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Saramago, José 1922-

PERSONAL:

Born November 16, 1922, in Azinhaga, Ribatejo, Portugal; married Pilar del Rio; children: one.

ADDRESSES:

Home—Canary Islands. Agent—Ray-Guede Mertin, 1 Friedrichstrasse, 6380 Hamburg 1, Germany.

CAREER:

Writer and journalist. Previously worked in a publishing company; worked as a journalist for newspapers, including Diario de Noticias; worked as a translator, 1975-80.

AWARDS, HONORS:

Winner of Grinzane Cavour Prize, Mondello Prize, and Flaliano Prize; Premio Cidade de Lisboa, 1980; Premio PEN Club Portugues, 1983, 1984; Premio da Critica da Associacao Portuguesa, 1986; Grand Premio de Romance e Novela, 1991; Premio Vida Literaria, 1993; Premio Camoes, 1995; Nobel Prize in Literature, 1998. Recipient of honorary degrees from the University of Turin (Italy) and the University of Sevilla (Spain), both 1991.

WRITINGS:

NOVELS IN ENGLISH TRANSLATION

Memorial do convento, Caminho (Lisbon, Portugal), 1982, translation by Giovanni Pontiero published as Baltasar and Blimunda, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1987.

O ano da morte de Ricardo Reis, Caminho (Lisbon, Portugal), 1984, translation by Giovanni Pontiero published as The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1991.

A jangada de pedra, Caminho (Lisbon, Portugal), 1986, translation by Giovanni Pontiero published as The Stone Raft, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1994.

O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo, Caminho (Lisbon, Portugal), 1991, translation by Giovanni Pontiero published as The Gospel according to Jesus Christ, Harvill (London, England), 1993, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1994.

Ensaio sobrea a cegueira, Caminho (Lisbon, Portugal), 1995, translation by Giovanni Pontiero published as Blindness, Harvill Press (London, England), 1997.

Todos os nomes: romance, Caminho (Lisbon, Portugal), 1997, translation by Margaret Jull Costa published as All the Names, Harcourt (New York, NY), 2000.

Caverna, translation by Margaret Jull Costa published as The Cave, Harcourt (New York, NY), 2002.

The Double, translation by Margaret Jull Costa, Harcourt (New York, NY), 2004.

Seeing, translation by Margaret Jull Costa, Harcourt (Orlando, FL), 2006.

NOVELS

Manual de pintura e caligrafia (title means "Manual of Painting and Calligraphy"), Moraes (Lisbon, Portugal), 1977.

Levantado do chão (title means "Raised from the Ground"), Caminho (Lisbon, Portugal), 1980.

Historia do cerco de Lisboa (title means "The History of the Siege of Lisbon"), Caminho (Lisbon, Portugal), 1989, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1997.

Terra do pecado: romance, Caminho (Lisbon, Portugal), 1997.

As Pequenas Memórias, Caminho (Lisbon, Portugal), 2006.

POETRY

Os poemas possíveis, Portugalia, 1966.

Provàvelmente Alegria, Horizonte (Lisbon, Portugal), 1970, revised edition, Caminho (Lisbon, Portugal), 1985.

O an de 1993, Futura (Lisbon, Portugal), 1975.

PLAYS

Deste mundo e do outro, Arcadia, 1971.

A bagagem do viajante, Futura (Lisbon, Portugal), 1973.

O embargo, Estudios Cor, 1973.

As opiniões que o D.L. teve, Seara Nova, 1974.

Os apontamentos, Seara Nova, 1976.

Objecto quase, Moraes, 1978.

A noite, Caminho (Lisbon, Portugal), 1979.

Que farei com este livro?, Caminho (Lisbon, Portugal), 1980.

A Segunda vida de Francissco de Assis, Caminho (Lisbon, Portugal), 1987.

Entre a historia e aa ficcao, uma saga de Portugueses, Dom Quixote (Lisbon, Portugal), 1989.

Viagem a Portugal (title means "Journey to Portugal"), Caminho (Lisbon, Portugal), 1990, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 2001.

