José Saramago was the master of reinvention

This great writer and inveterate political renegade deserves to be better known outside his native Portugal.

José Saramago
José Saramago. Credit: INTERFOTO / Alamy Stock Photo

José Saramago decided to invent the grammar himself. Why not? The Portuguese political renegade was already in his sixties when Baltasar and Blimundahis searing satire on the Portuguese political process, burst upon the literary scene in 1982.

These were still days of transition from the long rule of António de Oliveira Salazar, ‘the dictator who refused to die,’ who governed the country from 1932 to 1968.

Saramago refused to compromise on politics. So, why should piffling grammatical convention restrain his literary flow?

Always at odds with the establishment, even late in life in the 1990s, with the centre right Social Democratic Party (PSD) in power under the increasingly right wing Prime Minister Aníbal Cavaco Silva, Saramago felt compelled to flee Lisbon for Spanish Gran Canaria on account of his communist principles. He died there in 2010, aged 87. The former car mechanic – he turned to journalism in his fifties – had decided once more to reinvent himself.

Eventually, in 1998 the Nobel Committee saw it Saragamo’s way and awarded him the prize for literature. But until seeing Blimunda, an opera by Azio Corghi, at Lisbon’s Teatro Nacional de São Carlos last year, Saramago had not crossed my boundary of consciousness.

I have since been captivated. His work was mostly published in Portuguese, sporadically translated into English. Baltasar and Blimunda languished untranslated for five years. Vintage Classics now does a stalwart job, publishing excellent translations.

Bowled over by the opera, intrigued, I sought out the book upon which the libretto was based — in English — and found myself cast adrift on an ocean of punctuation-free prose, the stream of consciousness of James Joyce’s Ulysses, in which the voices of characters meld without the benefit of commas, full stops, quotation marks, capital letters, or any useful literary map to hasten the reader’s journey to comprehension.

Saramago, like Joyce, puts his readers to work. And it is astonishing how quickly the mind adapts to this modernist form of unstructured prose. The characters’ dialogue quickly becomes immersive and easily understood.

But I did not get even this far on my Saramago saga before I had made a complete ass of myself. Dark-corner book shops make Lisbon a bibliophile’s dream. Livraria sà de Costa, next door to my hotel in the bustling Chiado quarter, beckoned invitingly.

It was not a shop. It was a musty cave, books racked in an incomprehensible maze. Books were on the floor. Books were on the stairs. Books were on the counters. Books were stacked in towers of supermarket bags awaiting their turn on the shelves, post-cataloguing. Some had been waiting a long time, their confining bags decomposing quietly.

After my customary, feeble apology for not speaking Portuguese I asked the Hobbit behind the counter if he, just possibly, stocked any books by Saramago. Frodo fixed me with a pitying gaze and sweepingly gestured to a teeming, shelved landscape of Saramago’s works behind him. I had stumbled unawares into a goldmine. José Saramago is a prophet honoured mostly in his own country.

Lisbon is a city with a fine literary tradition. From the sixteenth-century illumination of manuscripts, related in Richard Zimmler’s The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, to Livraria Bertrand do Chiado, the oldest bookshop in the world, opened in 1732, with its intensive programme of literary events.

Literature still runs through Lisbon’s veins. I am fortunate to be a reciprocal member of Grémio Literário, an institution founded by Queen Donna Maria II in 1846. To this day, it is a happy refuge for politicians, writers and artists, holding many literary get togethers. In the bustling capital it is a place of unexpected silences. Spending an afternoon in the library is akin to stepping through a portal to a calmer universe.

Saramago was celebrated there in the 1990s and ‘correspondence’ with other international clubs is encouraged. My association happens to be via The University Club in New York, home to the largest private library in the USA.

What is the ‘feel’ of Saramago’s work? Historical/mystical. Baltasar and Blimunda, apart from forming the basis of a riveting opera libretto, is set in early eighteenth-century Lisbon. Baltasar, a soldier who has lost his left hand in battle, falls in love with Blimunda, a young girl with visionary powers. He follows her home from the auto-da-fé after witnessing her mother being burnt at the stake for witchcraft. Together, the two are unassailable.

Set against the political backdrop of attempts of King Joāo V to father a child with Queen Dona Maria Ana Josefa, the novel outlines the conflict between church and state. If the queen conceives, Joāo will build a monastery at Mafra – now a prime Portuguese architectural jewel. He is hooked on the promise.

Persecution stalks every corridor. Saramago blends politics, religious belief and mysticism into a powerful cocktail, enhanced by his genius for description. The journey of a massively oversized altar stone to Mafra, through mud, rain and narrow streets, crushing the occasional labourer en route, is a masterpiece, and magical realism at its very best.

The Portuguese late prodigy also shatters complacency. His style instantly draws the reader into the drama he is creating, be it eighteenth-century Portugal or the present day. He is terrifyingly relevant. He spares no gory detail – of violence, sexual aggression, or physical deformity. Yet, he never crosses the frontier of gratuity.

For instance, Blindnesswritten in 1995 is about a contagion of white blindness that suddenly spreads indiscriminately. The book deals with the authorities’ heavy-handed response and the breakdown of the victims when they are confined to mental asylums. Society doesn’t veer towards dystopia. It collapses into it: George Orwell’s 1984  meets William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.  Blindness was produced as a film in 2008, by Brazilian director, Fernando Meirelles, to mixed reviews. Too upsetting. Remind you of anything? Welcome to Covid 19 lockdown, especially as practised in authoritarian China.

The self-described ‘liberalist Communist’ never allowed his romantic left wing views to be dashed upon the rock of Soviet reality. He happily ignored the oxymoronic irony of his professed philosophy and remained a member of the Portuguese Communist Party until his death. Perhaps it is that streak of romantic optimism that makes his books so appealing.

José Saramago, apart from being a great writer, is a useful lens through which to bring the rich Portuguese literary tradition into focus. No visit to Lisbon will now ever be complete without a visit to the Hobbit, his mouldering bags of books, and that Saramago sub-stack.


Gerald Malone