José Saramago Saramago, José - Essay


(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 is infused with Saramago's well-known devotion to Marxism and is by turns satiric, comic, and tragic. Critics acknowledged that The Gospel According to Jesus Christ would most likely be considered blasphemous by devout Christians, but they also noted that the novel brought an important perspective to the story of Jesus and a significant argument to the debate over the nature of God and human existence.

In Blindness (originally published in 1995 and translated in 1997) Saramago again used an improbable occurrence to explore human emotions and interactions. Placed in an abandoned mental institution by a powerful but anonymous State, victims of a mysterious contagious blindness must learn to fend for themselves. As the disease spreads beyond the walls of the institution, eventually blinding everyone except the wife of an ophthalmologist, the people of the unnamed city succumb to their basest, most animal tendencies. Many critics interpreted Saramago's allegory as a search for meaning in a world with an uncertain future.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Manual de pintura e caligrafia (novel) 1976
Levantado do chao (novel) 1980
Memorial do convento [Baltasar and Blimunda] (novel) 1982
O ano da morte de Ricardo Reis [The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis] (novel) 1984
A jangada de pedra [The Stone Raft] (novel) 1986
História do Cerco de Lisboa [The History of the Siege of Lisbon] (novel) 1989
O Evangelho segundo Jesus Cristo [The Gospel According to Jesus Christ] (novel) 1991
Blindness (novel) 1995

Gerald M. Moser (review date Winter 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Levantado do chao, in World Literature Today, Vol. 56, No. 1, Winter, 1982, p. 88.

[In the following review, Moser praises Saramago's intimate knowledge of his subject matter in Levantado do chao but ultimately finds the novel monotonous and redundant.]

Saramago is a rising star in Portuguese literature, still unnoticed abroad. This prizewinning novel [Levantado do chao] is his twelfth book since 1966. It deals with a familiar, emotion-laden subject, the losing battle of the small landholders and landless farmhands against the tentacular big estates in Portugal's dry and hot Alentejo, its only province where latifundia exist. The theme was a favorite with the neorealists and had been treated before in two memorable novels, Manuel da Fonseca's Seara de vento (1958) and the recent O pão não cai do céu by José R. Miguéis (1975/76; see WLT 55:4, p. 650).

Like Fonseca, Saramago knows the region intimately. Both draw embittered, coarsened peasants from life, without sentimentality; Saramago's best pages may well be the scenes of their deaths. He writes the chronicle of a poor rural family through three generations, against a backdrop of barely hinted-at political Portuguese history from the end of the monarchy in 1910 to the Revolution of 1974, in the wake of which Alentejan laborers occupied many of the latifundia. Thus the...

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Irwin Stern (review date Spring 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of O ano da morte de Ricardo Reis, in World Literature Today, Vol. 60, No. 2, Spring, 1986, p. 297.

[In the following review, Stern examines O ano da morte de Ricardo Reis, finding the novel a fitting tribute to Fernando Pessoa, a hero of the Portuguese revolution.]

Saramago once again melds fantasy and reality to produce a truly marvelous novel based on Fernando Pessoa's heteronym Ricardo Reis. In O ano da morte de Ricardo Reis (The Year of Ricardo Reis's Death) Reis returns to Portugal from Brazil upon learning of Pessoa's death. It is Portugal of the midthirties, and the backdrop is that decade's events: the entrenchment of the Salazar regime, the incipient Spanish Civil War, the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, all within the global-view style reminiscent of John Dos Passos's fiction. Pessoa's ghost appears to greet his "fellow poet" and eventually to "absorb" him.

Reis's odes come alive in the fiction, as Saramago invents a new Lídia and a Marcenda for the poet's pen. Reis suffers a typical Portuguese inner exile: unhappy abroad, distressed by the state of his homeland, misplaced in his own era. Only his conversations with Pessoa about Portuguese and world literature and culture, their walks through Lisbon shadowed by the omnipresent figure of Camões, and his emotional encounters with Lídia and Marcenda offer him some solace.

