Saramago, who published over fifty works of fiction, poetry, plays, and nonfiction, died in 2010 at the age of eighty-seven. He was, as Amanda Hopkinson noted in the London Guardian Online: "Portugal's most prolific and best-known 20th-century writer." Though he came to writing fiction late in life, at a time when most people are preparing for retirement, Saramago continued writing up to the end of his long life, turning even to blogging in his eighties. Saramago came from humble origins, born in a small Portuguese village. The family moved to the capital, Lisbon, when he was a young boy, but poverty interrupted Saramago's education. He dropped out of high school to help support his family, working as a car mechanic. Over the course of years Saramago slowly approached his real calling as a writer. From mechanic, be became a draughtsman, and then went into publishing, as a reader, translator, and working in both the editorial and production side of a publishing house. He was also a journalist, writing literary reviews and political commentary. When his outspoken communist views cost him his job at a Lisbon newspaper in 1975, he turned his attention primarily to fiction.
Saramago was already in his early fifties when, in 1976, he published his first popular novel, Manual de pintura e caligrafia (Manual of Painting and Calligraphy), though he had actually published another short novel almost three decades earlier to little critical notice. Manual of Painting and Calligraphy concerns the maintaining of ideals in a world of materialism and superficial values, and is narrated by an unnamed, mediocre painter who adheres to his own sense of dignity and artistic purpose while fulfilling a commission from a rich patron. A conflict eventually develops between painter and patron, and the painting commission ends abruptly. The narrator thereupon rejects payment, choosing to retain the incomplete painting instead of compromising himself.
Reviewing the 2012 English translation, Library Journal contributor Kate Gray felt that it "displays a masterly grasp of wordplay and other literary devices." Similarly, a Kirkus Reviews contributor noted: "Saramago writes beautifully, and his style is ruminative--not for every taste, but definitely for those who appreciate finely wrought, meditative prose."
Saramago followed Manual de pintura e caligrafia with Levantado do chão ("Raised from the Ground") in 1980, a grim tale of repression set during the dictator Salazar's reign in Portugal from the mid-1930s to the late 1950s.
In 1982 Saramago published Memorial do convento ("Memoirs of the Convent"), translated into English as Baltasar and Blimunda, a novel that is often ranked foremost among his artistic triumphs. Baltasar and Blimunda is set in eighteenth-century Portugal during the Inquisition and concerns the efforts of two young people, handicapped war veteran Baltasar and visionary Blimunda, to transport themselves into the heavens. The vehicle for this unlikely journey is a flying machine created by a priest similarly eager to leave behind the Inquisition. The existence of this flying machine, built by Baltasar and powered, fantastically enough, by human wills captured by the hypersensitive Blimunda, ultimately brings the main characters into opposition with the Inquisition's repressive church leaders. Running parallel to the tale of the flying machine in Baltasar and Blimunda is a narrative concerning the construction of the Mafra Convent by seemingly all available Portuguese men prior to a date foretold as that of King John V's death. In recounting this story, Saramago provides compelling depictions of the construction process and detailed descriptions of life in the Portuguese royal court.
Baltasar and Blimunda has been hailed as a masterful blend of the fantastic and the historical, the romantic and the realistic. New York Times contributor Walter Goodman described the novel as "a romance and an adventure, a rumination on royalty and religion in 18th-century Portugal and a bitterly ironic comment on the uses of power." Richard Eder, in his critique for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, deemed Saramago's novel "elaborate" and added that it concerns "the melancholy of magnificence." John Gledson, meanwhile, wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that Baltasar and Blimunda is "a strange but exciting novel."
The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, Saramago's 1991 novel, is a rich tale set in Portugal during the early years of Salazar's dictatorship. Ricardo Reis, the novel's protagonist, is a middle-aged poet-physician who has recently arrived in Lisbon after a stay in Rio de Janeiro. Once back in Lisbon, Reis finds himself romantically drawn to Marcenda, a young woman with a deformed arm. Reis commences a physical relationship, however, with Lydia, a thirty-year-old maid, and the relationship develops as Reis begins to appreciate Lydia as more than a mere physical entity. Also prominent in this tale is the ghost of Fernando Pessoa, the great Portuguese poet who died in 1935. It is Pessoa's ghost who proves to be Reis's fitting companion as the hero lives his final hours.
Upon translation by Giovanni Pontiero into English in 1991, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis gained approval as further indication of Saramago's impressive, imposing talent. New York Times contributor Herbert Mitgang called the book "a rare, old-fashioned novel--at once lyrical, symbolic and meditative" and characterized it as being "written in a classical style, formal and cerebral, with a surreal story that lingers in the imagination." Likewise, Shaun Whiteside wrote in New Statesman and Society that The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis constituted "very much a novel of ideas, subtly textured and rich in symbolism, written in a style redolent of the age of high modernism." Gabriel Josipovici, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, concluded that Saramago's novel "is the work of a fine and interesting writer."
