Jose Saramago, 1922 – 2010.

Jose Saramago, the Portuguese writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, died on June 18th, aged 87, at his home in Lanzarote in the Canary Islands.

Saramago lived all his 87 years with the greatest authenticity and vigour. He published his first novel at the age of 23 and his second 30 years later. Between these publications he worked as a mechanic, a metal worker, a welfare agency bureaucrat, a printing production manager, a proofreader, a translator and a newspaper columnist, before being fired from his newspaper for his communist political beliefs, after which he turned himself to writing full-time.

20,000 people attended his funeral in Lisbon, Portugal.

He won the Nobel prize for Literature in 1998 and was committed in word and living to his ideals before and after that. A mechanic and metal worker who found his hands capable of creation of another sort, he brought pleasure and anger and critique and love to all who listened and read.

An unconventional structure and surreal lyricism marked Saramago’s literary style and gathered to his novels a great following. He trusted his readers but doubted the moral practices of institutions and bureaucracies, eliciting a sense of warm, sceptical complicity between his narrator and the reader. These characteristics were often more obvious in his warmer and funnier novels such as “Death at Intervals” and “The Double”, but were present in his darker, more questing works like the harrowing “Blindness” and the politically fascinating “Seeing”.

His militant atheism focussed his mind and writing greatly on matters spiritual, producing one of his masterpieces “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ,” a book labelled blasphemous and deeply religious turn by critical turn.

Saramago’s body of work earned him international acclaim and the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature, not to mention the love and respect of his country and readers. The 20,000 people at his funeral is testament to his place in the minds and hearts of his people.

“Saramago for the last 25 years stood his own with any novelist of the Western world,” said the critic Harold Bloom. “He was the equal of Philip Roth, Gunther Grass, Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. His genius was remarkably versatile — he was at once a great comic and a writer of shocking earnestness and grim poignancy. It is hard to believe he will not survive.”

His novel, “The Elephant’s Journey” is released in NZ in late September, 2010.

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