A paixāo segundo José Saramago (Porto, Portugal: Campo das Letras, 1998);
Fernando J. B. Martinho, “Para um enquadramento periodológico da poesia de José Saramago,” Colóquio/Letras, 151–152 (1999): 21–33;
Adriana Alves de Paula Martins, A construção da memória da nação em José Saramago e Gore Vidal (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2006);
Martins, “A crónica de José Saramago ou uma viagem pela oficina do romance,” Colóquio/Letras, 151–152 (1999): 95–105;
Martins, História e ficçõo—um diálogo (Lisbon: Fim de Século, 1994);
Martins, “José Saramago’s Historical Fiction,” Portuguese Literary & Cultural Studies, 6 (2001): 49–72;
Martins and Mark Sabine, In Dialogue with Saramago: Essays in Comparative Literature (Manchester: Manchester Spanish and Portuguese Studies, 2006);
Vibha Maurya, “Construction of Crowd in Saramago’s Texts,” Colóquio/Letras, 151–152 (1999): 267–278;
António Moniz, Para uma leitura de Memorial do convento de José Saramago: Uma proposta de leitura crítico-didáctica (Lisbon: Presença, 1995);
Margarida Braga Neves, “Nexos, temas e obsessões na ficção breve de José Saramago,” Colóquio/Letras, 151–152 (1999): 117–139;
Odílio José de Oliveira Filho, Carnaval no convento: Inter-textulaidade e paródia em José Saramago (São Paulo: UNESP, 1993);
Pilar Orero and Juan C. Sager, eds., The Translator’s Dialogue: Giovanni Pontiero (Philadelphia: J. Benjamins Publications, 1997);
José N. Ornelas, “Resistência, Espaço e Utopia em Memorial do Convento de José Saramago,” Discursos: Estudos de Língua e Cultura Portuguesa, 13 (1996): 115–133;
José Joaquín Parra Bañón, Pensamento arquitectónico na obra de José Saramago: acerca da arquitectura da casa (Lisbon: Caminho, 2004);
Giovanni Pontiero, “José Saramago and O ano da morte de Ricardo Reis,” Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, 71, no. 1 (1994): 139–148;
Miguel Real, Narração, maravilhoso, trágico e sagrado em Memorial do convento de José Saramago (Lisbon: Caminho, 1996);
Luiz Francisco Rebello, “Teatro, tempo e histária,” Colóquio/Letras, 151–152 (1999): 143–150;
Gerson Luiz Roani, No limiar do texto: literatura e história em José Saramago (São Paulo: Annablume, 2002);
Richard Preto Rodas, “A View of Eighteenth-Century Portugal: José Saramago’s Memorial do convento,” World Literature Today, 73, no. 1 (1987): 27–31;
Mark J. L. Sabine, “Once but No Longer the Prow of Europe: National Identity and Portuguese Destiny in José Saramago’s The Stone Raft” Portuguese Literary & Cultural Studies, 6 (2001): 185–203;
Adriano Schwartz, O abismo invertido: Pessoa, Borges e a inquietude do romance em O ano da morte de Ricardo Reis, de José Saramago (Rio de Janeiro: Globo, 2004);
Maria Alzira Seixo, O essencial sobre José Saramago (Lisbon: Imprensa Nacional-Casa da Moeda, 1987);
Seixo, Lugares da ficção em José Saramago: O essential e outros ensaios (Lisbon: Imprensa Nacional-Casa da Moeda, 1999);
Teresa Cristina Cerdeira da Silva, José Saramago. Entre a história e a ficção: Uma saga de Portugueses (Lisbon: Dom Quixote, 1989);
Silva, “On the Labyrinth of Text, or, Writing, as the Site of Memory,” Portuguese Literary & Cultural Studies, 6 (2001): 73–96;
Maria Almira Soares, Memorial do Convento de José Saramago: Um modo de narrar (Lisbon: Presença, 1999);
Luciana Stegagno Picchio, José Saramago: Lnstantanee per un ritratto (Florence: Passigli, 2000);
Carmen Chaves Tesser, ed., “A Tribute to José Saramago,” Hispania, 82, no. 1 (1999): 1–28;
Francisco José Viegas, José Saramago: Uma voz contra o silêndo (Lisbon: Caminho, 1998).
An archive of some of José Saramago’s papers is housed at the Biblioteca Nacionale in Lisbon.