BORN: 1922, Azinhaga, Portugal
GENRE: Novels, drama
The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1984)
The Stone Raft (1986)
All the Names (1997)
The Double (2004)
José Saramago is a Portuguese author of fiction, poetry, plays, and essays. An accomplished writer and storyteller, he is most highly regarded for his novels, which vary in theme and subject matter and tend to explore the values and priorities in modern society. Saramago, an outspoken Communist and atheist, is known as the voice of the common person, a role he undertakes with newspaper and radio commentaries as well as in his fiction. He is the first Portuguese-language author to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A “Wild Radish” of Portugal José Saramago was born on November 16, 1922, to José de Sousa and Maria de Piedade in the provincial town of Azinhaga, Portugal. “Saramago,” which is Portuguese for “wild radish,” was actually a nickname of his father's family, and it was accidentally included in his name in the registry of births. In 1924, the family moved from the province to the city of Lisbon, which gave Saramago the rare opportunity to receive an education. While in school, where he excelled in all of his subjects, he made time for his grandfather's farm back in Azinhaga, helping to take care of the land. After attending Lisbon's grammar schools, unfortunately, Saramago was forced to drop out due to the family's dwindling finances.
During his teen years, Saramago attended a technical school for mechanics that offered other academic courses on the side. Saramago took full advantage of the opportunity and studied literature and French with the aim of mastering the art of literary translator. Though he never finished formal schooling, he later obtained several honorary doctorates from various universities.
In 1944, Saramago met Ilda Reis, one of Portugal's best engravers, and they had one daughter, Violante. While working mechanical jobs, he wrote and published a short novel, Land of Sin. He later traded in his mechanical jobs and worked as an editor for a small Lisbon newspaper. When he lost his job, he turned to translating French manuscripts, and it was not long before he returned to writing his own stories.
Literary Success In 1977, Saramago published what he considers to be his first novel, Manual of Painting and Calligraphy. This was followed by two more books in quick succession: Quasi Objects (1978) and Raised from the Ground (1980). Raised from the Ground was well received in literary circles and in the press, earning Saramago some degree of recognition. His 1982 novel, Memorial do convento translated into English as Baltasarand Blimunda, was the first of his works to be translated and is often ranked foremost among his artistic triumphs.
During the 1980s, Saramago dedicated his time to several more novels: The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis released in 1984, The Stone Raft (1986), and The History of the Siege of Lisbon (1989).
Offending the Church In 1991, Saramago published The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, a novel that was condemned by the Catholic Church. Portugual's conservative government contested the novel's entry into the running for the European Literary Prize under the pretext that the book was offensive to Catholics. Saramago and his second wife, whom he married in 1988, left Lisbon and moved to Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. In 1995, he published the novel Blindness and in 1997 All the Names. His hard work and perseverance paid big dividends as he went on to win several awards, including the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998, cementing his reputation as one of Europe's most highly regarded literary figures.
Works in Literary Context
Although Portuguese is spoken in three continents by between 140 million and 200 million people, Saramago was the first writer in that language to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 1998, the Nobel Committee presented the award to the seventy-four-year-old Saramago, “who with parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony continually enables us once again to apprehend an elusory reality,” according to the official Nobel Foundation Web site.
With his engaging storytelling and a unique style of writing, Saramago has carved himself a niche as one of Europe's most important literary figures. Saramago uses a distinctive narrative voice that is undeniably his own. Stylistically, he uses run-on sentences and pages of endless paragraphs, refusing to follow conventional rules of punctuation. Thematically, he balances dread and hope and portrays human resilience amid unbearable misery.
Fantasy and Parable
Saramago's works often rely upon fantastic elements to tell a tale that illustrates a point or delivers a message. In The Stone Raft, for example, the peninsula that contains Spain and Portugal breaks free from Europe and begins drifting across the Atlantic Ocean. In The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, a fictional persona of Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa continues living after the poet himself has died. In Blindness, nearly all the citizens of an unspecified city are struck by a plague that results in blindness; the novel deals largely with the aftermath, and how the afflicted adjust to a society without sight. In each of these tales, the setting is clearly a realistic world in which an element of fantasy has been introduced.
Works in Critical Context
Through the years, José Saramago's works have had a place in Portuguese—and European—literary history, starting with Raised from the Ground, which was one of Saramago's first works to earn considerable literary recognition in Portugal. With regard to Blindness, Andrew Miller of the New York Times Book Review has called it “a clear-eyed and compassionate acknowledgment of things as they are, a quality that can only honestly be termed wisdom.” The novel helped Saramago gain the respect of readers and critics alike, laying the foundation for the awards he received later. The Library Journal, meanwhile, praised All the Names, saying it is “in turns claustrophobic, playful, farcical, and suspenseful.” The world immediately took notice of Saramago's unique writing talent, which won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998.