Saramago's novel is an affirmation of the new reigning Portuguese national hero, Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935), who has been gradually elevated to fame since the 1974 revolution. However, no academic symposium or study has had a more decisive impact on his national popularity than Saramago's novel. Perhaps Pessoa himself would disapprove of being thrown into the national spotlight, but he would have liked nonetheless the tribute paid to his views on the Portuguese condition and fate in the twentieth century.

Paul Stuewe (review date October 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Baltasar and Blimunda, in Quill and Quire, Vol. 53, No. 10, October, 1987, p. 30.

[In the following review, Stuewe offers a negative assessment of Baltasar and Blimunda, noting that Saramago fails to develop his characters beyond basic outlines.]

This colourful panorama of 18th-century Portugal [Baltasar and Blimunda] has almost everything going for it: vivid contrasts between the worlds of king and cutthroat, intensely real treatments of occult occurrences, and a definite flair for imaginative plotting. Unfortunately, the author has failed to devote the same amount of attention to his characters, who for the most part come across as arbitrary collections of uninteresting attributes. Thus it ultimately becomes very difficult to care about Baltasar or Blimunda or any of the rest of the novel's human elements, despite the attractive backgrounds against which they attempt to flicker into being. Unlike Gabriel Garcia Marquez—whom the jacket copy unwisely invokes in comparison—José Saramago has not yet learned that magic realism requires a strong dose of realism as well as the aura of magic, and as a result Baltasar and Blimunda seems a mildly diverting curiosity rather than deeply compelling fiction.

Irving Howe (review date 1 November 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fueling the Passarola," in New York Times, November 1, 1987, Sec. 7, p. 7.

[In the following review, Howe finds Baltasar and Blimunda a complex and engaging story.]

The most vigorous writing of recent years has come not from the great powers of the West but from small, impoverished and sometimes "backward" countries in Latin America, Eastern Europe and parts of Africa. As if to confirm this trend, there has now arrived from Portugal a brilliant novel by Jose Saramago, a writer who is highly regarded in Portuguese-speaking countries but little known elsewhere. This injustice should speedily be corrected with Giovanni Pontiero's translation, at once...

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Richard Eder (review date 13 December 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Baroque Portrayal of the Sadness of the Portuguese," in Los Angeles Time Book Review, December 13, 1987, p. 3.

[In the following review, Eder considers Baltasar and Blimunda at times weighted down with unnecessary details but otherwise a successful example of magical realism.]

Jose Saramago is one of Portugal's most eminent writers, and his elaborate novel Baltasar and Blimunda has an authentically national theme. It is about the melancholy of magnificence.

A national stereotype can be rejected but it can't be ignored, particularly when it is as odd as Portugal's. Sadness is a quality that others have claimed for the Portuguese,...

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Richard A. Preto-Rodas (review date Winter 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of A jangada de pedra, in World Literature Today, Vol. 62, No. 1, Winter, 1988, pp. 107-8.

[In the following review, Preto-Rodas discusses A jangada de pedra, finding that "despite a loose structure," the novel succeeds in its examination of the status of the Iberian peninsula in the modern world.]

In his most recent novel [A jangada de pedra] José Saramago focuses on Portugal (and Spain) in the near future, a departure from his celebrated historical work Memorial do convento (see WLT 61:1, pp. 27-31). Invoking an anonymous observation that the Iberian Peninsula resembles a raft, the "stone raft" of the title, the...

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Richard A. Preto-Rodas (review date Winter 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of História do Cerco de Lisboa, in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 1, Winter, 1990, p. 84.

[In the following review, Preto-Rodas calls História do Cerco de Lisboa a "worthy addition" to Saramago's canon.]

In light of the author's enormous successes in recent years, the fanfare occasioned by his most recent novel is hardly surprising. The first edition was launched in both Portugal and Brazil with an unheard-of printing of fifty thousand copies. The first printing ran out in one day in Brazil, where the novel has topped best-seller lists. História do Cerco de Lisboa has met with similar acclaim in Portugal, where the...

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Richard Eder (review date 30 December 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Aftertaste of Iberian Unreality," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 30, 1990, p. 3.

[In the following review, Eder examines The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis in the context of the Iberian literary tradition of surreality, finding in the novel an appropriate and successfully rendered balance between the serious and the absurd.]

