Friday, 2 November 2012

A Short José Saramago Biography

Before we jump into José Saramago’s literature, I believe a short biography will help get a better idea about the man and his work.

José Saramago was born in 1922. His great-grandfather was a North African Berber presumed to have fled to Portugal because of a crime. His grandfather, Jerónimo, abandoned when he was a baby, was a keeper of pigs from Ribatejo, one of Portugal’s poorest regions, a desert-like place inhabited mostly by small farmers, peasants and artisans. His father, José de Sousa, was far away at work when his wife was giving birth. He got the surname Saramago unintentionally, one of the episodes that the author most enjoyed repeating in his personal writings: the civil registry clerk, allegedly drunk or out of malice, added Saramago to the family name. Saramago, or horseradish, is a plant known for its acrid taste and for irritating the eyes, and so it was a kind of pejorative nickname. His father only discovered this when he enrolled Saramago in school; much to his father’s chagrin, not only wasn’t he allowed to rectify the name but he actually had to add Saramago to his own name too. The author often joked that he was the first child to name his own father.

Saramago’s father was a Portuguese soldier in World War I. Years later he got a job in the police, which at the time allowed a bit of social mobility. In 1923 José de Sousa moved to Lisbon, and at the start of 1924 his family moved there too. On the same year Saramago’s older brother, Francisco, died. This caused his mother to grow emotionally distant from him. Saramago, in fact, wrote very little about his parents, with whom, from what we know, he had difficult relationships. His father, for instance, hated communists and was a supporter of Franco during the Spanish Civil War (in 1926 a military coup had turned the country into a dictatorship, whose dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar, was an ally of Franco). We know little more about him except that he died in 1964, having made it to sub-chief of the PSP, the Portuguese police. His mother still lived long enough to see his son become a renowned writer with the 1980 novel Raised from the Ground.

We know a bit more about his grandparents, especially because Saramago paid homage to them in autobiographical newspaper articles. Young Saramago preferred the holiday seasons in the house of his maternal grandparents, Jerónimo and Josefa, in his birthplace village of Azinhaga. Jerónimo kept and bred rabbits and pigs, and Saramago wrote of how the piglets, essential to their sustenance, shared a bed with the boy in order to stay warm at night. Saramago wrote in his memoirs of his lonely walks through the fields, his trips with uncles to fairs to sell and buy things, and the humble existence of the farmers, a period in life he fondly remembered and that left strong marks on his personality and literary work, most notably on Raised from the Ground and The Cave. Saramago later paid homage to the formative years of his life when, in his Nobel speech, he called Jerónimo the wisest man he ever knew.

In Lisbon his favourite pastime was the movies, which he watched whenever he had money. When he didn’t have any, he used the movie posters as inspiration to invent stories that he told to his friends. From the starte he had a vivid imagination. His favourite genres were horror and science fiction.

Up until 1937 Saramago’s family lived in more than ten apartments, whose rooms they shared with other families. Only in 1937 did they get their own apartment. Like I wrote, Saramago had a very poor childhood, sometimes having to resort to charity to survive.  Still, for a boy of his social background he managed to study longer than most children at the time. Generally he had good grades. He was considered precocious and had gotten an early habit of reading newspapers. However, the expensive costs of keeping him in school forced his parents to enrol him in a technical school, which was cheaper, took less time to finish and offered better chances of employment. Between 1935 and 1940 he studied in an industrial school in Lisbon where he learned sawing and mechanics. Saramago wrote well of these years in his diaries, of the teachers who taught him important life lessons. In 1941 he was hired for the Lisbon Civil Hospitals workshops. Wearing a blue overall, he spent all day fixing engines. But thanks to his knowledge of writing and mathematics he was promoted to the administrative staff of the hospital. By this time he started developing a critical and proto-communistic spirit, troubled by the strident subservience to authority he saw around him, but he was still far from joining the PCP, the Portuguese Communist Party.

In 1944, freshly married to Ilda Reis, he left his parents’ home. Between 1944 and 1946 he wrote poems, which continue unpublished and preserved in his archives. In 1947 his only child, a baby girl called Violante, was born. On the same year he published his first novel, Terra do Pecado. It came and went without readers and critics noticing it, deservedly because it's not very good. He bought his first books with money he borrowed from a colleague. However he managed to read a lot thanks to the public libraries of Lisbon, which he patronized frequently. In them he discovered Eça de Queiroz, Raul Brandão, Almada Negreiros, the poems of Ricardo Reis (whom at first he thought was a real poet), as well as Cervantes and Montaigne, and the Enlightenment philosophers who deeply influenced him, like Diderot and Voltaire. Of contemporary Portuguese literature he was alienated, as his first novel attests, written in the outdated style of an Eça novel (it was in fact similar to Cousin Bazilio), without taking into consideration the new movements of modernism, surrealism and existentialism emerging around him.

