José Saramago Saramago, José

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

José Saramago Nobel Prize for Literature

Born in 1922, Saramago is a Portuguese novelist.

Saramago is the first Portuguese writer to win the Nobel Prize for literature. His works, which feature a distinctly modernist exploration of contemporary life as well as of Portugal's historically ambiguous place in world culture, have been consistently acclaimed since he began publishing in the early 1980s.

While neither of Saramago's first two novels—Manual de pintura e caligrafica (1976) and Levantado do chao (1980)—have been translated into English, subsequent works that have been translated have earned him a wide following among readers of English as well as readers of Portuguese. In his first translated novel, Memorial do convento (Baltasar and Blimunda; 1982), Saramago introduced the stylistic and thematic element of magical realism, which later became a hallmark of his fiction and prompted comparisons to the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez. Set in eighteenth-century Portugal during the Inquisition, Baltasar and Blimunda tells the story of two young lovers—Baltasar, a handicapped war veteran, and Blimunda, a visionary who can see human spirits—and their attempts to transport themselves to heaven using a flying machine.

In 1984 Saramago published one of his most lauded novels, O ano da morte de Ricardo Reis (The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis). Set in Portugal during the early years of the dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, the novel traces the last days of Ricardo Reis, presented in the book as a middle-aged poet and physician who is haunted by the spirit of Fernando Pessoa, the great Portuguese poet and revolutionary. In reality, Pessoa had used the literary convention of multiple pseudonyms—including "Ricardo Reis"—to convey various facets of his work and the fractured nature of human thought. Many critics warned potential readers of the novel that knowledge of Pessoa's life and work were necessary to understand its complexity but praised the book nonetheless as a significant achievement in the modernist canon.

Saramago again presented a fantastical story in A jangada de pedra (The Stone Raft; 1986). Translated into English in 1994, the novel concerns events that ensue after the Iberian peninsula breaks free from the European mainland and begins drifting through the Atlantic Ocean. This incident sparks considerable bureaucratic chaos as the drifting Iberians struggle to cope with their extraordinary predicament. Always critical of Europe's historical ambivalence toward Portugal and Spain, Saramago used The Stone Raft to explore this difficult social, political, and geographical relationship.

História do Cerco de Lisboa (The History of the Siege of Lisbon; 1989) presents a fictional account of historical incidents. Raimundo Silva, a middle-aged bachelor working uneventfully as a proofreader for a publisher in Lisbon, changes the course of his life—and symbolically the course of history—when he becomes bored proofreading a typical account of the 1147 Siege of Lisbon. When he comes to the sentence "The crusaders did agree to help seize Lisbon," Silva is overcome with a perverse urge to change it, so he inserts the word "not" into the sentence, thereby reversing history. When the change is noticed, Silva's employers are furious, but a new editor, Maria Sara, is intrigued and encourages Silva to write his version of Portuguese history. Saramago then presents Silva's story alongside his own. The novel was an immediate success in both Portugal and Brazil, and its translation has earned critical acclaim from an English-speaking audience.

With O Evangelho segundo Jesus Cristo (The Gospel According to Jesus Christ ; 1991), Saramago provoked the ire of Christians around the world, particularly the Catholic Church. In this novel Saramago portrayed Jesus as a confused and vulnerable human being, while God is presented as an amoral bureaucrat and Lucifer as a mischievous but sympathetic imp. The overall tone of the novel...

(The entire section is 27,255 words.)