The Double Critical reception of the novel The Double was also favorable, with Merle Rubin of the Los Angeles Times praising the way it “[intrigues] us, proceeds to entertain, charm and engage, and ultimately manages to disturb.” Amanda Hopkinson, writing for The Independent, even called it “his most practiced and polished” work, that it is “philosophy and thriller rolled into one with—as ever—a tight cast of characters.” Finally, Philip Graham of the New Leader considers it as “a deft reworking of a timeless theme and a virtuoso exercise in voice—from a writer who seems to produce masterpiece after masterpiece like clockwork.”
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Saramago's famous contemporaries include:
Gabriel García Márquez (1927–): Hailing originally from Colombia, García Márquez is one of Latin America's most famous authors; he was recognized for his contribution to twentieth century literature in 1982 when he was awarded the Nobel Prize.
Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986): This Argentine author was one of Latin America's most original and influential prose writers and poets; his short stories revealed him as one of the great stylists of the Spanish language.
Harold Pinter (1930–): English playwright and author of The Birthday Party who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2005.
Julio Cortázar (1914–1984): Argentine author famous for his influential postmodern novels and stories, especially Hopscotch (1963).
Seeing Seeing also gained the respect of critics, although some thought that its storytelling “is so hazy that it's hard to see the point,” according to Troy Patterson of Entertainment Weekly, and that, in the words of Publishers Weekly, “[t]he allegorical blindness/sight framework is weak and obvious.” Jack Shreve of Library Journal countered by saying that “Saramago's clear eye for acknowledging things as they are barrages us with valuable insights suggesting that the dynamics of human governance are not as rational as we like to think.” Also, Sarah Goldman of Salon maintains that Saramago “is a deliberate, attentive writer; he knows exactly what his words mean, and all of them—despite what he may have thought more than a half-century ago—are completely worthwhile.” Finally, Julian Evans of The Independent recalled that no novel has told more “with such arresting humor and simplicity, about the imposture of the times we live in” as Seeing did.
Responses to Literature
- What questions does Saramago's The Double raise about identity while following Tertuliano Maximo Afonso's search for his double? Cite specific examples from the novel.
- Discuss the role of namelessness in Blindness. How is namelessness important to the theme?
- What role does “stream of consciousness” play in Blindness? Why does Saramago choose this particular technique to include in this work?
- How does Saramago's unconventional use of sentence structure and punctuation affect you as a reader? In a small group, discuss why Saramago would want to break the rules of punctuation. How does his writing style contribute to the themes he addresses?
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Identity formation, or the way in which an individual comes to distinguish his or herself as a separate entity, is a key theme explored in Saramago's novel The Double. Other works that explore this theme include:
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759–1767), a novel by Laurence Sterne. Considered by some to be the first postmodern novel, this work purports to tell the story of the protagonist's life, although Tristram struggles to explain himself so much so that the telling of his birth is not reached until the third volume of the work.
Invisible Man (1952) a novel by Ralph Ellison. This story is about the travels of a narrator, a nameless African American. In the novel, Ellison explores the influences of various cultural and political forces, particularly with regard to race, on identity formation.
Identity (1998), a novel by Milan Kundera. In this short work, Kundera explores the questions of identity within the context of romantic love.
Bloom, Harold, ed. José Saramago. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2005.
___. The Varieties of José Saramago. Lisbon: Fundação Luso-Americana, 2002.
Bloom, Harold. “The One with the Beard Is God, the Other Is the Devil.” Portuguese Literary & Cultural Studies 6 (2001): 155–66.
Costa, Horácio. “Saramago's Construction of Fictional Characters: From Terra do pecado to Baltasar and Blimunda.” Portuguese Literary & Cultural Studies 6 (2001): 33–48.
Daniel, Mary Lou. “Ebb and Flow: Place as Pretext in the Novels of José Saramago.” Luso-Brazilian Review, 27 2 (1990): 25–39.
___. “Symbolism and Synchronicity: José Saramago's Jangada de Pedra”. Hispania, 74 3 (1991): 536–41.
Frier, David. “Ascent and Consent: Hierarchy and Popular Emancipation in the Novels of José Saramago”. Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, 71 1 (1994): 125–138.
___. “In the Beginning Was the Word: Text and Meaning in Two Dramas by José Saramago.” Portuguese Studies 14 (1998): 215–26.
___. “José Saramago's Stone Boat: Celtic Analogues and Popular Culture.” Portuguese Studies 15 (1999): 194–206.
___. “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.
Krabbenhoft, Kenneth. “Saramago, Cognitive Estrangement, and Original Sin?” Portuguese Literary & Cultural Studies 6 (2001): 123–36.
Martins. “José Saramago's Historical Fiction.” Portuguese Literary & Cultural Studies 6 (2001): 49–72.