Between 1947 and 1953 he wrote a lot: novels, theatres, poetry, short-stories. He had short-stories, that haven’t yet been collected, published in newspapers and magazines of the time. But several projects were left incomplete. Many of these texts can now be found in his Foundation, in Lisbon. During this period he did complete and submit the novel Clarabóia to an editor, but he didn’t reply and Saramago ended up losing interest in it, or he forgot about it (it was published at last in 2011, posthumously at his request).

In 1955 he started translating books and working for the Editorial Estúdios Cor publisher, a part-time job since he had another job in an insurance agency. For this publisher he wrote blurbs, was involved in the process of printing books, and even drew illustrations for some, a skill he had learned in school. In 1959, thanks to the intervention of a friend, he was appointed literary director. Thus he became better known in Portugal’s literary circles, even though he had a hard time, or lack of interesting, in joining them. He maintained professional relationships with writers like José Rodrigues Miguéis, Adolfo Casais Monteiro (a seminal Fernando Pessoa scholar), Jorge de Sena, to whom he wrote in 1963 that he was thinking of emigrating to Brazil, and others. He translated Colette, Erich Maria Remarque, Guy de Maupassant, Charles Baudelaire and Tolstoy (always from French, of course). During his tenure, EEC published contemporary writers like Günter Grass.

Saramago didn’t publish a new book until 1966, and it was poetry, Os Poemas Possíveis. Again, they were considered outdated and didn’t cause any impression. Truth be said, Saramago was trying to break into Portuguese poetry, which has amazing standards, and it would have been practically impossible to have caused a splash in a generation that included Sophia de Mello Breyner, Jorge de Sena, Eugénio de Andrade, Herberto Hélder, Alexandre O’Neill and Mário Cesariny. Saramago himself wasn’t used to patronize cafés where writers gathered and so he was out of touch with what was being done and he didn’t fit in any of the movements and groups of the time.

In 1968 he added a new job besides his editorial duties: he started writing crónicas, small newspaper articles about the quotidian (currently collected in several volumes), and literary criticism for the seminal Seara Nova magazine (alas, yet to be collected; it seems he was pretty harsh on important writers like Agustina Bessa-Luís and José Cardoso Pires. I’m dying to read them one day). In 1968 Salazar’s reign also came to an end, after he fell from a chair (Saramago turned this ridiculous event into an extraordinary short-story called “Chair”), and he was replaced by Marcello Caetano.

Then in 1969 he joined the clandestine PCP, an experience that no doubt he later used in Raised from the Ground. His daughter was already a militant of the MRPP (a Maoist-inclined communist party. Durão Barroso, the current President of the European Commision, was a member once) and was detained in the infamous Caxias prison, for political prisoners, where the he visited her, in 1973.

In 1970 he published a second book of poems, Provavelmente Alegria, with a more modern style, slightly surrealistic in imagery, and it got better attention from critics and writers, if not by the readers. He was already known in the literary circles for his work as editor, but he still struggled to affirm himself as a writer. In 1970 he divorced Ilda Reis and started living with Portuguese writer Isabel da Nóbrega (he originally dedicated Baltasar and Blimunda to her; after their breakup, he removed the dedication from future editions).

Still in 1971 his crónicas were collected in book form: Deste Mundo e do Outro. In 1971 he also abandoned his job as director of the Editorial Estúdios Cor after stockholders imposed the poet Natália Correia as new director without consulting him first. Although they asked him to stay and continue to work for the publisher, Saramago quit. Between 1972 and 1973 he was the editor of the Diário de Lisboa newspaper. Like his crónicas, his editorials were heavily censored by the government, although that didn’t stop him from using them to discuss contemporary politics and to criticise the government. In 1973 a second book of crónicas came out out: A Bagagem do Viajante. On the milestone year of 1974, Saramago was flagged by the secret police to be arrested some time during April. But on April 25 there was a military coup, known as the Carnation Revolution, that overthrew Marcello Caetano and paved the way for democracy. As Opiniões que o DL Teve, collecting his editorials, came out the same year.