The circumstantial fog that surrounds so many modern facts, the literary fog with which some modern authors choose to write about them, the actual fog that blurs and softens the Baroque architecture of Lisbon: How well, on the whole, these come together in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis.


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Michael Wood (review date 24 October 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," in New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 17, October 24, 1991, pp. 20-22.

[In the following review, Wood discusses the almost-palpable sense of history in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis.]

… "One can be a monarchist," a character says in José Saramago's capacious, funny, threatening novel [The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis], "without clamoring for a king." The man who speaks in this way has just arrived in Portugal after a long spell abroad, and earlier in the book has signed a hotel register: "Name, Ricardo Reis, age, forty-eight, place of birth, Oporto, marital status, bachelor, profession, doctor, last...

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Shaun Whiteside (review date 28 August 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, in New Statesman and Society, August 28, 1992, pp. 34-5.

[In the following review, Whiteside provides a brief explanation of the literary background of The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis—particularly regarding the life and work of Fernando Pessoa—and finally considers the novel an "impressive intellectual achievement," although overly cerebral.]

This large novel [The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis], by Portugal'ss greatest living writer, comes with a number of provisos. According to the author, it might be fully appreciated only by someone Portuguese. For the translator, it...

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Richard A. Preto-Rodas (review date Autumn 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of O Evangelho segundo Jesus Cristo, in World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 4, Autumn, 1992, p. 697.

[In the following review, Preto-Rodas warns that O Evangelho segundo Jesus Cristo "will hardly validate traditional beliefs," but confirms that the novel probes important questions about the nature of Christianity and religion.]

As Portugal's most celebrated living author, José Saramago has never concealed his Marxist ideology. Thus, when he announced that his seventh novel would be based on the life of Jesus of Nazareth, there was lively anticipation. Judging from its best-seller status in both Portugal and Brazil, O Evangelho...

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Ruth Pavey (review date 27 August 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Jealous God," in New Statesman and Society, Vol. 6, No. 267, August 27, 1993, p. 40.

[In the following review, Pavey finds The Gospel According to Jesus Christ a worthy addition to the catalog of modern literary studies of Christianity.]

José Saramago is Portugal's leading writer, now in his seventies. Despite this eminence, it is not hard to see why he ran into stormy weather after publishing this book [The Gospel According to Jesus Christ]. Written in a tender, respectful tone, its purpose emerges only gradually. But it becomes unmistakable in a key scene towards the end, with a devastating excoriation of cruel religious practice. In a boat...

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Giovanni Pontiero (essay date January 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "José Saramago and O ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis: The Making of a Masterpiece," in Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, Vol. LXXI, No. 1, January, 1994, pp. 139-48.

[In the following essay, Pontiero examines the major themes in O ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis.]

As the title suggests, this fourth novel by José Saramago is dominated by the presence of Ricardo Reis, one of the heteronyms of the poet Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935), Portugal's most famous poet since Camoens. Pessoa insisted that his three main heteronyms (Álvaro de Campos, Alberto Caeiro and Ricardo Reis) were not mere pseudonyms but evidence of the multiple personalities we all possess and...

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Ilan Stavans (review date 16 May 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Fisher of Men," in The Nation, Vol. 258, No. 19, May 16, 1994, pp. 675-76.

[In the following review, Stavans discusses the place of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ in Saramago's canon, concluding that the novel succeeds in continuing to probe themes explored in earlier works.]

Portugal sits in the Iberian Peninsula as an eclipsed region in the heart of Europe, its culture commonly overshadowed in international circles. Few twentieth-century Portuguese writers, for example, have managed to find an audience beyond their national borders. Even the most notable poet, Fernando Pessoa (an extraordinary figure, roughly the equivalent of T. S. Eliot in...

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Richard Eder (review date 28 May 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Continental Drift," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 28, 1995, pp. 3, 11.

[In the following review, Eder considers The Stone Raft to be one of Saramago's greatest literary achievements.]

At the start of The Stone Raft, a river that flows from France into Spain disappears into the ground. Soon a rift appears, bisecting the Pyrenees lengthwise; in a day or two the rift is 30 feet wide. The entire Iberian Peninsula has broken off from Europe and begun to head west across the Atlantic; slowly, at first, and then at a rate of some 30 miles a day.