In nomine Dei, Caminho (Lisbon, Portugal), 1993.

OTHER

(Author of introduction) Sebastiao Salgado, Terra, Companhia das Letras (São Paulo, Brazil), 1997.

O conto da ilha desconhecida (children's story), Pavilhao de Portugal (Lisbon, Portugal), 1998, translation by Margaret Jull Costa published as The Tale of the Unknown Island, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1999.

A censura de Salazar e Marcelo Caetano: imprensa, teatro, cinema, televisao, radiodifusao, livro (nonfiction), Caminho (Lisbon, Portugal), 1999.

Discursos de Estocolmo (Nobel Prize lecture), Caminho (Lisbon, Portugal), 1999.

Also author of Blimunda (opera libretto for Azio Corghi's musical score; adapted from Saramago's novel Baltasar and Blimunda; also see above), 1990, and Chiapas, Rostros de la Guerra, 2000. Editor of O poeta perguntador, 1979.

Saramago's works have been translated into more than thirty languages.

SIDELIGHTS:

José Saramago is an accomplished Portuguese writer who has distinguished himself as an author of fiction, poetry, plays, and essays. Saramago is best known, both in his native Portugal and among English-language readers, for his novels. In 1998, Saramago was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first Portuguese writer ever to receive the award. The Swedish Academy cited Saramago for work that "with parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony continually enables us to apprehend an illusory reality." Saramago's "novels are extended fables, cerebral in their content, polemical in their bent, open in their conceits," observed Randy Boyagoda in Harper's. "Reading this Portuguese novelist is always a difficult pleasure," Boyagoda remarked, "which may make him one of the world's most celebrated yet quietly unread writers."

Saramago was already in his early fifties when he published his first novel, Manual de pintura e caligrafia ("Manual of Painting and Calligraphy"), in 1976. This work concerns the maintaining of ideals in a world of materialism and superficial values, and is narrated by an unnamed, mediocre painter who adheres to his own sense of dignity and artistic purpose while fulfilling a commission from a rich patron. A conflict eventually develops between painter and patron, and the painting commission ends abruptly. The narrator thereupon rejects payment, choosing to retain the incomplete painting instead of compromising himself.

Saramago followed Manual de pintura e caligrafia with Levantado do chao ("Raised from the Ground") in 1980, a grim tale of repression set during the dictator Salazar's reign in Portugal from the mid-1930s to the late 1950s.

In 1982 Saramago published Memorial do convento ("Memoirs of the Convent" translated into English as Baltasar and Blimunda), a novel that is often ranked foremost among his artistic triumphs. Baltasar and Blimunda is set in eighteenth-century Portugal during the Inquisition, and concerns the efforts of two young people, handicapped war veteran Baltasar and visionary Blimunda, to transport themselves into the heavens. The vehicle for this unlikely journey is a flying machine created by a priest similarly eager to leave behind the Inquisition. The existence of this flying machine, built by Baltasar and powered, fantastically enough, by human wills captured by the hypersensitive Blimunda, ultimately brings the main characters into opposition with the Inquisition's repressive church leaders. Running parallel to the tale of the flying machine in Baltasar and Blimunda is a narrative concerning the construction of the Mafra Convent by seemingly all available Portuguese men prior to a date foretold as that of King John V's death. In recounting this storyline Saramago provides compelling depictions of the construction process and detailed descriptions of life in the Portuguese royal court.

Baltasar and Blimunda has been hailed as a masterful blend of the fantastic and the historical, the romantic and the realistic. New York Times reviewer Walter Goodman described the novel as "a romance and an adventure, a rumination on royalty and religion in 18th-century Portugal and a bitterly ironic comment on the uses of power." Richard Eder, in his critique for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, deemed Saramago's novel "elaborate" and added that it concerns "the melancholy of magnificence." John Gledson, meanwhile, wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that Baltasar and Blimunda is "a strange but exciting novel."

