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Saramago, José

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1922-2010) Portuguese author who published as a very young man an unmemorable first novel, Terra do Pecado ["Land of Sin"] (1947), and some plays and essays over the next decades, as well as the nonfantastic Levantado do chão (1980; trans Margaret Jull Costa as Raised from the Ground 2012); but only became well-known with his third novel, Memorial do convento ["Memorial of the Convent"] (1982; trans Giovanni Pontiero as Baltasar and Blimunda 1987), a lyrical Fabulation set in an eighteenth-century world where sf elements – a nun with x-Ray vision; a priest's Invention of a flying machine that transports its passengers into space, where Heaven is located – are luminously commingled (see Equipoise) with a Satirical portrait of Portugal. Several of his later novels intensify narrative strategies which seem at times hallucinated but never fail to embody understandings of the world both coherent and unmistakably transgressive within the disturbed intellectual environment of modern Portugal. In A jangada de pedra (1986; trans Giovanni Pontiero as The Stone Raft 1994), Portugal and Spain are mysteriously broken off from the main of Europe, becoming an Island, adrift and isolated from the passage of true history elsewhere; in História do cerco de Lisboa (1989; trans Giovanni Pontiero as The History of the Siege of Lisbon 1997), a proofing error in a history of Portugal transforms the Myth of Origin [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] of that country. Saramago has often been compared to Jose Luis Borges and Franz Kafka; he has been called a Magic Realist, not convincingly, though his stories share some of the fixated energy characteristic of Gabriel García Márquez (1928-2014) [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]; contemporary writers who share his mythopoeic focus on the nature and fate of their native land include Milorad Pavić and (arguably) Umberto Eco.

Later works tend even more intensely to employ central conceits that transform superficially simple narratives into unmistakable multivalent allegories whose essential drift – Saramago was, in his words, a "libertarian Communist" – remained consistently and continually offensive to the world's officers (the Roman Catholic Church's official newspaper, l'Osservatore Romano, editorialized negatively on him after his death). In Ensaio sobre a cegueira (1995; trans Giovanni Pontiero and Margaret Jull Costa as Blindness 1997), everyone in a City, which may be coterminous with the world, suddenly succumbs to a Pandemic known as "white blindness", which duly blinds everyone except for a single woman, who is overwhelmed by terror at the nescience of the world now exposed; this novel was filmed as Blindness (2008), directed by Fernando Meirelles. In a thematic sequel, Ensaio sobre a Lucidez (2004; trans Margaret Jull Costa as Seeing 2006), all the inhabitants of the same unnamed City are blessed with truth-exposing vision, and no one votes for anyone in the election being held. The government falls. The inhabitants of probably not the same unnamed city, in As Intermitências da Morte (2005; trans Margaret Jull Costa as Death at Intervals 2008; vt Death With Interruptions 2008), stop dying. In a moderately playful sidebar to this rough sequence, O Conto da Ilha Desconhecida (1997 chap; trans Margaret Jull Costa as The Tale of the Unknown Island 1999 chap), the quest for an inherently unknowable Island ends in a world of dreams; the novellas was staged as The Unknown Island (October 2017 Gate, London) adapted by Ellen McDougall and Clare Slater.

The eponymous protagonist of Caim (2009; trans Margaret Jull Costa as Cain 2011) visits various events told in the Old Testament (see Time Travel) which are subjected to scathing Satire.

Saramago received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, despite the fact that his complexly integrated use of fantastic motifs markedly distinguishes him from the kind of Mainstream Writer of SF more usually awarded garden gongs. His funeral in Lisbon was attended by 20,000 mourners. [JC/LFS]

José de Sousa Saramago

born Golegã, Azinhaga, Satarém, Portugal: 16 November 1922

died Tias, Lanzarote, Canary Islands: 18 June 2010

works (selected)


  • Objecto Quase (Lisbon, Portugal: Moraes, 1978) [coll: binding unknown/]
    • The Lives of Things (London: Verso, 2012) [coll: trans by Giovanni Pontiero of the above: hb/James Hutcheson]


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