O evangelho segundo Jesus Cristo, which was originally published in 1991, was published in English in 1994 as The Gospel according to Jesus Christ. This controversial novel provides what John Butt, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, described as "an idiosyncratic, satirical, bitter and frequently comical account of Jesus' life." In Saramago's tale, the virgin birth is a questionable explanation of Jesus's origin. Similarly, Jesus's rather unworldly holiness is itself portrayed as rather dubious in Saramago's rendering. In the book Jesus is, in essence, the wandering son of a carpenter. Inevitably human, he even enters into sexual relations with Mary Magdalene. God serves as the villain of Saramago's tale. Butt noted that Saramago portrays God as a "cynical bureaucrat, cheerfully disposed to extend his influence by founding on the blood of an innocent a religion that will bring pain, death, and intolerance to mankind." God's exploitation of Jesus, as delineated in the novel, results in a concluding crucifixion that is undeniably moving, if blasphemous by some readers' standards.
Nation contributor Ilan Stavans noted that in The Gospel according to Jesus Christ, "Saramago works wonders with the Passion story." Stavans added that the novel "is enough to assure [Saramago] a place in the universal library and in human memory." Richard A. Preto-Rodas, writing in World Literature Today, noted the novel's provocative nature and remarked: "It is obvious that [The Gospel according to Jesus Christ] will hardly validate traditional beliefs, but it will definitely provide much food for thought."
The Stone Raft, another of Saramago's novels translated in 1994, concerns events that ensue after the Iberian peninsula breaks free from the European mainland and begins drifting through the Atlantic Ocean. This unlikely incident sparks considerable bureaucratic chaos even as the drifting Iberians struggle to cope with their extraordinary predicament. Prominent among these people are five individuals who undergo some typically incredible experiences, and eventually come together to realize a greater understanding of the entire Iberian phenomenon.
Richard Eder, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, speculated that The Stone Raft "may be Saramago's finest work," while Amanda Hopkinson, in her review for New Statesman and Society, hailed Saramago's novel as "the best new book I have read [in 1994]."
Saramago's 1995 work Blindness was published in English in 1997. The novel concerns an epidemic of blindness that afflicts an unnamed town. "Nobody has a name in Blindness, José Saramago's symphonic new novel," summarized Andrew Miller in the New York Times Book Review. "Indeed, there are no proper names of any kind. The city in which this catastrophic epidemic of blindness breaks out is never identified. There are no street names. This is any city at almost any point in the modern era. This is everybody's disaster." The only person spared the effects of total blindness is the wife of an eye doctor, who helps a group of the sightless survive until their sight returns. As the epidemic spreads, societal structure quickly breaks down.
"In Blindness, ... so great are the horrors witnessed by the doctor's sighted wife that the simple privilege of sight over blindness begins to seem the worst privilege, begins to seem its inversion," wrote a critic for the New Republic. "In the country of the suddenly blind, the one-eyed man is not, in fact, king. He is the slave of all the blind, and the most unhappy one of all, because he sees their degradation. Yet Saramago is most like the Greeks--and like their Renaissance heirs, such as Montaigne--in the manner in which he keeps in balance both skepticism and realism, or uncertainty and health." The reviewer also noted: "Omniscient narration generally affirms how much we know, how much we have in common, but Saramago uses it to illuminate how little we know." Miller commented that "the prose, with its minimal punctuation, its flickering of tense and subject so that we glide between first and third person, between stream of consciousness and wry objectivity, is this Portuguese novelist's trademark style." Miller also wrote that Blindness contains "a powerful sense of the folly and heroism of ordinary lives. There is no cynicism and there are no conclusions, just a clear-eyed and compassionate acknowledgment of things as they are, a quality that can only honestly be termed wisdom. We should be grateful when it is handed to us in such generous measures." Kevin Grandfield in Booklist wrote: "Saramago's novel deftly shows how vulnerable humans are, how connected and how blind."
Saramago's 1999 work The Tale of the Unknown Island is a brief parable concerning a man who wants to sail for an unknown land. The short story "departs from [Saramago's] signature dense, inventive linguistic style and historically encompassing subjects to offer a simple, intriguing fable," observed a Publishers Weekly contributor.
Although Ray Olson in Booklist expressed annoyance with the publisher's strategy of releasing this "short story at the price of a trade paperback," he commented that "when the story proves as ingratiating as Saramago's, one's annoyance is considerably lessened."
