Though I dedicate most of my time to reading and writing about young adult literature, I want to occasionally spotlight authors that write for younger children and adults that have shaped me as a reader. These won’t be simply reviews, but an introduction to the author’s work.
Known for his never-ending sentences and lack of paragraph breaks and quotation marks, José Saramago can be an intimidating author, but the philosophical richness and dry wit of his prose are worth the laborious process of reading it. His works range from historical to speculative, yet most contain elements of magical realism. With an affinity for the ironic, Saramago writes allegorical stories that explore questions of life and death and human nature.
Though the catalog at my library lists it under “romantic suspense fiction,” this doesn’t quite capture the magic of Baltasar and Blimunda. Set in early 18th century Portugal against the backdrop of The Inquisition, Baltasar, a solider who has lost his hand in battle and now wears a hook, falls in love with Blimunda, a woman with the the ability to see inside and beneath things, on the day he firsts glimpses her in the crowd of the auto da fé where her mother is burned at the stake. Together, they partner with a heretical priest obsessed with flight. The lively characters and historical details anchor the fantastical plot and compel the reader through sentences that span pages.
While characters are the heart of Baltasar and Blimunda, other novels by Saramago explore high concepts. Though a brief summary of Death with Interruptions — death takes a vacation and falls in love — may remind you of Meet Joe Black, Saramago’s novel is much more. Immortality may be a cultural obsession, but those who wish to live forever would do well evaluate the consequences of a society in which no one dies. Of course there are the obvious complications of a sharp drop in business for funeral directors and life insurance salesman, not to mention the problem it poses for the Catholic Church, whose teachings rely on the threat of death. The political, social, and economic upheaval that follows the celebration of death’s vacation provides much fodder for searing commentary on bureaucracy and a contemplation of the foundation of faith. When death resumes her work, she unexpectedly falls in love with one of her marks, a middle-aged cellist, and ponders her legacy and mission. Though its narrator would have readers believe “the many things that have been said about god and about death are nothing but stories, and this is just another one,” there’s not a Grim Reaper tale quite like Death with Interruptions.
Saramago’s most famous novel, Blindness, won the 1998 Nobel Prize in literature and in 2008 was adapted into a movie of the same name. Chronicling the aftermath of an epidemic of “white-blindness” that effects the entire population despite quarantine, the story is a harrowing picture of human nature and the violence born out of chaos. Literal blindness is the vehicle used to explore humanity’s figurative blindness. As Saramago explains in a 1998 interview in The Paris Review: “The cruelty to which you refer is the everyday cruelty that occurs in all parts of the world, not just in the novel. And we at this very moment are enveloped in an epidemic of white blindness. Blindness is a metaphor for the blindness of human reason. This is a blindness that permits us, without any conflict, to send a craft to Mars to examine rock formations on that planet while at the same time allowing millions of human beings to starve on this planet. Either we are blind, or we are mad.”
A newly translated novel by Saramago, Raised from the Ground is not about zombies, but a very personal look at three generations of landless peasants in the author’s native Portugal. Readers looking for an introduction to Saramago should try The Lives of Things, a collection of his early short stories. Other works by Saramago include An Elephant’s Journey, based on the real-life story of an elephant and his trainer’s journey across 16th century Europe, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, a profoundly religious novel for a self-identified atheist who thought the world would be more peaceful without religion, and All the Names, the story of a clerk in the Central Registry who becomes intrigued by one woman’s records. Fans of Saramago will also enjoy his biography, Small Memories.
José Saramago is one of my favorite authors, and I hope you give him a try. I discovered him quite randomly by browsing the “recommended for you” suggestions on Amazon. My imagination was immediately captured, so much so that I wanted to rededicated myself to learning Portuguese (I took a year in grad school for my secondary language) just so I could read him without translation. The sentences are journeys themselves, and I got lost in their cadence. Even more than the beauty of the rhythm of the words, I loved their message. Saramago’s stories are anchored by lessons without coming off as moralistic. I still haven’t read all of his work, but look forward to acquainting myself with all of his stories over my lifetime. When I die, I’ll leave behind a whole shelf on my bookcase dedicated to this master of world literature.