Homage to José Saramago

Lynne Booker for Algarve Goodlife

 

José Saramago - Nobel Laureate

(born 16 November 1922 in Azinhaga, Portugal; died 18 June 2010 in Tias, on the Canary island of Lanzarote, Spain)

 

There have been two Nobel prizewinners of Portuguese nationality: first António Caetano de Abreu Freire Egas Moniz in 1949 won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and second José de Sousa Saramago in 1998 won the Nobel Prize in Literature. The citation awarding Saramago´s prize explains that this author with parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony continually enables us once again to apprehend an elusory reality. Saramago wrote and published nearly thirty books during his long life, the most famous of them Journey to Portugal (1981), Baltasar and Blimunda (1982), The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1986), The Stone Raft (1986) and The Gospel according to Jesus Christ (1991).

 

In his will, Alfred Nobel stated that the Nobel Prizes be awarded to those who during the preceding year have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind. Such an honour reflects not only on the recipient but also brings prestige to his country, but Portugal´s attitude towards Saramago is ambivalent. On the one hand, the country is proud of its illustrious prize-winning son and since the revolution of 1974, Saramago is the only Portuguese recipient of the Grande-Colar da Ordem de Sant´Iago de Espada (on 26 January 1999). This honour is normally reserved for foreign heads of state and among the twenty other holders are King Juan Carlos of Spain and Queen Elizabeth of England.

 

On the other hand, many Portuguese were unhappy with his un-Christian and pro-communist writing. The current President of Portugal, Aníbal Cavaco Silva, was Prime Minister of Portugal in 1992 and it was in that year that the government of Portugal ordered that Saramago´s book, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, be withdrawn from the shortlist for the European Literary Prize. The reason given was that the book was religiously offensive. Following this public dissociation from his work, Saramago complained of government censorship and chose to live outside Portugal, and from that moment lived in the Spanish Canary Islands. After his death, L´osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper labelled Saramago an anti-religious ideologue and populist extremist. I suspect that Saramago himself would have been pleased with these descriptions.

 

Notably absent from the 20,000 people who attended Saramago´s funeral in Lisbon was Portugal´s President who chose to remain on holiday in the Azores. He explained the reason for his non-attendance in this way: " he had never had the privilege of knowing” Saramago. Although President Cavaco Silva did not attend Saramago´s funeral, he decreed two days of national mourning and the flag of Portugal flew at half mast throughout the country.

 

Saramago´s views were controversial; he was a card carrying member of the Communist Party and he was a declared atheist in a predominantly Catholic country. His federalist views on Iberian unity have also lost him many supporters; he maintained that Portugal would do better socially and economically as a federal state of Spain and many Portuguese see these ideas as a betrayal of his patrimony. He has also been described as anti-semitic, which he denied, following remarks about the behaviour of the Israeli Army in Palestine, and he and other literary figures condemned a long term military economic and geographic practice whose political aim is nothing less than the liquidation of the Palestinian nation. He stood for election to the European Parliament, although he was always a strong critic of the EU.

 

In the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, philosophers began to assert that reason is the sole source for legitimacy and authority. At the core of the new thinking was the belief that progression in society and civilisation depends on a strong belief in rationality and science and on the critical questioning of traditional institutions, customs and morals. Such thinking presupposes the acceptance of different viewpoints, but even nowadays, there are examples of groupthink in society. Anyone expressing ideas different from the ´accepted ´point of view of the group is in danger of censorship and marginalisation. Saramago was a man of the Age of Enlightenment at a time of groupthink. He was morally courageous in that he stated his beliefs and took responsibility for his statements, in spite of the threat of marginalisation.

 

Following the withdrawal of support for his book, his ´self-imposed exile´ to Spain might better be described as not serving that in which he did not believe in the words of James Joyce. Saramago loved Portugal and his Portuguese heritage: I like this country. I have never thought this country insignificant even compared with others. It is my country, not for the simple reason that I was born here. It´s much simpler than that. Everything I am and was, my very understanding of the world, all that I did, for good or ill, positive or negative, worthwhile or mediocre was here. Although he was plainly cocking a snook at those in power, leaving to live in Spain was a painful wrench for him.