Seeing returns to the same unnamed capital city that was the setting of Blindness. Four years after the events of the harrowing epidemic of sightlessness, elections are underway in the city. Heavy rains keep voters away from the polls, but when the weather breaks at 4:00 p.m., people arrive to vote in droves. To the government's dismay, almost three-quarters of the ballots cast that day are blank. After much discussion, the original results are declared void and the election is held again a week later, on a sunny day. This time, the number of blank votes cast is higher, some eighty-three percent. For the government, this is an affront to their power, nothing less than an act of revolution. However, no laws have been broken; no violence erupts; no discord among the population is evident. Life in the city continues as though nothing had changed, as though no potent message had been delivered, whether by accident or intent, to those in charge. "It's a fairly witty conceit: a city full of Bartlebys, politely preferring not to do what is expected of them and generating, through simple negation, absolute panic in the corridors of power," observed Terrence Rafferty in the New York Times. Government response quickly escalates: first, a state of emergency is declared, then a state of siege. Agents are dispatched to spy on the population and to systematically round up citizens for interrogation. Finally, in what seems to be the pinnacle of petulance, the government declares that it is abdicating, leaving the population to fend for itself. Even then, order is retained, the citizens continue to be happy and smiling, and the city continues to function even after the government has abandoned it. The "populace fails to cooperate: life in the capital remains peaceful and orderly, as if no one had even noticed that anything was missing," Rafferty stated. Desperate, the government even turns to calculated terrorism against its own citizens, with deadly results. Rather than the citizens turning bestial and feral without the supervision of government, it is the government that turns uncontrollable and vengeful without the support of its citizens.
Eventually, the government identifies a target for its frustration: a letter arrives implicating the unnamed wife of the eye doctor who acted so heroically in Blindness. The story then turns to the search for this woman and the attempts by a local police superintendent to bring her to "justice." Soon, however, the superintendent realizes that "the doctor's wife is clearly innocent of any involvement in the blank ballot phenomenon; and the government doesn't care about her innocence," noted Boyagoda in Harper's. As the novel progresses, the superintendent breaks with his superiors and attempts to save the woman from gross injustice.
"Seeing is a sobering political fable likely to engage anyone who fears that government, in the name of fighting terrorism, may become a state that terrorizes its own citizens," commented Gerald T. Cobb in America. A Publishers Weekly contributor remarked that the novel's allegorical framework is "weak and obvious," yet the story works as a "farce, baldly sending up EU politicos and major media editorialists." A Kirkus Reviews contributor called the novel "another invaluable gift from a matchless writer."
Saramago's "panoramic and sweeping characterization of the Portuguese and peninsular existence has struck a chord not only among his compatriots in Portugal, but also in Spain and beyond," posited a contributor to the Encyclopedia of World Literature in the Twentieth Century. "His fiction is not only a continual dialogue with the Portuguese character and the nation's history but also a revelation of basic human desires and fantasies." Saramago's "strongest novels startle with their unapologetically moral cores, which are revealed through sympathetic presentations of his characters' struggles to recover some kind of decency in a world set hard against their efforts," commented Boyagoda.
In his 2000 novel All the Names, first published in Portugal in 1997, Saramago tells the story of Senhor José, a lowly civil servant who works with statistical data concerning births, deaths, marriages, and other aspects of people's lives. The protagonist, a bachelor with no outside interests, is fascinated by the data he deals with, especially when the information is connected to celebrities. When he comes across a birth certificate for a young mathematics teacher, he becomes obsessed with her life.
"Symbolically permeating the line between life and death, All the Names is Saramago at his most compassionate and least sentimental, at his very best," wrote Brian Evenson in the Review of Contemporary Fiction. Writing for Library Journal, Jack Shreve called the novel an "imaginative parable of the living and the dying."
In Journey to Portugal: In Pursuit of Portugal's History and Culture, first published in Portugal in 1990 and then in English in 2001, the author provides an ode to his homeland as he writes about the past and its ancient myths while journeying across the country.
"The genius that drives Portugal's most famous living author is revealed in Journey to Portugal when Saramago states: 'The traveler is always intrigued by questions without answers,'" wrote George Monteiro in World Literature Today. Portuguese Studies contributor David Henn commented that the author's "narrative is ..., overwhelmingly, a celebration of a culture and the people that produced it, and those who continue to appreciate and protect it."