Maurya, Vibha. “Construction of Crowd in Saramago's Texts.” Colóquio/Letras 151–152 (1999): 267–278.
Sabine, Mark J. L. “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.
Tesser, Carmen Chaves, ed. “A Tribute to José Saramago.” Hispania, 82 1 (1999): 1–28.
Novelist José Saramago (born 1922) is Portugal's most notable literary figure, and the first Portuguese-language author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Described by many as a "born storyteller," Saramago's charming and challenging cannon has assured him an esteemed place among Europe's literary elite.
Saramago was born November 16, 1922, in the provincial town of Azinhaga, Portugal. He and his parents and older brother lived with his grandparents on their property. The author revealed in an autobiography posted on the Nobel Prize Website that he would have shared his father's surname—de Sousa—but the registrar entered "the nickname by which [his] father's family was known in the village . . . saramago . . . a wild herbaceous plant, whose leaves in those times served at need as nourishment for the poor." Saramago's father—José de Sousa—and his mother—Maria da Piedade—were landless peasant laborers, but in 1924 the family moved to Lisbon which gave Saramago an unusual opportunity to receive an education, however brief. He divided his time between his parent's meager home in Lisbon, where he excelled in all academic subjects, and his grandparents' farm in Azinhaga, where he helped them work the land.
Sought Advanced Education
Saramago attended local Lisbon grammar schools until his family's dire economic circumstances made it impossible for him to continue with his formal academic education. He dropped out of school in his teen years and enrolled in a technical school for metal workers, where he learned the mechanic's trade. Although the vocational school required that its students focus on a trade, it did offer a sampling of academic courses that could be taken on the side. Saramago took full advantage of this opportunity and studied French and literature with the aim of mastering the art of literary translation.
Aside from earning numerous honorary doctorates from a wide range of universities later in life, Saramago's academic career never officially went beyond grammar school. He married his first wife, Ilda Reis, one of Portugal's top engravers, in 1944. They had one child, a daughter named Violante, in 1947, but would divorce in 1970. Meanwhile, in addition to working mechanical jobs he wrote and published a short novel at age 25 titled Land of Sin; the political climate was so unfavorable to such work that he abandoned further attempts to pursue fiction; he later denounced the novel as an immature effort at best. Saramago has stated in interviews that, contrary to popular opinion, he was not afraid to write because of the oppressive governmental environment. Rather, he felt he had nothing worthwhile to say at that time in his life.
Life as a Writer
Saramago soon traded in mechanical jobs to serve as the editor of a small Lisbon newspaper, Diario de Noticias, until the Portuguese government changed hands again in 1974. In 1969 he became a member of the then-illegal Portuguese Communist party, an affiliation he would maintain throughout his life. Losing the editorial position as a result of the rampant political intrigue of the time, Saramago then turned to translating French manuscripts into Portuguese to support himself, remaining at this task from 1975 to 1980. It was not long before the literature he was translating began to stoke his own creative fires, and he finally returned to novel-writing as an outlet for his self-expression.
Saramago's trademark fictional style mixes elements of magical realism—defined by Library Journal contributor Nancy Pearl as "any narrative that demonstrates the power of imagination to transform reality through the art of storytelling"—with sharp social observations. Known for being a fluent and persuasive author, Saramago has been praised for his ability to move from description to philosophizing to sharing popular wisdom. As Richard A. Preto-Rodas explained in World Literature Today regarding Saramago's extraordinary style, "Gone are the usual distinctions involving narrative, description, and dialogue. . . . The result . . . is unsettling as the reader opens to pages filled with lines of unbroken print. One may even lose one's way in the absence of capital letters, punctuation marks, and paragraph indentations."
In 1977 Saramago published what he considers his first novel, Manual of Painting and Calligraphy. This was followed by two more books in quick succession: 1978's Objecto quase (Quasi-Objects) and 1980's Levantado do chão (Raised from the Ground). Levantado do chão was well received by both press and public, and earned its author some degree of recognition within Portugal's literary scene. His 1982 novel Memorial do convento—translated into English in 1987 as Baltasar and Blimunda—was the first of Saramago's works translated and distributed widely enough to catch the attention of an international audience. A history of eighteenth century Portugal that weaves elements of social and political history into an account of King John V's construction of the Mafra Convent, the novel was praised for its mix of fact and fantasy. So well loved was it, in fact, that Memorial do convento it was eventually adapted as an opera and performed in 1990 at La Scala in Milan.
Saramago's next novel, 1984's O ano da morte de Ricardo Reis (The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis), is considered by many critics to be his tour de force. The novel revolves around the famous Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, and brings to life, through Saramago's characteristic mix of fact, fantasy, and folklore, Portuguese society during the 1930s, as the tide of fascism and socialism were sweeping through a Europe still unsettled by the Great War. In 1986 he released A jangada de pedra (The Stone Raft), a fantasy-allegory that finds Spain and Portugal cut off from the rest of Europe after a giant fault line appears in the Pyrenees. That same year the novelist met Spanish journalist Pilar del Rio, and the two wed in 1988. Saramago ended the 1980s with publication of his 1989 novel História do cêreco de Lisboa (The History of the Siege of Lisbon), a tale that twines the threads of a medieval love story with a modern one.