In 1975, his third and final book of poetry came out, the epic poem O Ano de 1993, a science-fiction parable about a popular uprising of men against a government of machines. Saramago had started this poem as a response to the frustration he felt after a failed military coup that had occurred on March 16, 1974.

The year of 1975 was also the year of all years in Portuguese history. I don’t even know where to start. After Marcello Caetano is overthrown, the army sets in motion the conditions to get a government democratically elected as quickly as possible. But things get complicated. First of all, General António Spínola, who in a way had blessed the Revolution and become the temporary chief of state, concerned with the sharp turn to the left in Portugal and upset with granting full independence to the African colonies, tries to take power for himself through force and to install a new right-wing dictatorship. Through the efforts of several political parties and soldiers still loyal to the ideals of the Revolution, his goals are thwarted. A new chief of state is selected to govern Portugal until the conditions are ready for elections: Coronel Vasco Gonçalves. Gonçalves, who was Spínola’s opposite in the political spectrum, saw it as his duty to defend and spread the ideals of socialism on which the Revolution had been started. Meanwhile Spínola, in Spain, sets up an extreme right-wing group and tries to take over power again, only to be stopped once more. Failing, he runs to Spain and then Brazil (where Caetano, incidentally, was living too). With tensions mounting, Gonçalves reinforces socialism and starts nationalizing banks, factories, transportation, the industry, schools, hospitals, etc. Elections are held and the votes are shared between PS (the Socialist Party) and PSD (Social-Democratic Party) leaving out the communists. Extreme left-wing groups appear, to add to the already existing right-wing ones. There are bombings and assassinations on both sides, take-overs of houses, factories and newspapers. Henry Kissinger and the USS Saratoga, anchored in the Tejo, are watching, the CIA have officers in Lisbon analysing the situation, and Portuguese politicians are operating on the backstage and doing deals with them. It’s only the Watergate scandal that’s keeping Nixon too busy to do something about Portugal, which can easily go Pinochet or Castro at any moment. It was the “hot summer” of 1975.

What does Saramago have to do with this? Well, in 1975 he’s appointed by Vasco Gonçalves as director of the Diário de Notícias newspaper. Saramago, who didn’t hide his sympathy for socialism, turned the newspaper into a vehicle to help spread its ideas in Portugal and to effectively turn it into a socialist state. But not all staff shared his socialist line for the newspaper. One day three or four journalists walked into his office and handed him a petition signed by almost half the journalists disagreeing with his policies. Some, old fascists, genuinely missed the fallen regime, but others were ordinary journalists who wanted to keep an impartial and objective newspaper. Saramago passed the matter to a general meeting to decide what to do about this. In the end the assembly voted in favour of firing the disgruntled journalists. Saramago was one of the people who voted in favour of this decision. About twenty four journalists were fired. In his defence, this was something frequently done at the time. Before him, the direction of the DN, which was connected to the PS, had done the same to whoever didn’t tow their line. And after the November 25 coup that effectively ended the road to socialism in Portugal, some 300 left-wing journalists, Saramago included, were also fired for the simple reason that they didn’t belong to the side of the victors. It’s important to understand that Vasco Gonçalves’ transitional government wasn’t connected to the actual parties like PS, PSD and PCP, which were operating on the margins, undermining it and wrestling power from it. Saramago wasn’t writing for any of them or even on their side, in fact he was often against them all, even against the communists. That’s why, although he was a member of the communist party, the PCP didn’t offer him a job after he was fired like it did to so many other journalists fired in similar circumstances. Saramago always saw this as an act of betrayal and in his diaries, written in the ‘90s, he was still bitter about it. However he later considered it the best thing that ever happened to him because it forced him to devote himself fully to writing. Then in 1976 Portugal finally became a democracy again.

Between 1976 and 1980 Saramago had to support himself mainly with translations and by writing for newspapers and magazines like Seara Nova. In 1976 the book collecting his editorials for the DN, Os Apontamentos, came out. In 1977 he published his second novel, Manual of Painting and Calligraphy. It’s unique in his oeuvre because it’s written in the first person singular; it’s semi-autobiographical, and follows the life of a painter who’s having trouble painting and so starts writing his thoughts. Although it was a far cry from his distinctive voice, it was a more mature, complex novel. In 1978 The Lives of Things came out, a collection of short-stories. In 1979 he wrote on order a theatrical play, A Noite, revolving about what’s going on in the newsroom of a fascist newspaper on the night of the Carnation Revolution. He received his first literary prize for it. In 1980 he wrote another play, O Que Farei com este Livro?, about the life of the epic poet Luís de Camões.

