José Saramago

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José Saramago World Literature Analysis

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One of the most distinctive aspects of Saramago’s work is his writing style, which he developed beginning with the 1980 novel Levantado do chão (raised from the dead), which won the City of Lisbon Prize. It was in this novel that Saramago developed his distinctive narrative style, featuring winding sentences of considerable length contained within long, fluid paragraphs. Adding to the flow of his narrative was his deliberate omission of capital letters and the quotation marks that are supposed to mark the difference between narrative and dialogue. Saramago also moved freely between the first and third person, shifting his tenses and points of view unexpectedly and arbitrarily, so that there is a sense of following a process of consciousness rather than a conventional, realistic narrative. He also rarely used periods, creating instead a series of run-on sentences or clauses joined by commas, giving the effect of alternative or internal reality.

Saramago’s narratives do not feature simply one consciousness but are peopled by numerous characters who articulate his themes in a blend of voices. These voices contribute a range of competing perspectives, and yet they also mysteriously merge with an authorial consciousness or presence associated with the voice of Saramago himself, which can be melancholy but is also skeptical and even sarcastic in its irreverent interrogation of a variety of evils.

This flow of description, dialogue, and commentary in Saramago’s novels produces a dreamlike or even trancelike effect; in their calm, literal acceptance of the surreal and the fantastic, Saramago’s narratives also have some connection to the folktales, folk wisdom, histories, and imaginative memories associated with the stories his grandfather told him when he was a young boy. Layered into this melange of fantasy and reality in Saramago’s work is a strong essayist aspect, which he has identified as one of its most salient characteristics. As a result, even as Saramago’s work became noted for its artistic invention, experimentation, and originality, he also gained a reputation for introducing dark and dissident editorials into his work, which occasionally created controversy in a Portuguese society in which political and religious conservatives still held much power and influence.

Saramago’s work in the l980’s reflected a newly liberalized Portuguese society intent on interrogating its past; Saramago’s contributions to this new mood were novels that subverted past history by means of surreal alternative or speculative fantasies. His historical novel Baltasar and Blimunda reconsidered the Portugal of the eighteenth century, and the speculative fantasy O ano da morte de Ricardo Reis (1984; The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, 1991) was rooted in the context of the corruptions and brutalities that came about with the rise of the Salazar dictatorship. In 1986, A jangada de pedra (The Stone Raft, 1994) continued this idiom. Written in the year of Portugal and Spain’s inclusion in the European Community, this novel noted that Europe was nevertheless still divided between a dominant north and a disadvantaged south, something Saramago solved imaginatively by allowing Portugal and Spain to mysteriously separate from the mainland and float off into the Atlantic Ocean toward Latin America to reinvent themselves and redress previous colonial abuses. In 1989, História do cerco de Lisboa (The History of the Siege of Lisbon, 1996) revised Portuguese history by eliminating the Spanish Inquisition and the discovery of America. The Gospel According to Jesus Christ concluded this series of audits of Portugal’s heritage, after which Saramago moved from writing freewheeling historical novels to fiction that came to resemble mysterious fables or modern dystopian speculative novels, set in either a possible future or an alternative reality that suggests dire possibilities.

(This entire section contains 2254 words.)

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concluded this series of audits of Portugal’s heritage, after which Saramago moved from writing freewheeling historical novels to fiction that came to resemble mysterious fables or modern dystopian speculative novels, set in either a possible future or an alternative reality that suggests dire possibilities.

The major novel Ensaio sobre a cegueira (1995; Blindness, 1997), for instance, depicted an unidentified but typical modern society destroyed by an uncanny epidemic of blindness. In 2004, Saramago deployed his master metaphor of blindness in a different way with a sequel, Ensaio sobre a lucidez (Seeing, 2006), in which an entire society lodges a protest against its government by casting blank ballots in an election. Todos os nomes: Romance (1997; All the Names,1999) is a dreamlike parable in which Saramago explores the theme of identity, inspired by his decision to investigate the records of his older brother Francisco, who died when Saramago was two years old. This theme of lost identity was further developed in the 2002 novel O homem duplicado (The Double, 2004), in which a man encounters someone who is his exact twin, throwing into doubt his conviction that he is in any way a unique human being, and, as in All the Names, depicting a deadening, inhibiting society that has eradicated the old idea of the self. All the Names, The Double, and A caverna (2000; The Cave, 2002) constitute what Saramago came to see as a sequence of three novels addressing an end-of-millennium crisis in Western civilization. A satire in which a shopping center becomes the sacred space of a radically consumerist society, The Cave warned against a new, emerging form of totalitarianism connected not to the previous European regimes of communism or fascism but to capitalism and the free market. This trilogy of fables frequently features nameless characters in an alternative reality that crushes all individual initiative, but the novels also demonstrate moments in which individuals distinguish themselves in a redemptive way through love, virtue, self-knowledge, or spiritual insight. In a similar paradox, Saramago also blends magic and the supernatural with an opposing perspective rooted in literary realism and political commentary.

The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis

First published: O ano da morte de Ricardo Reis, 1984 (English translation, 1991)

Type of work: Novel

After a long absence, a Portuguese poet returns to his homeland, which has changed dramatically due to the rise of European fascism.

