José Saramago

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José Saramago Long Fiction Analysis

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José Saramago’s works are often fantastic and surreal. His readers, and his characters, are forced to confront the basis for the existence of humanity; that is, what it is to be human in ever-changing modern civilizations. His characters struggle to find meaning at precisely the moment of greatest change in their respective social settings. His protagonists must not only justify their interpersonal relationships but also renew and redevelop their individuality, often outside previously understood religious, economic, and political structures. Saramago’s use of fantasy settings and situations form, many have argued, a new style of writing that combines the regional Magical Realism (the use of fantastic deeds and settings as commonplace) of Latin America with the global outlook of Europe.

Saramago’s style, especially in the novels published after 1986, forms a uniquely individual experiment in writing. His novels often display lengthy sentences—lengthy even for Hispanic literature, which is known for its verbosity. His baroque descriptions of the most minor settings and events often continue for pages and pages. He does not use colons, semicolons, hyphens, or quotation marks in his writing, a style that can confuse the reader as he or she attempts to determine who is speaking (including the narrator). Quotations are difficult to distinguish from the narrative; in marking a quotation, Saramago uses a limited number of commas and capitalizes the first word of a new speaker. Although this style can be frustrating, it forces the reader to pay close attention to who is speaking at any given moment. Oftentimes, Saramago eliminates the use of proper nouns and instead refers to characters with vague descriptive terms, such as “the doctor’s wife.” This inexactness of terminology reflects one of the author’s major themes: the recurring mystery of human impermanence.

The Stone Raft

The Stone Raft addresses Portugal’s national identity and its political, cultural, and social destiny. In an almost magical turn of events, a postcolonial Iberian society must confront its open-ended future. The Stone Raft is an ethnographic tale that explores modern strategies for survival within a previously isolated population. It is not by coincidence that the work was published the same year that Portugal joined the European Union. Portugal had been Europe’s last surviving colonial empire, a nation that had only recently begun its voyage of self-acceptance as one of Europe’s most enterprising and progressive member-nations.

Like all of Saramago’s fictional works, the novel evolves like a present-day fable. The story begins with an event that marks the end of a fundamental concept of accepted reality. In this case, the entire Iberian Peninsula breaks from the European continent and starts drifting in the Atlantic, first toward the Azores and then toward some unknown destination (and destiny) between Europe and the United States. The story follows five characters who represent the entire population of the strange “stone raft.”

Unlike many of his later works, Saramago chooses to use specific names for his characters in The Stone Raft. Perhaps representative of the evolution of the populace, one of the characters, a dog, has a name that changes throughout the Atlantic adventure. The dog starts as Pilot, later becomes Faithful, and ultimately is named Constant. The newly formed group of pilgrims, united by their search for answers, roam seemingly without purpose from Lisbon to Galicia. As with other Saramago novels, the focus of The Stone Raft is on how humans survive in unknown circumstances.

The pilgrims are ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Saramago does not conduct a useless search for cause and blame; instead, he focuses on what occurs with human renewal and adaptation: love and companionship, the ability to find...

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love in the strangest of times, and the timeless determination of humans in situations that seem impossible. Saramago shows his readers that everyone must eventually learn to start anew. This collective renewal is symbolized in the novel by the pregnancies of almost all of the women on the floating landmass.

Drifting west at eighteen kilometers per day, the populace slowly begins to accept that the impossible has occurred and that they must prepare for a future that none could have imagined. The society abruptly faces new geopolitical realities, as it soon becomes obvious that the floating landmass will probably hit the Azores. The populations of Lisbon, Coimbra, Oporto, and other coastal cities are abandoned for inland areas. The collision with the Azores is avoided, however, and the floating landmass, the entire Iberian Peninsula, comes to rest somewhere in the South Atlantic between the United States and South America. Furthermore, it soon becomes clear that the United States and Canada are more interested in the economic and political effects of the newly located Iberian Peninsula than in what the consequences will be for the new nation and its people.

