Nobel laureate Saramago dead
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- Published 19.06.10
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June 18: José Saramago, the Portuguese writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998 with novels that combine surrealist experimentation and a kind of sardonic peasant pragmatism, died at his home in Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, his publisher said today. He was 87.
The publisher, Zeferino Coelho, told the Portuguese newspaper Publico that Saramago’s health had been deteriorating after a recent illness, but gave no other details, according to The Associated Press.
Saramago, a tall, commandingly austere man with a dry, schoolmasterly manner, gained international acclaim for novels like Baltasar and Blimunda and Blindness (A film adaptation of Blindness by the Brazilian director Fernando Mireilles was released in 2008).
Saramago was the first Portuguese-language writer to win the Nobel Prize, and more than two million copies of his books have been sold, Coelho said.
Saramago was known almost as much for his unfaltering communism as for his fiction. In later years, Saramago used his status as a Nobel laureate to deliver lectures at international congresses around the world, accompanied by his wife, the Spanish journalist Pilar del Rio. He described globalisation as the new totalitarianism and lamented contemporary democracy’s failure to stem the increasing powers of multinational corporations.
As a professional novelist, Saramago was a late bloomer (A first novel, published when he was 23, was followed by 30 years of silence). He became a full-time writer only in his late 50s, after working variously as a garage mechanic, a Welfare Agency bureaucrat, a printing production manager, a proofreader, a translator and a newspaper columnist.
In 1975, a counter-coup overthrew Portugal’s communist-led revolution of the previous year, and Saramago was fired as deputy editor of the Lisbon newspaper Diário de Noticias. Overnight, along with other prominent Leftists, he became virtually unemployable. “It was the best luck of my life,” he said in a 2007 interview. “It drove me to become a writer.”
His first major success was the rollicking love story Baltasar and Blimunda. Set in 18th-century Portugal, the novel portrays the misadventures of a trio of eccentrics threatened by the Inquisition: a heretic priest who constructs a flying machine and the two lovers who help him — a one-handed ex-soldier and a sorceress’s daughter who has X-ray vision.
The novel, published in an English translation in 1987, won Saramago a passionate international following. The critic Irving Howe, praising its union of “harsh realism” and “lyric fantasy”, described its author as “a voice of European scepticism, a connoisseur of ironies”.
“I think I hear in his prose echoes of Enlightenment sensibility, caustic and shrewd,” Howe wrote.
Asked in 2008 to assess Saramago’s achievement, the critic James Wood wrote: “Jose Saramago was both an avant-gardist and a traditionalist. His long blocks of unbroken prose, lacking conventional markers like paragraph breaks and quotation marks, could look forbidding and modernist; but his frequent habit of handing over the narration in his novels to a kind of ‘village chorus’ and what seem like peasant simplicities, allowed Saramago great flexibility.”
On the one hand, Wood wrote, it allowed the writer to “revel in sheer storytelling” while on the other, to “undermine, ironically, the very ‘truths’ and simplicities his apparently unsophisticated narrators traded in”.
Paradox was Saramago’s stock in trade. A militant atheist who maintained that human history would have been a lot more peaceful if it weren’t for religion, his novels are nonetheless preoccupied with the question of God.
His novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, in which Jesus on the cross apologises to mankind for God’s sins, was deemed blasphemous by some believers and deeply religious by others. When the Portuguese government, under pressure from the Catholic Church, blocked its entry for a European Literary Prize in 1992, Saramago chose to go into exile in the Canary Islands, a Spanish possession.
Saramago’s hard-scrabble origins did not seem to predestine him for a life of letters. Born in 1922 in the village of Azinhaga, 60 miles northeast of Lisbon, Saramago was largely raised by his maternal grandparents, while his parents sought work in the big city.
In his Nobel acceptance speech, Saramago spoke admiringly of these grandparents, illiterate peasants who, in the winter, slept in the same bed as their piglets, yet who imparted to him a taste for fantasy and folklore, combined with a respect for nature.
One of Saramago’s last books — and one of his most touching — was a childhood memoir titled Small Memories. In it, he recounts the trauma of being transplanted from his grandparents’ rural shack to Lisbon, where his father had joined the police force. Several months later, his older brother Francisco, his only sibling, died of pneumonia.
Saramago loved to tell a story of how he came by his surname. His real family name was de Sousa. But when the 7-year-old boy showed up for his first day of school and presented his birth certificate, it was discovered that the clerk in his home village had registered him as José Saramago. “Saramago”, which means “wild radish”, a green that country people were obliged to eat in hard times, was the insulting nickname by which the novelist’s father was known.
“My father wasn’t very happy, but if that was his son’s official name, well, then he too had to take it,” he recounted in the 2007 interview. The family remained so poor, Saramago recalled in his memoirs, that every spring his mother pawned their blankets, hoping that she might be able to redeem them by the following winter.
Despite being a good student, Saramago was obliged by his family’s financial straits to drop out of grammar school at 12 and switch to a vocational school, where he was trained as a car mechanic.
The most oppressive influence on Saramago, however, was one he rarely wrote about: the fascist regime that ruled Portugal from 1926 to 1974.
The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, regarded as his masterpiece, is his only novel to deal directly with the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar.
Set in 1936 in a Europe darkened by the ascendancy of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and Salazar, the book tells the story of a doctor and poet living in Brazil who returns to fascist Lisbon when he hears of the death of his friend Fernando Pessoa, Portugal’s great modernist poet.
What gives the book its dreamlike blend of historical reality and illusion is the fact that the title character’s name was actually one of the aliases Fernando Pessoa used to publish much of his verse. The novel, consisting of increasingly macabre encounters between the ghost of Pessoa and his fictional alter ego Reis, is a delicate meditation on identity and nothingness, poetry and power.
In his later years, Saramago’s fiction became more starkly allegorical. In novels like Blindness, in which an entire city is struck by a plague of sightlessness that reduces most of its citizens to barbarism, readers have found a powerful parable about the fragility of human civilization.
“Saramago for the last 25 years stood his own with any novelist of the Western world,” the critic Harold Bloom said in 2008. “He was the equal of Philip Roth, Günther Grass, Thomas Pynchon, and Don DeLillo. His genius was remarkably versatile — he was at once a great comic and a writer of shocking earnestness and grim poignancy. It is hard to believe he will not survive.”