By the end of the book, Spain and Portugal, the great stone raft of the title, will...

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David Gilmour (review date 5 October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Adrift in Iberia," in New York Review of Books, Vol. XLII, No. 15, October 5, 1995, pp. 35-6.

[In the following review, Gilmour finds The Stone Raft lacking in style and purpose.]

The Pyrenees have been more of a psychological barrier for mankind than a physical one. Although armies have long known how to go round them, ideas have seldom followed the drums. So often they seem to have been launched at the center, to have hit the mountain tops and then bounced back to the thrower; on occasion they have cleared the heights only to fall into ungrateful hands that have hurled them furiously back.

General Franco, for example, felt that he...

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Richard Eder (review date 25 May 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Raimundo's Rebellion," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 25, 1997, p. 2.

[In the following review, Eder praises the satire and irony in The History of the Siege of Lisbon.]

It begins with an explosion of words, as if they were stored in a silo and had spontaneously combusted. For a while the air is choked with clouds of chaff: paragraphs that run for pages and looping dialogue whose tenses and speakers change repeatedly in the same sentence.

The dust settles. We perceive a middle-aged Lisbon proofreader in a foggy philosophical disputation with the author of the book he is correcting. It is an account of Alfonso Henriqucs, Portugal's...

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Edmund White (review date 13 July 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Subversive Proofreader," in New York Times Book Review, July 13, 1997, pp. 1-3.

[In the following review, White praises Saramago's deft handling of the love affair in The History of the Siege of Lisbon.]

Like his near contemporaries Franz Kafka and Constantine Cavafy, Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935) was a writer and a clerk, but he encapsulated many different literary personalities. He lived in Lisbon most of his adult life, though he'd been brought up in Durban, South Africa, and his first poems were in English. Pessoa made his living by translating business letters into Portuguese, but in his spare time he wrote poems and prose pieces under many different...

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Adam Mars-Jones (review date 2 November 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Now You See It, Now You Don't," in London Observer, November 2, 1997, p. 17.

[In the following review, Mars-Jones finds Blindness an "extraordinary novel" of linguistic and theoretical experimentation.]

Jose Saramago's extraordinary novel [Blindness] tells the story of what happens when people start to go down with 'the white evil', a strain of contagious blindness with the peculiar symptom that its victims are plunged not into darkness but an unseeing light. The first casualty refers to 'milky sea' destructively bathing his vision.

Initially, the victims of the white evil cope with their situation individually, but when it...

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Richard A. Preto-Rodas (review date Winter 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Cademos de Lancarote: Diario III, in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 1, Winter, 1997, p. 133.

[In the following review, Preto-Rodas presents an overview of the themes in Saramago's Notebooks from Lancarote.]

As Portugal's best-known living author, Jose Saramago has attracted considerable attention in recent years with his annually published diaries (see WLT 70:2, p. 385). Each volume presents his public with views and comments culled from a crowded calendar. The latest edition, written in these Notebooks from Lancarote (the volcanic island in the Canaries archipelago where Saramago now lives in a kind of self-imposed...

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Drenka Willen (review date 13 July 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Blindness, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 245, No. 28, July 13, 1998, p. 62.

[In the following review, Willen suggests that the plague in Blindness represents the tension between depravity and decency among people in extreme circumstances.]

Brilliant Portuguese fabulist Saramago (The History of the Siege of Lisbon) has never shied away from big game. His previous works have rewritten the history of Portugal, reimagined the life of Christ and remodeled a continent by cleaving the Iberian peninsula from Europe and setting it adrift. Here [in Blindness], Saramago stalks two of our oldest themes in the tale of a plague of...

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Andrew Miller (review date 4 October 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Zero Visibility," in New York Times, October 4, 1998, pp. 1-4.

[In the following review, Miller praises Blindness as a novel of great compassion and wisdom.]

Traffic at a red light. The lights change, the cars move off, all except one that remains blocking the middle lane. A man inside is shouting the same three words again and again: "I am blind." Distraught, he is accompanied to his home by a kindly stranger. But this good Samaritan is also a car thief. Having taken the blind man home, he steals his car. A short time later he too is blind.

What is this malady? The first blind man consults an ophthalmologist. He tells him the...

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