Jose Saramago (1922 – 2010) Creator of Wild and Powerful Allegories

    “Inside us there is something that has no name, that something is what we are.”

Imagine if the Iberian Peninsula, containing Spain and Portugal, broke off from Europe and drifted all over the Atlantic Ocean.  That is just what Jose Saramago imagined in his novel “The Stone Raft”.

Saramago, one of the giants of modern literature, died  recently. 

Jose Saramago wrote sustained allegories.  Many of us are familiar with his wonderful novel “Blindness” which is about a mysterious epidemic of white blindness that paralyzes a major city. 

    “I think we are blind. Blind people who can see, but do not see.”

I first discovered Jose Saramago in the early 1990s.  The first novel of his that I read was “The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis” which some critics consider his finest work.  Although Saramago’s sentences would sometimes go on for more than a page, I had no difficulty following him, loved this novel.  That novel also introduced me to another of the Portuguese literary giants, Fernando Pessoa, because Ricardo Reis was one of Pessoa’s alter-egos for his poems.  Actually there have been a triumvirate of Portuguese literary giants :  Jose Maria Eca de Quieroz, Fernando Pessoa, and Jose Saramago.  I’ve already written on Fernando Pessoa, I am writing now on Jose Saramago, and sometime soon I will write on Jose Maria Eca de Queiroz who was the first nineteenth century Portuguese literary giant. 

After initially reading Jose Saramago, I knew I had to read more of his work.  I read “Baltazar and Blimunda”, “The History of the Siege of Lisbon”, “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ”,  and “The Stone Raft”.  All were allegories; all were excellent.  By this time, Jose Saramago was one of my very favorite writers.  Then he won the Nobel Prize in 1998, one of the few times that the Swedish Academy got it right.  The Swedish Academy praised his “parables sustained by imagination, compassion, and irony”.

The only disappointment I’ve ever had reading Saramago was his very short novel “The Tale of the Unknown Island”.  Here was an allegory I couldn’t figure out.  Perhaps I should give it another try.

In the early 2000s, I moved on to other writers and did not keep up with Saramago.  He published several books during that time.  Finally the buzz surrounding his novel “Blindness” was so loud I could not ignore it. “Blindness” is an incredible novel, another powerful allegory.   As in most of Saramago’s allegories, the details of the specific situation are so precise and feel so right that you buy into the most outlandish story lines.  “Blindness” is a triumph, and now I intend to read Saramago’s other recent novels. 

Saramago left Portugal to live in the Spanish Canary Islands because the Portuguese government would not let his work “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ” compete for the European Literary prize arguing it offended the Catholic community.  Saramago’s  translator Margaret Jull Costa hailed his “wonderful imagination” and his focus on the “dignity of the ordinary man”.

I would like to end with three more quotes from Jose Saramago.

    “Liking is probably the best form of ownership, and ownership the worst form of liking.” – The Tale of the Unknown Island”
    “We all have our moments of weakness, just as well that we are still capable of weeping, tears are often our salvation, there are times when we would die if we did not weep. – “Blindness”
    “We never consider that the things dogs know about us are things of which we have the faintest notion. – “Death with Interruptions”

The last two Saramago novels, “The Elephant’s Journey” and “Cain”, have not yet been published in English translations, but can be expected soon.  “Cain” is – what else? – an allegory of the Old Testament from the point of view of Adam’s son Cain.

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8 responses to this post.

  1. Jose Saramago (1922 ? 2010) Creator of Wild and Powerful Allegories…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

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  2. Lovely post Tony. He is on my tbr but I haven’t got to him yet. I really need to read more European literature. And i love the quotes you’ve chosen. They make you think…love the one about dogs in particular, given the novel I’ve just read.

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  3. Hi Whispering Gums,
    Yes, that last quote does fit in quite well with ‘Dog Boy’ by Eva Horning, doesn’t it? I’m leaning toward ‘Death with Interruptions’ as my next Saramago read despite the morbid title. I certainly will read ‘Cain’ when that book becomes available in English. I thought his ‘The Gospel According to Jesus Christ’ was spectacularly good, and am looking forward to another Saramago return to the Bible.

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  4. Posted by Kevin Neilson on July 1, 2010 at 5:00 PM

    Ah, this reminds me that Saramago is so very good with the technique that D. Mitchell in Thousands struggles to employ: free indirect discourse. The master, Saramago is! Cheers, Kevin

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  5. Hi Kevin,
    Interesting comparison between David Mitchell and Saramago. I’ve read Mitchell’s ‘Black Swan Green’ which I thought was excellent. Then after reading all the praise regarding ‘Cloud Atlas’, I attempted to read that book, but quit after only 50-60 pages. There is a lot of interesting discussion regarding his new book which you mention. I need to pay more attention to writers’ devices such as indirect discourse. Thanks for stopping by.

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  6. Your post is very interesting – and you obviously know far more about Saramago than I do – the only one I’ve read is Blindness which was very impressive. Its exciting to read that we have two more posthumous novels coming our way and I will look out for them both

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    • Hi Tom,
      I’m especially looking forward to Cain, because of its biblical reference. I really want to get Saramago’s take on all those bible stories I read and was told as a child.

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