The Cave, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, takes place in the near future when the novel's characters live in a place called the Center. This castle-like and immense complex includes residential quarters and endless shopping facilities. In the Center, residents can also travel to various faux locations, from snowy mountain tops to beautiful beaches. The Center reflects a world in which everything is fake, and consumerism is the driving force behind the residents' lives. The novel primarily follows Cipriano Algor, a craftsperson from the country who sells his pottery to the Center. Eventually, things begin to go wrong for the simple potter. When the market for his pottery plummets, Cipriano tries to create a new product, which also fails, leading him eventually to live with his daughter and son-in-law in the Center, which he despises.
Writing that the author "illustrate[s] perversions of reality, the universal lie, and the general disrespect that has grown up toward fellow creatures," Mostly Fiction website contributor Bill Robinson observed: "Saramago understands the contradictions evident in contemporary consumer-driven capitalism." The novel's "core is Cipriano Algor's stoic endurance and fierce humanity as he reconciles himself to the fact that he's a living anachronism," San Francisco Chronicle contributor Andrew Roe explained. He added that the novel "abounds in intellectual exploration."
In his novel The Double, Saramago tells the story of history teacher Tertuliano Maximo Afonso. Tertuliano sees a film in which one of the actors appears to be his exact double in every way, except that the actor has a moustache in the film. A divorced and solitary man, Tertuliano decides that this discovery is a momentous event, and he must find his double. "Telling Tertuliano's story is a narrator who injects himself into the story," noted Mostly Fiction website contributor Mary Whipple, adding: "Self-conscious about his writing, he digresses, acts patronizing toward Tertuliano Maximo Afonso, and often makes arch comments about him to the reader."
Tertuliano starts renting videos to identify the B-list actor. It turns out that the actor's name is Daniel Santa Clara, whose birth name is Antonio Claro. Tertuliano calls Antonio and arranges a one-on-one meeting at the actor's house where no one can else can see that the two are like identical twins. Before the meeting, Antonio reveals that he has a gun. "Through a series of profound, dramatic ironies which unfold as Tertuliano and Antonio Claro meet, Saramago raises questions about identity and destiny," noted Whipple for the Mostly Fiction website.
As Tertuliano and Antonio talk, the two discuss their respective lives. Initially, they are mutually curious. Nevertheless, as the two men get to know each other better, a mutual resentment evolves. Both Tertuliano and Antonio believe that both of them cannot remain alive because it defies the laws of the universe in which something cannot exist in two places simultaneously. Tertuliano eventually announces: "There is one too many of us in the world."
"In The Double, a wonderfully twisted meditation on identity and individuality, Saramago's signature style is perfectly disorienting," wrote Scott W. Helman in a review for the Boston Globe, adding that the author "invokes the dark comedy of an Almodovar film, the plot twists of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, and the creative labyrinths of Borges." Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, Christine Thomas remarked that the author's novel "explore[s] feelings of impermanence and ordinariness, which often threaten to overwhelm us, while at once exposing the surrealism of modern life."
Published in English in 2009, Death with Interruptions, titled Death at Intervals in England, revolves around the central conceit that beginning on the first day of a new year, people no longer die. It turns out that Death is conducting an experiment to see what happens when people no longer succumb to death. At the same time, Saramago's Death contemplates what would happen if she fell in love and became human, and she eventually does fall in love with a cellist in a Portuguese symphony orchestra. While government leaders and others in power are panicked by the ramifications of no one dying, the people themselves blissfully hail the fact that they are now essentially immortal. However, as time passes, they find that eternal life requires new and different burdens, such as caring forever for the old, the sick, the infirm, and the insane, placing a burden on the state, the society, and the individual.
"The range of Saramago's satire seems limitless, but so does his power to humanize," wrote Alan Cheuse in a review for World Literature Today. A Kirkus Reviews contributor noted that "the nature of [Death's] intimacy with humans becomes the vehicle for a thrilling threnody composed of grief, love (for that which cannot last) and a resigned, muted acceptance of the inevitable."
Saramago turns memoirist with Small Memories, published originally in Portuguese in 2006 and in English translation in 2008. Here he provides recollections of his childhood and adolescence. A Huffington Post website contributor noted that these "recollections don't follow a linear path, but instead touch lightly on lives framed by poverty and frequent brutality." The contributor further observed: "But in Saramago's retrospective imagination, these are also lives infused with dignity, affection and deep connection."
Saramago takes the reader back and forth from his birth village of Azinhaga and Lisbon where the family moved. Among the characters in the book are his parents, grandparents, older brother Francisco, and various childhood friends and enemies. New York Times Book Review Online writer Dwight Garner observed of this work: "Small Memories has an elegiac tone, one that is suggested by something the writer's elderly grandmother said to him: 'The world is so beautiful, it makes me sad to think I have to die.' For the Huffington Post website reviewer, this work is an "expression of ... fidelity, a small but nourishing last gift from a great writer."
