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...
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- Critical Essays