Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 911
José Saramago (sah-rah-MAH-goh) is Portugal’s best-known and most celebrated writer. He was born to a family of poor farmworkers in the central Portuguese village of Azinhaga. When Saramago was two years old, his family moved to the Portuguese capital of Lisbon. After graduating from technical school in Lisbon, Saramago took...
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José Saramago (sah-rah-MAH-goh) is Portugal’s best-known and most celebrated writer. He was born to a family of poor farmworkers in the central Portuguese village of Azinhaga. When Saramago was two years old, his family moved to the Portuguese capital of Lisbon. After graduating from technical school in Lisbon, Saramago took a job in an automobile repair shop, where he worked for two years before moving on to a job with the Portuguese Social Welfare Service. He married his first wife, Ilda Reis, in 1944, and their only child was born three years later. During this time, Saramago would regularly spend his after-work hours in the public library, broadening his literary education. He also wrote his first novel, Terra do pecado (land of sin), publishing it in 1947 at the age of twenty-five. Saramago was disappointed with this work and, after finishing an unpublished novel and working on another one, he gave up writing for two decades.
During his silent period, Saramago took a job with a publisher in Lisbon, and this helped him maintain contact with the literary scene. He translated the works of a number of major writers from French to Portuguese. He finally returned to publishing his own writing in 1966 with a book of poetry, Os poemas possíveis (possible poems). He followed this book with his 1970 collection of poems, Provàvelmente alegria (probably joy), and, in 1975, the long poem O ano de 1993 (the year 1993).
In 1969 Saramago joined the Portuguese Communist Party. The decade of the 1970’s was a time of change for Portugal and for Saramago. In 1970 António O. Salazar, who had come to power in Portugal in the 1930’s, died. The dictatorship continued under Prime Minister Marcelo Caetano, who had held control since Salazar suffered a stroke two years earlier. In that same year, Saramago and Reis divorced. Saramago left his publishing job in 1971 and turned to newspaper work. From 1971 to 1973, he worked as an editor at the newspaper Diário de Lisboa and then became deputy director of the Diário de Nóticias until 1975. Most of his nonfiction works during this period are collections of his newspaper writing.
In 1974 a military revolt overthrew the Portuguese dictatorship. After a brief period of radical leftism, the Portuguese government began a time of moderate reaction against the left. In this last phase, Saramago, as a Communist, lost his newspaper job. Unemployed, he turned back to writing long fiction. The first novel of this second period, Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, was a meditation on the conflict between artistic and materialistic values. His next work, Levantado do chão (raised from the ground), resulted from several weeks of living in the Portuguese countryside.
Saramago first achieved international renown with Baltasar and Blimunda, the translation of his 1982 novel Memorial do convento. This was a strange historical novel, which blended the story of the building of a convent during the time of the Inquisition with an account of two lovers trying to escape the Inquisition in a flying machine. The use of impossible situations earned Saramago a reputation as a practitioner of Magical Realism. He continued this kind of fiction in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, which involved conversations between Ricardo Reis, newly returned from Brazil to Lisbon in 1936, with the ghost of the Portuguese poet who had created the character Ricardo Reis.
The Stone Raft imagined Portugal breaking off from the rest of Europe and floating away. The History of the Siege of Lisbon is usually regarded as Saramago’s most comic work. In this novel, a proofreader tries to change history by adding a word to a text. Controversy followed the publication of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. The portrayal of Jesus as a troubled adolescent who becomes a Communist was condemned by the Catholic Church and by the Portuguese government.
Saramago’s 1995 book Blindness may be his best-known novel. In this tale, a strange ailment that leaves people seeing only a blank whiteness sweeps through a population, leaving everyone blind. According to Saramago, he began this work when he asked himself what would happen if everyone went blind, only to realize that everyone was already blind, as people were unable to see one another.
After the publication of two more novels, Saramago was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998. He joked that he would accept the prize in the name of all Portuguese-speaking people but that he would keep the prize money.
The Cave draws on the metaphor of the cave in Plato’s Republic, in which a cave stands for a state of ignorance. The central figure, a potter, finds that there is no longer a market for his goods, and he prepares to retire to The Center, a combination apartment complex and mall. However, he discovers a cave deep in the recesses of The Center that draws attention to the artificiality and regimentation of life in this ultramodern residence.
Saramago married Spanish writer Pilar del Rio in 1988. After the Portuguese government objected to The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, the couple moved to the Canary Islands where he would live until his death in 2010. The political views of the outspoken author continued to provoke controversy. In addition to advocating Communism, he favored the union of Portugal and Spain. Early in 2002, during a visit with other writers to Israel, he compared the Israeli occupation of the West Bank to Nazi death camps during World War II, profoundly offending many of his colleagues.