Saramago imagines a historical event in The Elephant's Journey, the story of a unique wedding gift. It is 1551 and King Joao of Portugal decides to present the Austrian Archduke Maximilian with the elephant, Solomon, now housed at the king's palace in Portugal. The only problem is that Maximilian's court is in landlocked Vienna and thus the elephant has to walk across Europe to reach the court. Accompanied by his Indian keeper, Subhro, the elephant and entourage make their way across the continent of Europe, which is torn apart not only by the Reformation but also by civil wars. Saramago tells his tale in both a fable-like voice and with the tone of historical narrative.
Ursula K. Le Guin, writing in the London Guardian Online, observed: "There is no happy ending. The elephant Solomon will get to Vienna, yes; and then two years later he will die. But his footprints will remain in the reader's mind: deep, round impressions in the dirt, not leading to the Austrian imperial court or anywhere else yet known, but indicating, perhaps, a more permanently rewarding direction to be followed." Further praise came from New York Times Book Review Online contributor J.M. Ledgard, who felt that "it would be hard to more highly recommend a novel to be downed in a single draft ... this book flows, and keeps on flowing."
Saramago's final novel, Cain, appeared in English translation in 2011. Reminiscent of his earlier The Gospel according to Jesus Christ, this new one recalls Old Testament narratives. Cain is Saramago's protagonist, witnessing events from the Garden of Eden to Noah's Ark. Cain has been condemned to forever wander after killing his brother, and he now travels in the company of a donkey. During his wandering, Cain manages to intercede in numerous biblical tales, including that of Isaac and Abraham, the destruction of the Tower of Babel, and the trials of Job. "The assault on all these stories we seemed to know--undermined sometimes in narrative details, sometimes merely in tone--is a subtle and not-so-subtle challenge to what [Saramago] calls 'the official history'," according to London Independent Online contributor Daniel Hahn.
Guardian Online reviewer Ian Sansom felt this final novel is "neither original nor particularly provocative." Writing in the New York Times Book Review Online, Robert Pinsky had a much higher assessment of this work, noting: "In a grieving but marveling spirit, Saramago remakes, from Cain's viewpoint, not only the story of Cain and his parents and his brother but also--with Cain entering each narrative as a time-traveling participant--the tales of Abraham and Isaac, Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot's wife, Lot and his daughters, Noah and his sons. The narrative veers drastically away from tradition and back toward it and then away again with radical aplomb. The effect is sometimes comic, but with a complex, outraged commitment far beyond parody. Comedy and boundless complexity: Saramago's novels have been called parables, but they are not allegories."
Saramago collected numerous blog posts for his 2010 book The Notebook, published just months before his death. Here are posts on topics from the importance of language to the state of Israel or the policies of George W. Bush.
Los Angeles Times Online reviewer Thomas McGonigle felt that this work "does not represent [Saramago] at his best." London Telegraph Online contributor Tom Payne had a higher assessment of this work, however, remarking that Saramago "blogged in a ruminative, refined way," and that this collection is a "plea for civilised discourse ... [and] humane values."
Saramago had originally planned to publish the novel Claraboia in 1953. However, the publisher held the manuscript, and it remained there until 1989. When the publisher approached Saramago about releasing the work, Saramago refused, stating he did not want it published while he was alive. A year after Saramago's death in 2010, Claraboia was released. A subsequent version in English, Skylight, was published in 2014. In the book, Saramago tells the story of a cobbler named Silvestre and his wife, who take in Abel, a lodger. Silvestre and Abel have lengthy philosophical conversations. Caetano and Justina live in the same building and deal with infidelity and the loss of their child. Emilio and Carmen, another couple in the building, have volatile fights about their son. Two sisters, their mother, and their aunt occupy another apartment, and yet another is inhabited by Lidia, a kept woman.
Marie Arana, contributor to the Washington Post Book World Online, commented: "Make no mistake: Skylight is no Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, nor The History of the Siege of Lisbon, nor The Stone Raft, nor even The Gospel according to Jesus Christ. It is what it is: a sketchbook for the superb work that Saramago would ultimately produce. But there is no shortage of wonders to be found in it." "Saramago's novel is a delightful creation of characters with universal appeal," wrote Joy Humphrey in Library Journal. A critic in Publishers Weekly suggested: "The novel spins a series of frank, honest stories that strike deep." A Kirkus Reviews writer described the novel as "more conventional and less political than the later work that established the author's reputation but an early sign of considerable promise and spirited storytelling."
From: "Jose Saramago." Gale Literature: Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2015.