Saramago the atheist, an outsider in his own land

Elizabeth Nash
Thursday 08 October 1998 23:02

JOSE SARAMAGO'S atheist, anti-establishment views had long marked him as an outsider in Portugal, but he was not worried at all: "I am sceptical, reserved, I don't gush, I don't go around smiling, hugging people and trying to make friends. I just write."

Born in 1922 of a humble family in Azinhaga, near Lisbon, Saramago decided to become a novelist at 18. By the Eighties he was one of Portugal's best- selling writers. Behind his melancholy, softly-spoken manner developed sharp-edged, political views. In 1969, at the height of the Salazar dictatorship, Saramago joined the Portuguese Communist party and became a leader, inspiring a trend that anticipated the reformist views introduced later in the Soviet Union by Mikhail Gorbachev.

After the 1974 Carnation Revolution toppled the dictatorship, Saramago became editor of the Lisbon's Diario de Noticias, but he quit months later to work as a translator.

He established a reputation as an imaginative and ironical storyteller, combining the real and the mystical in similar to the Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Pessimistic and serious, lucid and elegant are the words used to describe the man and his literature.

His best work, Blindness, is a disturbing allegory about social meltdown. "This blindness isn't a real blindness; it's a blindness of rationality," he said recently. "We're rational beings, but we don't behave rationally. If we did, there'd be no starvation in the world."

In his novel O Jangada de Pedra (The Stone Raft), published in 1986 - the year Spain and Portugal joined the European Community - the Iberian peninsula floats away from Europe and into the Atlantic in a metaphorical search for identity amid pressures to conform.

The Portuguese government lambasted his 1991 novel O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo (The Gospel according to Jesus Christ) and struck the writer's name from nominees for the European Literature Prize, saying the atheist work offended Portuguese Catholic convictions. The book portrays a Christ who, subject to human desires, lives with Mary Magdalene and tries to back out of the crucifixion.

"I'm not in a hurry. Everything I have sought in my life I realise I am achieving as it draws to an end," he said

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