The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, Saramago's 1991 novel, is a rich tale set in Portugal during the early years of Salazar's dictatorship. Ricardo Reis, the novel's protagonist, is a middle-aged poet-physician who has recently arrived in Lisbon after a stay in Rio de Janeiro. Once back in Lisbon, Reis finds himself romantically drawn to Marcenda, a young woman with a deformed arm. Reis commences a physical relationship, however, with Lydia, a thirty-year-old maid, and the relationship develops as Reis begins to appreciate Lydia as more than a mere physical entity. Also prominent in this tale is the ghost of Fernando Pessoa, the great Portuguese poet who died in 1935. It is Pessoa's ghost who proves to be Reis's fitting companion as the hero lives his final hours.

Upon translation by Giovanni Pontiero into English in 1991, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis gained approval as further indication of Saramago's impressive, imposing talent. New York Times reviewer Herbert Mitgang called the book "a rare, old-fashioned novel—at once lyrical, symbolic and meditative" and characterized it as being "written in a classical style, formal and cerebral, with a surreal story that lingers in the imagination." Likewise, Shaun Whiteside wrote in New Statesman and Society that The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis constituted "very much a novel of ideas, subtly textured and rich in symbolism, written in a style redolent of the age of high modernism." Gabriel Josipovici, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, concluded that Saramago's novel "is the work of a fine and interesting writer."

O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo, which Saramago originally published in 1991, was published in English in 1994 as The Gospel according to Jesus Christ. This controversial novel provides what John Butt, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, described as "an idiosyncratic, satirical, bitter and frequently comical account of Jesus' life." In Saramago's tale, the immaculate conception is a questionable explanation of Christ's origin. Similarly, Christ's rather unworldly holiness is itself portrayed as rather dubious in Saramago's rendering. In the book Christ is, in essence, the wandering son of a carpenter. Inevitably human, he even enters into sexual relations with Mary Magdalene. God serves as the villain of Saramago's tale. Butt noted that Saramago portrays God as a "cynical bureaucrat, cheerfully disposed to extend his influence by founding on the blood of an innocent a religion that will bring pain, death, and intolerance to mankind." God's exploitation of Christ, as delineated in the novel, results in a concluding crucifixion that is undeniably moving, if blasphemous by some readers' standards.

With The Gospel according to Jesus Christ, Saramago drew further recognition as an important writer. Nation reviewer Ilan Stavans noted that in The Gospel according to Jesus Christ "Saramago works wonders with the Passion story." Stavans added that the novel "is enough to assure [Saramago] a place in the universal library and in human memory." Richard A. Preto-Rodas, writing in World Literature Today, noted the novel's controversial, provocative nature, and he concluded: "It is obvious that [The Gospel according to Jesus Christ] will hardly validate traditional beliefs, but it will definitely provide much food for thought."

The Stone Raft, another of Saramago's novels translated in 1994, concerns events that ensue after the Iberian peninsula breaks free from the European mainland and begins drifting through the Atlantic Ocean. This unlikely incident sparks considerable bureaucratic chaos even as the drifting Iberians struggle to cope with their extraordinary predicament. Prominent among these people are five individuals who undergo some typically incredible experiences, and eventually come together to realize a greater understanding of the entire Iberian phenomenon. Richard Eder, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, speculated that The Stone Raft "may be Saramago's finest work," while Amanda Hopkinson, in her review for New Statesman and Society, hailed Saramago's novel as "the best new book I have read [in 1994]."

Saramago's 1995 work Blindness was published in English in 1997. The novel concerns an epidemic of blindness that afflicts an unnamed town. "Nobody has a name in Blindness, José Saramago's symphonic new novel. Indeed, there are no proper names of any kind. The city in which this catastrophic epidemic of blindness breaks out is never identified. There are no street names. This is any city at almost any point in the modern era. This is everybody's disaster," summarized Andrew Miller in the New York Times Book Review. The only person spared the effects of total blindness is the wife of an eye doctor, who helps a group of the sightless survive until their sight returns. As the epidemic spreads, societal structure quickly breaks down.

