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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 8 March 2021

José Saramago, author who wove fantastic yarns

Famed for his long, lawless sentences, devoid of punctuation or paragraphs, he was the first Portuguese writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
José Saramago, right, meets the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the West Bank city of Ramallah in 2002. The Palestinian Authority's ambassador in Paris, Leila Shahid, is also seen.
José Saramago, right, meets the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the West Bank city of Ramallah in 2002. The Palestinian Authority's ambassador in Paris, Leila Shahid, is also seen.

Famed for his long, lawless sentences, devoid of punctuation or paragraphs, his baroque, ornate prose, his sly jocularity weaving fantasy with history, his unerring atheism and unwavering devotion to communism, José Saramago was the first Portuguese writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Born of peasant stock in the village of Azinhaga, north-east of Lisbon, he was the second son of José de Sousa. Saramago, a wild radish that nourished the peasants of Portugal, was his father's nickname, which became inexplicably appended to José's birth certificate. When the family realised the jape (José was seven), his father also adopted the surname for himself.

After only two years of conventional education, young José was sent to a trade school to learn to be a locksmith and mechanic. Fortunately it was a humanistic course, including Spanish and French. Two years later, in the workshop by day, he would retreat to the public library at night. After a time in an insurance office, he entered the literary world as a publisher's reader and Spanish translator.

He wrote his first novel, Terra do Pecado (Land of Sin), in 1947 but it was never translated. Some collections of poetry followed. He joined the Communist Party and, after the Carnation Revolution of April 1974, he was made deputy director of the newspaper Diário de Notícias and dismissed 24 pluralist journalists. The next year, when the social democrats came to power, it was Saramago's turn to be fired.

He went back to fiction and produced A Manual of Painting and Calligraphy (1977). He reached an international readership with Baltasar and Blimunda (1982), the fantastic tale of a one-legged veteran of the Peninsula wars and his clairvoyant lover toiling on the construction of the majestic convent of Mafra and their attempt to flee in a flying machine with the priest who had built it. The Year of The Death of Ricardo Reis (1986), a portrayal of 1930s Portugal under Salazar, proved a national success. The Stone Raft (1986) followed - here the Pyrenees splits from the rest of Europe and whimsically sets off into the Atlantic, floating "south to help balance the world, as compensation for [Europe's] former and its present colonial abuses". Next came The History of the Siege of Lisbon (1989), which deals with the consequences of a proofreader's insertion of "not" into an account of the fall of Muslim Lisbon in 1147. His O Evangelho segundo Jesus Cristo (The Gospel According to Jesus Christ) in 1991 is a twisted retelling of the New Testament, with a fallible Christ, the eldest son of Joseph and the protégé of a shepherd who turns out to be Satan. To the Vatican's condemnation of his atheism and anti-clericism, he responded, "to be an atheist like me requires a high degree of religiosity". His stance led to the government blocking his nomination for a European literary prize and Saramago decided to leave Portugal for self-imposed exile on Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. From here he wrote the five-volume Lanzarote Diaries and it was here he died.

One of his best known works, Blindness (1995), with shades of Golding's Lord of the Flies, is a harrowing account of a society suddenly sightless. It was thought that this sealed his 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature. It was made into a film in 2007 by Fernando Meirelles. Death with Interruptions (2005) was an ingenious Beckett-like conceit where in a nameless country on New Year's Eve death declares a truce and for seven months no one dies. Euphoria soon gives way to despair, as subjects on the brink of death remain on the brink and the prime minister says to the king: "If we don't start dying, we have no future."

In 2008, fascinated by "the infinite page of the internet" he started his own blog, railing against George W Bush, Israel's treatment of Palestine and aspects of the literary world. For his last novel, Cain (2009), he took on the Old Testament, through the eyes of Abel. Born on November 16, 1922, he married Ilda Reis in 1944. They divorced in 1970. In 1988 he married the journalist, Pilar de Río, who became his Spanish translator. She and his daughter from his first marriage survive him. He died on June 18, aged 87.

* The National

Published: June 26, 2010 04:00 AM

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