In 1976 he also started writing Raised from the Ground. He moved to an agricultural cooperative, where he lived with peasants, recorded conversations with them, watched them at work, and collected material about their lives, histories and traditions to compose the novel. It was his breakthrough novel that finally revealed his unique voice and immediatey brought him fame in Portugal. He was halfway into the novel, writing it in a conventional manner but unhappy with the neorealist style he was using, when suddenly he started writing the way the peasants talked to him, orally, mixing stories within stories, digressing, using sayings and proverbs. He then re-wrote the novel with his new style. First rejected by Bertrand (the publisher of Aquilino Ribeiro and Vergílio Ferreira), he submitted the novel to Caminho, which had already published A Noite. Later in his diaries Saramago revealed the influence of nouvelle histoire on him, a French school of historiography that rejected the great narratives and focused on individuals' motivations and intentions, which inspired Saramago to search for the voiceless and anonymous of history, a purpose he took to new heights with his next novel.

Baltasar and Blimunda (1982) is a historical novel that mixes fact, fiction and magical realism. Essentially it’s about the construction of the Convent of Mafra, but Saramago uses it as an entry point into the Portugal of the 18th century in order to analyse the lives of workers, the Inquisition, the royalty and more, amidst a love story. It was his first international success and by the end of the 1980s it had been published in fifteen languages. In 1990 the Italian composer Azio Corghi adapted it into an opera, Blimunda. Saramago refused a Hollywood offer of one million dollars to have it turned into a movie.

In 1983 he published Journey to Portugal, after extensive travels from one side to another of the country. It was a book written on order, which he wrote mostly for the money. Having made most of the trips described in the book during my childhood, I can’t say I liked the book very much. It’s not something I recommend. But it left Saramago financially taken care of. In the same year he started writing The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. Remembering how he once had considered Ricardo Reis real, he decided to write a fictional book about his death. He kept a diary of the year 1936, which he filled with dates, trivia and events of the same year, using his own memories of that time (he was fourteen then) and by also visiting libraries to read old newspapers. In 1984 the novel comes out, and it’s perhaps his magnum opus.

With the then recent integration of Portugal and Spain in the European Union, his next novel, The Stone Raft (1986), seemed like an appeal for the two Iberian countries to carve a shared future, away from Europe. This novel imagines what happens when the Iberian Peninsula breaks free of the European continent and sails deep into the Atlantic until it stops. Saramago was a fierce euro-sceptic, something we’ll see next week in his diaries.

In 1986 he met Spanish journalist and translator Pilar del Río, who had fallen in love with his books after reading Baltasar and Blimunda. She managed to meet him in Lisbon and Saramago showed her the city (and took her to visit Fernando Pessoa’s grave). In 1987 he published his third play, A Segunda Vida de Francisco de Assis, and in 1988 he and Pilar married. In 1989 a new novel came out, The History of the Siege of Lisbon, a story where the founding of Portugal is re-imagined after an editor deliberately adds the word not in a history book. Also in 1989 he was elected for and served in Lisbon’s Municipal Assembly, for one month anyway, representing the PCP, but exasperated with the diktats of party, he quit. Although Saramago is commonly known as a communist, he never had too many close ties with it. His communism is mostly a question of personal convictions and a social inevitability given his poor backgrounds his life under a fascist dictatorship, but he seldom kowtowed to the Party’s line and he was never a very expressive militant.

In 1991 he published the milestone novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, a novel that left deep marks in his life, for the wrong reasons. The author got the title after he misread a headline in Seville, Spain, that gave him the idea of writing the life of Jesus Christ from his own human perspective. He travelled to Israel and started studying religion and the ancient Jewish traditions, and even consulted Jewish friends for advice, and visited museums to study medieval paintings for inspiration. Religion was a topic that had fascinated him all his life, since the ‘50s at least; he had in fact considered writing a fictionalised biography of the Jesuit priest Father António Vieira. When the novel, arguably his best after the one about Ricardo Reis, came out, it was like a grenade exploding in the heart of conservative and deeply Catholic Portuguese society. The government, then of the right, removed the novel from a European Literary Prize. Other Portuguese novelists nominated for it removed their own books in protest. The case was compared to Salman Rushdie’s, which Saramago considered absurd. The European Union itself intervened, urging the government to reinstate the book in the list of nominees. Society was divided. Some newspapers used the occasion to dig up the old DN case of the fired journalists and Saramago was accused of hypocrisy and having performed censorship too. A curious fact I learned from the diaries is that his Swedish translator refused to translate the novel, invoking religious beliefs. In the end the government had to reinstate the book in the list again, but Saramago refused to take part in the award. Furthermore, shortly afterwards he moved to Lanzarote, in the Canary Islands, although he continued to maintain strong ties with Portugal.