Saramago's next project, 1991's O evangelho segundo Jesus Cristo (The Gospel according to Jesus Christ), caused an uproar throughout Catholic Portugal, and was condemned by the Church for its depiction of a Jesus with human failings and desires. Portugal's conservative government contested the novel's entry into the running for a literary prize in 1992, and the slight prompted Saramago and his wife to leave Lisbon behind and settle in the Canary Islands. His next novel, Ensaio sobre a cegueira (Blindness), tells of an inexplicable and inescapable "white blindness" that sweeps through a seemingly orderly society, quickly dissolving it into a state of primitive chaos. Described by Andrew Miller in the New York Times Book Review as presenting "a clear-eyed and compassionate acknowledgment of things as they are, a quality that can only honestly be termed wisdom," Blindness catapulted Saramago's talents squarely in front of the public eye, paving the way for the accolades that were to come.
In 1997 Saramago published Todos os nomes (All the Names), a novel described by Pearl in Library Journal as "in turns claustrophobic, playful, farcical, and suspenseful," and conveying "the human need for connection in a lonely world." He won the Nobel Prize for Literature the following year in 1998, at the age of 75, following which the world—and particularly the United States—began to sit up and take notice of his unique world view. As quoted on their Website, the Nobel Prize committee cited Saramago's ability to enable readers "to apprehend an illusory reality" with "parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony" as the reason for his accomplishment.
The next few years brought more publications—a small parable titled Conto da ilha descohecia (The Tale of the Unknown Island) in 1999, the travelogue Journey to Portugal in 2000, his 2002 novel La Caverna (The Cave), and his 2004 novel The Double. The last book received some mixed reactions from critics. Some, like Philip Graham in New Leader, called The Double "a deft reworking of a timeless theme and a virtuoso exercise in voice—from a writer who seems to produce masterpiece after masterpiece like clockwork." Others, like Jeff Giles in Newsweek, reported that the novel reads like "a short story that got too big for its binding." Despite his advanced age, Saramago has continued cultivate and maintain his public through interviews and radio broadcasts.
A Writer's Task
Saramago and his family split their time between their home on the Canary island of Lanzarote and a flat in Lisbon. His novels have been translated into over 30 different languages, and New York Times contributor Alan Riding identified Saramago's "unwavering concern for individual fate" as the quality that "gives his fiction its distinctive voice and independent character." On the basis of his fiction alone, Saramago has been lauded as among the most influential contemporary novelists working in Europe.
Since settling in Lanzarote, Saramago has compiled a set of annual journals titled Notebooks from Lanzarote. In World Literature Today Preto–Rodas explained that these entries reveal Saramago to be "a man who is obviously very much at peace with himself and devoted to his wife in their new home 'built entirely of books, from top to bottom' in a setting of volcanic hills, flowers, and the sea. "
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SARAMAGO, José. Portuguese, b. 1922. Genres: Novels, Poetry, Plays/ Screenplays. Career: Writer. Recipient: Nobel Prize for Literature, 1998. Publications: NOVELS IN ENGLISH TRANSLATION: Memorial do convento (title means: Memoirs of the Convent), 1982, trans. by G. Pontiero as Baltasar and Blimunda, 1987; O ano da morte de Ricardo Reis, 1984, trans. by Pontiero as The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, 1991; A jangada de pedra, 1986, trans. by Pontiero as The Stone Raft, 1994; O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo, 1991, trans. by Pontiero as The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, 1993; Blindness, 1998; The Cave, 2002. OTHER: Journey to Portugal, 2000. OTHER NOVELS: Manual de pintura e caligrafia (title means: Manual of Painting and Calligraphy), 1976; Levantado do chao (title means: Raised from the Ground), 1980; Historia do Cerco de Lisboa (title means: The History of the Siege of Lisbon), 1989. POETRY: Os poemas possiveis, 1966; Provavelmente Alegria, 1970, rev. ed., 1985; O an de 1993, 1975. PLAYS: A noite, 1979; Que farei com este livro?, 1980; A Segunda vida de Francissco de Assis, 1987; In nomine Dei, 1993. OTHER: Deste mundo e do outro, 1971; A bagagem do viajante, 1973; O embargo, 1973; Os opinioes que o D.L. teve, 1974; Os apontamentos, 1976; Objecto quase, 1978; Viagem a Portugal, 1981. Address: R. Dos Ferreiros a Estrela 32-1, 1200 Lisbon, Portugal.