The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis has been praised as the finest of Saramago’s series of surreal historical novels. The novel’s protagonist is a literary alter ego named Ricardo Reis, a persona originally created by the great Portuguese modernist poet Fernando Pessoa. Reis has been in exile in Brazil since 1919, but after he learns of Pessoa’s death he returns to Lisbon in 1935, in the early years of a rising totalitarianism found not only in a Portugal but also in the regimes of Francisco Franco, Benito Mussolini, and Adolf Hitler elsewhere in Europe. As Reis wends his way through the labyrinthine streets of Lisbon, he is visited twelve times by the ghost of Pessoa; the two have lively discussions on many subjects, including art, life, politics, religion, and history. These conversations act as an intriguing and complicated counterpoint to an emerging fascistic modern world marked by fear and inhibition. When Reis pays a visit to the cemetery where Pessoa is buried, it appears to be a mirror image of the city itself, whose inhabitants have become deadened and passive.

Because the difference between the living and the dead is slowly dissolving throughout the novel, it is unsurprising that in the end Reis is led to the graveyard to take his place with Pessoa. While in one way this conclusion suggests that Reis has taken his place among the living dead of fascist-ruled Lisbon, on the other hand he has secured a transcendent bond with Pessoa that is a counterpoint to the terrible times in which he was living. Reis was content to live a contemplative life in a crisis-torn Lisbon because fascism was simply not a part of his interior life. His inner exile into a poetic, literary, and philosophical world secures an identity untouched by the evils of the day.

Blindness

First published: Ensaio sobre a cegueira, 1995 (English translation, 1997)

Type of work: Novel

With the exception of one woman, an entire society is afflicted with an epidemic of mysterious white blindness that threatens it with utter collapse.

Blindness depicts an epidemic of blindness that turns everything to an inchoate whiteness, bringing chaos and criminality in its wake. In an effort to cope with the epidemic, the authorities imprison the blind in a former mental institution, where the scarce and putrid food, the crowding and the uncleanness is made worse by the increasingly bad behavior of its blind inmates. The breakdown of morality reaches its nadir with the rise of a band of blind men who victimize and humiliate the other prisoners through such criminal activities as theft, rape, and terror. It becomes clear that the literal blindness of the city’s inhabitants is a metaphor for a pathology of consciousness that locks an individual within himself or herself, depriving that person of the ability to perceive his or her own humanity and the humanity of others. A base spiritual condition, this psychological blindness leads to a degraded world of predators and prey, criminals and victims, with no hope of change or progress.

Within this collapsing society, however, a little group of seven people begin to work together to retain their humanity. The leader of this group is the Doctor’s Wife, who has loyally accompanied her ophthalmologist husband to the asylum even though she herself is not blind. She is not only helpful in organizing the group and keeping it safe and fed, she also possesses the greatest spiritual lucidity. Blindness in this regard is associated with the death of the heart and with the loss of concern for other human beings; the sight of the Doctor’s Wife, on the other hand, is associated with compassion and the retention of a moral compass.

Yet another woman in the group, a prostitute known as the Girl With Dark Glasses, begins to also demonstrate some of the Doctor’s Wife’s virtues, voluntarily assuming the care of a small boy and an old man, with whom she falls in love. Another important character is the Dog of Tears, who encounters the Doctor’s Wife at a moment of deep despair; when they gaze into each other’s eyes, they connect on a deep personal level, a reminder that in this novel it is the seeing eyes that represent the sacred core of each living being. With the return of her morale, the Doctor’s Wife manages to secure safety for her little group by leading them to her apartment, a site of both literal and spiritual cleansing as they bathe on her terrace in the rain.

The social conditions elsewhere, however, worsen, with increasing scarcity, disorder, and confusion. It is at this point that the Doctor’s Wife wanders into a church, which is filled with people praying for rescue or consolation. The Doctor’s Wife sees that all the eyes of the statues of religious figures in the church have been covered by a priest, who has dramatically blinded the icons upon whose existence the people have come to depend. When the Doctor’s Wife tells the congregation that the holy images are blind, they abandon the church, and soon everyone regains their sight, as if the demystification of these religious symbols is somehow linked to the subsequent miraculous recovery that allows the people in the city to restore social order. The powers associated with the images in the church have been transferred to human beings, who are free to use their own moral and spiritual resources—their own eyes.

All the Names

First published: Todos os nomes, 1997 (English translation, 1999)

Type of work: Novel

A young man working in the powerful Central Registry of Births, Marriages, and Deaths finds he is obsessed with a woman whose name and general statistics he has found on one of the registry’s index cards.

All the Names is a nightmarish dystopia filled with nameless people, except for a man known only by his first name, Senhor José, who works in the lowest echelon of a labyrinthine organization called the Central Registry of Births, Marriages, and Deaths. It is the task of this rigid and highly controlled bureaucracy to produce index cards that contain essentially meaningless and impersonal sets of dates and statistics about each individual in the city. The lonely José, whose hobby is to collect information about famous or notorious people, slips into the registry to pick up five more cards, and by chance he also collects a sixth card that records the name and birth, marriage, and divorce dates of an ordinary thirty-six-year-old woman, whose name is never revealed. José feels compelled to learn all he can about her, looking for information from various sources, including the woman’s parents, and even breaking into her old school at night to find further information. In attempting to recover the unknown woman’s identity, José realizes that he has fallen in love with her, but almost at once he locates the final piece of information about her—her death certificate. Understanding that she has committed suicide only a few days earlier, he is left with one final destination, the General Cemetery where she is buried.

The godlike Registrar, who heads the organization, has placed José under surveillance the entire time, but instead of punishing him for his independent investigation, he praises him for bringing positive new changes. The Registrar declares that the files of the living and the dead will no longer be separate, and that the living person’s recovery and recognition of the lives of those who have gone before will be, in its way, an almost metaphysical act of resurrection. Additionally, in returning her name to the files of the living, Senhor José feels he is also recovering the nobility of his own identity, transforming himself from an unprepossessing cog in the machine of the Central Registry into someone of considerable worth.

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