His exile in Lanzarote also coincided with the fall of the Soviet Union. In the 1990s Saramago’s novels became more universal and started adopting the form of parables. Leaving behind themes about Portugal’s history and culture, and after directing his attention to Jesus Christ, the West’s creational myth, it seemed like he had nothing else to say about History, which Francis Fukuyama said had reached its end anyway. As if he were starting from a blank slate, his next novels started taking place in unnamed countries, as if he were addressing the essential questions of the entire world. He was especially interested in the human condition in the post-modern, post-soviet, neoliberal, globalized world. After writing in 1993 a play for the German city of Münster - In Nomine Dei, also turned by Azio Corghi into an opera, Divara – he started working on his next novel. With Blindness (1995) he launched an indignant attack on human indifference, cruelty, violence and the degradation of moral values. It’s Saramago’s most unpleasant and disturbing novel, filled with murder, rape and violent incidents and descriptions. The same year he received the Camões Prize, the most important literary prize of the Portuguese language.

He followed Blindness with All The Names (1997), a whimsical but tragic novel about loneliness, the cult of celebrities and bureaucracy, the intrusion of privacy in the modern world, and love. Saramago got the idea for this novel after he started investigating the causes of death of hiw brother, Francisco. The same year he wrote The Tale of the Unknown Island, a novella made on order for the Expo ’98 that can be ignored.

Then in 1998 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature, making him the first Portuguese-language writer to receive it, a decision that was met with some surprise but mainly agreement, save for those who continued to attack him for his communism and atheism. In his blog, years later, Saramago wrote that the Swedish Academy, before deciding to give him the Nobel Prize, a decison based mostly on the recent Blindness, appointed one of their members to read All The Names, just to make sure they hadn't made a mistake. Since it hadn’t yet been translated into Swedish, he had to use a dictionary and read it over the summer. After finishing it, he concluded that it was a great novel and that Saramago no doubt deserved of the Nobel.

In 1999 came out his last book of newspaper articles, Folhas Políticas, collecting material written between 1976 and 1998. The Cave (2000), his first novel after the Nobel Prize, deals with dehumanization, the growing uniformity of the world, the destruction of traditions, and consumerism. It’s often overlooked but it’s one of his most beautiful novels. In 2002 The Double came out, dealing with identity, and he also tried his hand at a children’s book, A Maior Flor do Mundo. 2004 saw the publication of Seeing, the loose sequel to Blindness, in which he sarcastically dissected the so-called crisis of democracy in the Western world. With Death With Interruptions, in 2005, he closed his cycle of parabolic novels. His fifth and final play, Don Giovanni ou O Dissoluto Absolvido, was also published.

In September 2008, Saramago started keeping a blog and continued writing it almost up until his death in 2010. The articles were later collected in two books and, together with his five diaries, constitute the best sources of knowledge and information about the author’s personal life, alongside his autobiography, Small Memories, published in 2006. His last two novels are sadly very weak: in 2008 there was The Elephant’s Journey, and in 2009 Cain, this last one being only remarkable for all the religious controversy it stirred up once again in Portugal.

José Saramago, whose health had deteriorated considerably in the previous year, passed away in 2010, leaving a novel incomplete. In 2011 Clarabóia, the novel he had written in 1953, was finally published. Although he's no longer with us, he left many great books to be read for years to come.

Tomorrow we find out who were Saramago’s 11 favourite writers. Start making your lists.


  1. Very insightful biography and commentary Miguel.

    Interesting that Saramago refused to go for a movie version of Baltasar and Blimunda. It was probably for the best that he did so.

    1. Brian, thanks.

      More curious is that he refused a one million dollar offer, but then during the '90s he sold his rights to an independent filmmaker to adapt The Stone Raft. Obviously money didn't matter to him; this makes me respect him a lot more.

  2. What a meaty biography. I like how Saramago came out as a complex character. haha.

    1. Thanks, I used lots of sources to gather the information: his blogs, his diaries, his memoirs, a biography, but I still it could have been better written.