 

Saramago was born into a family of landless peasants in Azinhaga, a small village in the province of the Ribatejo and his parents were José de Sousa and Maria de Piedade. Saramago was the nickname of his father's family and is the name of a wild herbaceous plant (the wild radish). It was accidentally incorporated into his name when his birth was registered. Although he was a good student, his parents could not afford to keep him at grammar school and so he attended a technical school after which he worked as a mechanic for two years, then as a journalist. In his spare time, Saramago spent a good deal of time studying in a public library in Lisbon. During the period leading up to the Carnation Revolution, he was assistant editor of the Lisbon newspaper Diário de Nóticias. After he was sacked in the aftermath of the Communist inspired politico-military coup of 25 November 1975, he decided to devote himself full time to writing.

 

He had begun writing in the 1940s and published his first novel, The Land of Sin in 1947. In the late 1950s he worked at the publishing company, Estúdios Cor, where he met some of the most important Portuguese writers. In his free time Saramago continued working on translations, writing literary criticism and he started again to produce his own works. Possible Poems in 1966 marked Saramago´s return to the world of literature after a 19 year absence. In fact Saramago did not achieve widespread recognition until Baltasar and Blimunda (1982) won the Portuguese PEN Club award.

 

Saramago's novels often deal with fantastic scenarios, such as that in his 1986 novel The Stone Raft in which the Iberian Peninsula broke off from the rest of Europe and drifted around the Atlantic Ocean. In his 1995 novel Blindness an entire unnamed country was stricken with a mysterious plague of white blindness. In his 1984 novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (which won the PEN Award and The Independent Foreign Fiction Award) Fernando Pessoa´s heteronym survived for a year after the poet himself died. Death with Interruptions in 2005 (also translated as Death of Intervals) was concerned with a country in which nobody died over the course of seven months and the book related how the country reacted to the spiritual and political implications of this change.

 

Using such imaginative themes, Saramago addresses the most serious of subject matters with empathy for the human condition and for the isolation of contemporary urban life. His characters struggle with their need to form relationships with one another and to bond as a community; and he deals with their need for individuality, and with their need to find meaning and dignity outside of political and economic structures. Saramago's writing style often features long sentences, at times more than a page long. He uses full stops sparingly, and instead has a loose flow of clauses separated by commas. Some of his paragraphs extend for pages, and sometimes he does not use quotation marks for dialogue. Characters are referred to by some unique characteristic, which stresses the recurring theme of identity in his work.

 

Saramago married Ilda Reis in 1944 and their daughter Violante was born in 1947. Ilda became a talented engraver, and much of her work is now kept in the Biblioteca Nacional, and Violante, a leftist deputy and agitator was later a target for the secret police. They divorced in 1970 and Saramago then had a relationship until 1986 with the Portuguese writer Isabel da Nóbrega. Saramago met the Spanish journalist Pilar del Rio in 1986 and they married in 1988. They lived in Tias, the largest resort on Lanzarote, and Tias is now twinned with Saramago´s birthplace Azinhaga.

 

Some ten years ago the hypothesis behind an economic report in a Portuguese newspaper was that Portugal is not a marginal country in Europe. Taking account of the geographic spread of Portugal, from Bragança to Madeira and to the Azores, it is possible to maintain that metropolitan Portugal is near the centre of Europe, with the enormous resources of the sea within its ambit. This is an unusual view in the economic sphere. The writer of this economic report and José Saramago himself are important as lateral thinkers, and those who wish to censor such different ideas belong to ´the indomitable spirit of mediocrity´  as E M Forster characterised it in his masterly Howard´s End.

 

The civilised world can and should accommodate and honour those individuals with ideas which reflect the spirit of the Age of Enlightenment, the individuals who are able to think critically and who are strong enough to act upon their principles, and José Saramago was an outstanding example of his kind. The world is a poorer place without him.

 

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