Saramago’s approach to narration in this work is somewhat complicated, but effective. The reader is presented with single speaking characters and with dual narrators. One narrator speaks in an omnipresent voice, as if to explain the meanderings of the protagonists and the drifting landmass. Another, perhaps the writer himself, speaks directly to the reader, as if to justify the style of the work itself. The characters question themselves and the strange series of events, while the narrators question the values of the changes and of the work itself. In spite of the doubt, the “semimagical” tale proceeds forward into an unknown future. As the end of the work states, the journey continues.

The Gospel According to Jesus Christ

In this controversial novel, Saramago brings the reader into a time and space that is located within the Christian world, but not a part of a commonly recognized Christianity. The novel explores themes found in the New Testament, such as pain, suffering, guilt, and the struggle for justice and forgiveness, but does so in a manner that goes far beyond the dogma associated with the Gospels of Jesus Christ. The tone of the work is light, even humorous at times. As with other Saramago novels, Magical Realism is employed throughout the work. The sparse descriptions of the events and characters from the Bible are replaced with detailed and fantastical portrayals. For example, in place of the standard concept of an angel as an enlightened and magical entity, the reader finds humanlike figures acting out the miraculous deeds assigned to them. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is informed of her pregnancy in a magical manner, but the angel appears in the form of a common beggar.

The novel describes the life of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. In an interesting reinterpretation of biblical accounts, Saramago describes a relationship between Joseph and Jesus that is much closer than that between Mary and Joseph. After the birth of his son, Joseph finds out about the plan by King Herod to kill every child over the age of two years in Bethlehem. Joseph hides his son Jesus in a remote part of a cave, thereby preventing his death. However, Joseph later repents, and his life is filled with guilt. Eventually, in an effort to justify his guilt, Joseph gives his own life to save another. His son Jesus would later meet the same fate. Before his death, however, Jesus confronts his other father, God, and engages in a heated debate about the right of God to demand so much of humanity to gain recognition. He decides to rebel against God’s plan for him, but in the end, he is deceived and is crucified.

Several predominant themes, or fundamental doubts and questions, arise from the text. The first is the presence of guilt in Joseph’s life. Why did he not warn the other families of the impending slaughter of the young children in Bethlehem? Joseph’s inaction displays the theme of limited skepticism, and the consequence of his inaction is used to raise questions about the very nature of a god that justifies his cruelty, hunger for power, and anger to get his way. Other controversial themes in the novel include the mutually beneficial relationship between God and the devil, and the plan by God to use humans as slaves to achieve his goal of a single global religion.


The setting for the novel Blindness is an unnamed city, where people suddenly start to go blind. The illness is contagious, and as it advances, the city’s social fabric degenerates and unravels rapidly. Initially, the blind are rounded up, put in a sanatorium, and left to exist there by whatever means possible. The government then attempts to control the sanatorium and its population by using increasingly repressive and unsuccessful measures. Gangs form within the sanatorium and, eventually, all order collapses. At this time, a doctor and his wife start a group that slowly entices the population to construct a new society, with a new form of existence. Once human-centered harmony is restored, people regain their eyesight.

Saramago’s long sentences and limited separation of quotes is present in this work as well. Indeed, here it is most effective, as it requires the reader to navigate speech without the usual visual cues. Paragraphs are extensive and punctuation is sparse. Names are not given. Irony is employed throughout the work. For example, the sanatorium doctor is an eye doctor. The doctor’s wife is the only one who can see, but she must hide this fact in order to be persuasive to the others.

The theme of blindness in this novel is used as a means to explore the fragility of human societies. Blindness here mimics how one limited problem in a civilization can lead to a complete breakdown of social systems. The reader becomes a spectator to the negative consequences of “blind” ambitions for power. In the end, however, one of Saramago’s literary traits comes into play: The new situation brings about a search for new ways of implementing the dignity of the human race. When forced to rely only upon each other, humans can and do reach out.


José Saramago World Literature Analysis