Saramago, 76, a novelist who burst on to the literary scene only 16 years ago, had been top of insiders' shortlists for several years - a fact that appeared to disqualify him in the eyes of the Academy's controversy- seeking judges. Last year, they raised eyebrows by handing the cheque to the Italian "people's playwright", Dario Fo.
Saramago had long been tipped by The Independent as a Nobel winner of the Literature prize. In July 1993 he was awarded the The Independent's Foreign Fiction award for his novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, after being shortlisted for the prize in September 1992.
There was a look of profound disappointment on the faces of the literati gathered yesterday in the sumptuous Great Hall of the Swedish Academy. Perhaps the judges were, after all, sensitive to the controversy generated by their actions. Whatever their motive, Saramago was the safest choice.
The only criticism that could be levelled against his selection was that the Portuguese author is the second left-leaning southern European in a row, and the fourth European in succession to be award the prize - but then the Academy always denied it was prone to tokenism.
That ever-present mythical Asian poetess, always supposed to be next in line for the prize, must wait another year.
"Our criterion is exclusively a literary one," Sture Allen, the Academy's permanent secretary, declared on the eve on the announcement. By this yardstick, there can be few quibbles with the choice of Mr Saramago who, according to the official commendation, employs a vast array of "parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony.
"Saramago's idiosyncratic development of his own resonant style of fiction gives him a high standing," the Academy's statement said.
"For all his independence, Saramago invokes tradition in a way that ... can be described as radical. His oeuvre resembles a series of projects, with each one more or less disavowing the others, but all involving a new attempt to come to grips with an illusory reality."
On Blindness, one of his more recent works, the commendation said: "Saramago's exuberant imagination, capriciousness and clear-sightedness find full expression in this irrationally engaging work."
The Swedish Academy's 18 members, entrusted by the last will of Alfred Nobel, select each year's winner from nominations received by fellow academicians and Nobel laureates from around the world.
The members rely to a great extent on the advice of a network of experts, and they are expected to read the works of only the five or six who reach the final secret shortlist, selected by a committee of six.
The literature prize recognises writing that works "in an ideal direction". The Nobel Prize over the years has been given to writers with world views stretching from the bleak futility of Samuel Beckett's works to the vivid epics of Iceland's Halldor Laxness.
Previous winners include Winston Churchill and Bertrand Russell, who did not work in fiction or poetry.