"In Blindness, … so great are the horrors witnessed by the doctor's sighted wife that the simple privilege of sight over blindness begins to seem the worst privilege, begins to seem its inversion," wrote a critic for the New Republic. "In the country of the suddenly blind, the one-eyed man is not, in fact, king. He is the slave of all the blind, and the most unhappy one of all, because he sees their degradation. Yet Saramago is most like the Greeks—and like their Renaissance heirs, such as Montaigne—in the manner in which he keeps in balance both skepticism and realism, or uncertainty and health …. Omniscient narration generally affirms how much we know, how much we have in common, but Saramago uses it to illuminate how little we know." Miller commented that "The prose, with its minimal punctuation, its flickering of tense and subject so that we glide between first and third person, between stream of consciousness and wry objectivity, is this Portuguese novelist's trademark style." Miller concluded that Blindness contains "a powerful sense of the folly and heroism of ordinary lives. There is no cynicism and there are no conclusions, just a clear-eyed and compassionate acknowledgment of things as they are, a quality that can only honestly be termed wisdom. We should be grateful when it is handed to us in such generous measures." Kevin Grandfield in Booklist wrote: "Saramago's novel deftly shows how vulnerable humans are, how connected and how blind."

Saramago's 1999 work The Tale of the Unknown Island is a brief parable concerning a man who wants to sail for an unknown land. The short story "departs from [Saramago's] signature dense, inventive linguistic style and historically encompassing subjects to offer a simple, intriguing fable," argued a critic for Publishers Weekly. Although Ray Olson in Booklist was annoyed by the publisher's strategy of releasing this "short story at the price of a trade paperback," he commented that "when the story proves as ingratiating as Saramago's, one's annoyance is considerably lessened."

Seeing returns to the same unnamed capital city that was the setting of Blindness. Four years after the events of the harrowing epidemic of sightlessness, elections are underway in the city. Heavy rains keep voters away from the polls, but when the weather breaks at 4:00 p.m., people arrive to vote in droves. To the government's dismay, almost three-quarters of the ballots cast that day are blank. After much discussion, the original results are declared void and the election is held again a week later, on a sunny day. This time, the number of blank votes cast is higher, some eighty-three percent. For the government, this is an affront to their power, nothing less than an act of revolution. However, no laws have been broken; no violence erupts; no discord among the population is evident. Life in the city continues as though nothing had changed, as though no potent message had been delivered, whether by accident or intent, to those in charge. "It's a fairly witty conceit: a city full of Bartlebys, politely preferring not to do what is expected of them and generating, through simple negation, absolute panic in the corridors of power," observed Terrence Rafferty in the New York Times. Government response quickly escalates: first, a state of emergency is declared, then a state of siege. Agents are dispatched to spy on the population and to systematically round up citizens for interrogation. Finally, in what seems to be the pinnacle of petulance, the government declares that it is abdicating, leaving the population to fend for itself. Even then, order is retained, the citizens continue to be happy and smiling, and the city continues to function even after the government has abandoned it. The "populace fails to cooperate: life in the capital remains peaceful and orderly, as if no one had even noticed that anything was missing," Rafferty stated. Desperate, the government even turns to calculated terrorism against its own citizens, with deadly results. Rather than the citizens turning bestial and feral without the supervision of government, it is the government that turns uncontrollable and vengeful without the support of its citizens.

Eventually, the government identifies a target for its frustration: a letter arrives implicating the unnamed wife of the eye doctor who acted so heroically in Blindness. The story then turns to the search for this woman and the attempts by a local police superintendent to bring her to "justice." Soon, however, the superintendent realizes that "the doctor's wife is clearly innocent of any involvement in the blank ballot phenomenon; and the government doesn't care about her innocence," noted Boyagoda in Harper's. As the novel progresses, the superintendent breaks with his superiors and attempts to save the woman from gross injustice.

"Seeing is a sobering political fable likely to engage anyone who fears that government, in the name of fighting terrorism, may become a state that terrorizes its own citizens," commented Gerald T. Cobb in America. A Publishers Weekly critic remarked that the novel's allegorical framework is "weak and obvious," yet the story works as a "farce, baldly sending up EU politicos and major media editorialists." A Kirkus Reviews critic called the novel "another invaluable gift from a matchless writer."

