José; Saramago, only Portuguese-language novelist to win Nobel Prize, dies at 87

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 19, 2010; B05

José Saramago, 87, a Portuguese writer who won the Nobel Prize for his fable-like novels depicting ordinary people confronting the complexities of life under powerful authorities or collapsing social systems, died June 18 at his home in Lanzarote, Spain, in the Canary Islands. He had multiple organ failure.

Mr. Saramago, an unabashed Communist, began his working life as a car mechanic and became a serious novelist only in his mid-50s, when he began writing a series of books that challenged Portugal's authoritarian past.

He imagined worlds in which the residents of a city had become blind ("Blindness," 1995) or in which the Iberian peninsula had broken off and floated away from the mainland of Europe ("The Stone Raft," 1986). In "The Gospel According to Jesus Christ" (1991), he portrayed an all-too mortal Jesus having sex with Mary Magdalene, prompting charges of blasphemy from the Catholic Church and censure from the Portuguese government.

Yet Mr. Saramago's novels of ideas connected with critics and readers, and he was considered one of the world's foremost novelists long before he won the Nobel for literature in 1998. He remains the only Portuguese-language writer to receive the honor.

While celebrated as a writer, Mr. Saramago drew criticism for his caustic political statements. He once condemned Israel's occupation of the West Bank as "a crime we put on the same plane as what happened at Auschwitz, at Buchenwald."

Critic Harold Bloom denounced his views as those of "a Portuguese Stalinist," yet still considered Mr. Saramago the second-best writer in the world, after Philip Roth.

Mr. Saramago, who was often likened to Gabriel Garcia Márquez and other South American magical realists, wrote in a dense, original style that freely blended history, fact and fantasy. Some readers found his prose difficult and forbidding, with sentences sometimes stretching on for more than a page a time. His punctuation was sparse and eccentric, and one of his most memorable novels, "Blindness," contained not a single proper name.

Mr. Saramago offered this advice to readers: "I tell them to read my books out loud, and then they'll pick up the rhythm, because this is 'written orality.' It is the written version of the way people tell stories to each other."

His first novel to gain wide recognition was 1982's "Memorial do Convento" (published in English as "Baltasar and Blimunda"), in which an 18th-century couple seek to escape the Inquisition in a flying machine devised by a priest. Reviewing the English translation of the book in the New York Times in 1987, critic Irving Howe called Mr. Saramago "a voice of European skepticism, a connoisseur of ironies."

Mr. Saramago's favorite among the more than a dozen novels he wrote was "The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis" (1984), which explored Portuguese culture through the eyes of a doctor who returned to Lisbon after living in Brazil. The character walked the streets reciting poetry, falling in love and conversing with the ghost of Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. The satirical novel, set in 1936, was considered such an exact evocation of its time and place that critics compared it favorably with James Joyce's depictions of Dublin and Franz Kafka's of Prague.

In "The History of the Siege of Lisbon" (1989), Mr. Saramago mischievously had a proofreader change the understanding of Portuguese history by inserting the word "not" at a crucial point in a manuscript. "Blindness" -- the basis for a 2008 film starring Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo -- portrayed a city collapsing into anarchy as every resident except one lost his sight.

Mr. Saramago's most controversial novel was "The Gospel According to Jesus Christ," in which he portrayed Jesus as an ill-behaved adolescent with sexual longings. God was shown as a cynical manipulator, alternately ignoring the world and pulling its strings.

The Catholic Church took umbrage at the book, prompting the Portuguese government to withdraw Mr. Saramago from consideration for a prestigious literary prize. In protest, Mr. Saramago accused the government of censorship and moved to the Canary Islands, a Spanish territory off the coast of Africa. (He continued to keep an apartment in Lisbon, however.)

When Mr. Saramago received his Nobel in 1998, the Vatican called it "yet another ideologically slanted award."

"Why does the Vatican get involved in these things?" Mr. Saramago responded. "Why doesn't it keep itself busy with prayers? Why doesn't it instead open its cupboards and reveal the skeletons it has inside?"

José de Sousa Saramago was born Nov. 16, 1922, into a family of farm laborers in the Portuguese village of Azinhaga. His father's last name was de Sousa, but his nickname of "Saramago" -- a wild plant used for food by peasants -- was mistakenly entered on his son's birth certificate.

Mr. Saramago was 2 when his family moved to Lisbon, but the influence of his grandfather, an illiterate, storytelling swineherd, remained strong.

After trade school, Mr. Saramago became a car mechanic and a draftsman for a metal company. He read widely and published a novel in 1947 that he later disclaimed. He published poetry and journalism in the 1960s and worked as a newspaper editor until a change in Portugal's political leadership forced him from his job in 1975 and led him back to fiction.

"It was about time to find out what I was worth as a writer," he wrote in an autobiographical essay on the Nobel Web site.

Mr. Saramago's marriage to Ilda Reis ended in divorce. Survivors include his second wife, Pilar del Río, whom he married in 1988; and a daughter from his first marriage.

Explaining the mystery of writing, he said in 1999: "I don't believe in inspiration. I don't even know what that is. . . . The first condition for writing is sitting -- then writing."

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