• Birth—November 16, 1922
• Where—Azinhaga, Santarem, Portugal
• Death—June 18, 2010
• Where—Lanzarote, Spain (Canary Islands)
• Awards—Noble Prize; Portuguese PEN Club Award
Jose Saramago was a Nobel-laureate Portuguese novelist, playwright and journalist. His works, some of which can be seen as allegories, commonly present subversive perspectives on historic events, emphasizing the human factor.
His books have been translated into 25 languages. He founded the National Front for the Defence of Culture (Lisbon, 1992) with Freitas-Magalhaes and others. A proponent of libertarian communism, Saramago came into conflict with some groups, including the Catholic Church.
Saramago was born in 1922 into a family of landless peasants in Azinhaga, Portugal, a small village in the province of Ribatejo some hundred kilometers northeast of Lisbon. His parents were Josede Sousa and Maria de Piedade. "Saramago," a wild herbaceous plant known in English as the wild radish, was his father's family's nickname, and was accidentally incorporated into his name upon registration of his birth. In 1924, Saramago's family moved to Lisbon, where his father started working as a policeman.
A few months after the family moved to the capital, his brother Francisco, older by two years, died. Jose spent vacations with his grandparents in Azinhaga. When his grandfather suffered a stroke and was to be taken to Lisbon for treatment, Saramago recalled, "He went into the yard of his house, where there were a few trees, fig trees, olive trees. And he went one by one, embracing the trees and crying, saying good-bye to them because he knew he would not return. To see this, to live this, if that doesn't mark you for the rest of your life," Saramago said, "you have no feeling."
Although Saramago was a good pupil, his parents were unable to afford to keep him in grammar school, and instead moved him to a technical school at age 12. After graduating, he worked as a car mechanic for two years. Later he worked as a translator, then as a journalist. He was assistant editor of the newspaper Diario de Noticias, a position he had to leave after the political events in 1975. This is the darkest period of his life. While assistant editor, he fired 24 journalists who demanded more pluralism in the editorial line of the newspaper.
After a period of working as a translator he was able to support himself as a writer. Saramago married Ilda Reis in 1944. Their only child, Violante, was born in 1947. From 1988 until his death in June 2010 Saramago was married to the Spanish journalist Pilar del Río, who is the official translator of his books into Spanish.
Jose Saramago didn't achieve widespread recognition and acclaim until he was sixty, when his publication of Baltasar and Blimunda brought him to the attention of an international readership. This novel won the Portuguese PEN Club Award.
He became a member of the Portuguese Communist Party in 1969 and remained so until the end of his life. Saramago was also an atheist and self-described pessimist. His views have aroused considerable controversy in Portugal, especially after his publication of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. In 1992, the Portuguese government, under Prime Minister Aníbal Cavaco Silva, ordered the removal of The Gospel from the European Literary Prize's shortlist, claiming the work was religiously offensive. Saramago complained of censorship and moved to Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, Spain, where he resided until his death.
His Noble Prize came as a surprise to Saramago. As his Portuguese editor, Zeferino Coelho, recalled: "When he won the Nobel, Saramago said to me, 'I was not born for all this glory.' I told him, 'You may not have been made for this glory, but I was!'" He used his Nobel lecture to call his grandfather Jeronimo "the wisest man [he] ever knew." Despite the award, though, he remained a divisive character in Portugal, both criticised and praised.
Saramago died on 18 June 2010, aged 87 in Lanzarote, Spain. Described by the Guardian (UK) as "the finest Portuguese writer of his generation," while Fernanda Eberstadt of the New York Times said he was "known almost as much for his unfaltering Communism as for his fiction." Saramago's translator, Margaret Jull Costa, paid tribute to him, describing his "wonderful imagination" and calling him "the greatest contemporary Portuguese writer."
Saramago had continued his writing until his death. His most recent publication, Cain, was published in 2009 ( English translationin 2010).
Portugal declared two days of mourning. There were verbal tributes from senior international politicians: Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (Brazil), Bernard Kouchner (France) and Jose Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (Spain), while Cuba's Raul and Fidel Castro sent floral tributes. l'Osservatore Romano, a newspaper run by the Vatican, used its Sunday editorial to label Saramago "an anti-religious ideologue" and "populist extremist".
Saramago's funeral was held in Lisbon on 20 June 2010, in the presence of more than 20,000 people, many of whom had travelled hundreds of kilometres, but also notably in the absence of right-wing President of Portugal Aníbal Cavaco Silva who holidayed in Azores as the ceremony took place. Silva, the Prime Minister when Saramago's name was removed from the shortlist of the European Literary Prize, said he did not attend Saramago's funeral because he "had never had the privilege to know him."
Mourners, who questioned Silva's absence in the presence of reporters, held copies of the red carnation, symbolic of Portugal's democratic revolution. Saramago's cremation took place in Lisbon, with his ashes scattered in his birthplace of Azinhaga and in Lanzarote, his home until his death. (Adapted from Wikipedia.)
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