Saramago's "panoramic and sweeping characterization of the Portuguese and peninsular existence has struck a chord not only among his compatriots in Portugal, but also in Spain and beyond," argued Irwin Stern in the Encyclopedia of World Literature in the Twentieth Century. "his fiction is not only a continual dialogue with the Portuguese character and the nation's history but also a revelation of basic human desires and fantasies." Saramago's "strongest novels startle with their unapologetically moral cores, which are revealed through sympathetic presentations of his characters' struggles to recover some kind of decency in a world set hard against their efforts," commented Boyagoda.

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Arias, Juan, José Saramago: el amor posible, Planeta (Barcelona, Spain), 1998.

Encyclopedia of World Literature in the Twentieth Century, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999, pp. 32-33.

PERIODICALS

America, September 25, 2006, Gerald T. Cobb, "Citizenspeak," review of Seeing, p. 31.

Booklist, August, 1998, Kevin Grandfield, review of Blindness, p. 1969; November 15, 1999, Ray Olson, review of The Tale of the Unknown Island, p. 580; January 1, 2006, Brad Hooper, review of Seeing, p. 24.

Harper's, April, 2006, Randy Boyagoda, "Bleakness: The Implacable Politics of José Saramago," p. 89.

Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 2006, review of Seeing, p. 108.

Library Journal, August, 1998, Lisa Rohrbaugh, review of Blindness, p. 134.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 13, 1987, Richard Eder, review of Baltasar and Blimunda, p. 3; May 28, 1995, Richard Eder, review of The Stone Raft, p. 3.

Nation, May 16, 1994, Ilan Stavans, review of The Gospel according to Jesus Christ, pp. 675-676.

New Republic, November 30, 1998, review of Blindness, p. 48.

New Statesman and Society, August 28, 1992, Shaun Whiteside, review of The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, p. 34; August 27, 1993, Ruth Pavey, review of The Gospel according to Jesus Christ, p. 40; November 18, 1994, Amanda Hopkinson, review of The Stone Raft, pp. 54-55.

New York Review of Books, October 5, 1995, David Gilmour, review of The Stone Raft, pp. 35-36.

New York Times, December 5, 1987, Walter Goodman, review of Baltasar and Blimunda, p. A12; April 30, 1991, Herbert Mitgang, review of The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, p. C17; April 9, 2006, Terrence Rafferty, "Every Nonvote Counts," review of Seeing.

New York Times Book Review, November 1, 1987, Giovanni Pontiero, review of Baltasar and Blimunda, p. 7; July 13, 1997, Edmund White, review of The History of the Siege of Lisbon, p. 11; October 4, 1998, Andrew Miller, review of Blindness, p. 8.

Observer (London, England), March 6, 1988, review of Baltasar and Blimunda, p. 42.

Publishers Weekly, July 13, 1998, review of Blindness, p. 62; September 6, 1999, review of The Tale of the Unknown Island, p. 78; January 16, 2006, review of Seeing, p. 34.

Times Literary Supplement, March 18, 1988, John Gledson, review of Baltasar and Blimunda, p. 301; September 11, 1992, Gabriel Josipovici, review of The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, p. 24; October 22, 1993, John Butt, review of The Gospel according to Jesus Christ, p. 22.

World Literature Today, winter, 1984, review of Memorial do Convento, p. 78; spring, 1986, review of O Ano Da Morte De Ricardo Reis, p. 297; winter, 1987, review of Memorial do Convento, p. 27; winter, 1988, review of A Jangada De Pedra, p. 88; winter, 1990, review of Historia do Cerco de Lisboa, p. 84; autumn, 1992, Richard A. Preto-Rodas, review of O Evangelho segundo Jesus Cristo, p. 697.

ONLINE

Nobel Prize Internet Archive,http://www.nobelprizes.com/ (March 14, 2001), "José Saramago Winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature."

Pegasos,http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/ (March 14, 2001), "José Saramago."

Saramago, José 1922-

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