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José Saramago (sah-rah-MAH-goh) is Portugal’s best-known and most celebrated writer. He was born to a family of poor farmworkers in the central Portuguese village of Azinhaga. When Saramago was two years old, his family moved to the Portuguese capital of Lisbon. After graduating from technical school in Lisbon, Saramago took a job in an automobile repair shop, where he worked for two years before moving on to a job with the Portuguese Social Welfare Service. He married his first wife, Ilda Reis, in 1944, and their only child was born three years later. During this time, Saramago would regularly spend his after-work hours in the public library, broadening his literary education. He also wrote his first novel, Terra do pecado (land of sin), publishing it in 1947 at the age of twenty-five. Saramago was disappointed with this work and, after finishing an unpublished novel and working on another one, he gave up writing for two decades.

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During his silent period, Saramago took a job with a publisher in Lisbon, and this helped him maintain contact with the literary scene. He translated the works of a number of major writers from French to Portuguese. He finally returned to publishing his own writing in 1966 with a book of poetry, Os poemas possíveis (possible poems). He followed this book with his 1970 collection of poems, Provàvelmente alegria (probably joy), and, in 1975, the long poem O ano de 1993 (the year 1993).

In 1969 Saramago joined the Portuguese Communist Party. The decade of the 1970’s was a time of change for Portugal and for Saramago. In 1970 António O. Salazar, who had come to power in Portugal in the 1930’s, died. The dictatorship continued under Prime Minister Marcelo Caetano, who had held control since Salazar suffered a stroke two years earlier. In that same year, Saramago and Reis divorced. Saramago left his publishing job in 1971 and turned to newspaper work. From 1971 to 1973, he worked as an editor at the newspaper Diário de Lisboa and then became deputy director of the Diário de Nóticias until 1975. Most of his nonfiction works during this period are collections of his newspaper writing.

In 1974 a military revolt overthrew the Portuguese dictatorship. After a brief period of radical leftism, the Portuguese government began a time of moderate reaction against the left. In this last phase, Saramago, as a Communist, lost his newspaper job. Unemployed, he turned back to writing long fiction. The first novel of this second period, Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, was a meditation on the conflict between artistic and materialistic values. His next work, Levantado do chão (raised from the ground), resulted from several weeks of living in the Portuguese countryside.

Saramago first achieved international renown with Baltasar and Blimunda, the translation of his 1982 novel Memorial do convento. This was a strange historical novel, which blended the story of the building of a convent during the time of the Inquisition with an account of two lovers trying to escape the Inquisition in a flying machine. The use of impossible situations earned Saramago a reputation as a practitioner of Magical Realism. He continued this kind of fiction in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, which involved conversations between Ricardo Reis, newly returned from Brazil to Lisbon in 1936, with the ghost of the Portuguese poet who had created the character Ricardo Reis.

The Stone Raft imagined Portugal breaking off from the rest of Europe and floating away. The History of the Siege of Lisbon is usually regarded as Saramago’s most comic work. In this novel, a proofreader tries to change history by adding a word to a text. Controversy followed the publication of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. The portrayal of Jesus as a troubled adolescent who becomes a Communist was condemned by the Catholic Church and by the Portuguese government.

Saramago’s 1995 book

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Critical Essays