Portuguese fabulist Jose Saramago, whose entrancing tales and playful skepticism about history and reality make him one of Europe’s most original contemporary writers, was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature Thursday.
The 75-year-old author rose from obscurity late in life to become the grand old man of Portuguese letters. Saramago is the first author writing in Portuguese, the language of 140 million people in countries around the world once under Lisbon’s dominion, to win the prize.
Saramago’s novels, plays and volumes of poetry form an iconoclastic body of literature that champions the common man and challenges conventional views on religion and the goal of a united Europe.
The Swedish Academy said it chose Saramago, a contender for several years, because his work, “sustained by imagination, compassion and irony, continually enables us to apprehend an elusory reality.”
“He invokes tradition in a way that in the current state of things can be described as radical,” the academy’s citation said.
The author, a slight, modest man who looks more like an elderly clerk than a literary giant, heard the news in Frankfurt on his way to the airport from the German city’s book fair. Instead of flying home to Spain’s Canary Islands, he returned to the fair and addressed an applauding crowd.
“It’s like being hit on the head, but not hard enough to make you fall down,” he said of the $978,000 prize. “You carry on walking around and wait to come back to your senses.
“The prize is for all speakers of Portuguese,” he added. “But while we’re on the subject, if you don’t mind, I shall keep the money.”
Saramago first earned international acclaim in 1982 with “Baltasar and Blimunda.” The novel is a blasphemous and humorous story about two lovers in 18th century Portugal trying to escape the Inquisition in a flying machine.
His most acclaimed work, “The Stone Raft,” traces the Iberian peninsula as it breaks off from Europe and drifts into the Atlantic. In magical realist style laced with political satire, it describes the epic journey of three men and two women coping with separation from the continent and seeking their true selves.
Saramago left Portugal in protest after its government, under pressure from the Roman Catholic Church, vetoed “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ,” his reworking of the New Testament, as an entry for the 1991 European Literary Prize.
Among provocations, the novel challenges the Immaculate Conception, has Jesus rejecting his mother and cohabiting with Mary Magdalene, and depicts God as the cynical deity of a religion founded on pain, death and intolerance to humankind.
On Thursday, the Vatican criticized the academy’s “ideological recognition” of Saramago, an agnostic and longtime member of Portugal’s unrepentant Communist Party. L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, said his novel is “testimony of a substantial anti-religious sentiment.”
Portuguese leaders joined in the near-universal applause for Saramago. “Finally, justice has been done to Portuguese literature,” said Mario Soares, who was president when Saramago left the country. Current President Jorge Sampaio said: “Jose Saramago is a universal writer, a great artist and a great creator.”
Saramago is the fourth European in a row to win the literature prize, one of five established by Alfred Nobel, the Swedish industrialist and inventor of dynamite. Prizes for literature, chemistry, physics, medicine and peace have been awarded since 1901. A sixth prize, in economics, was started in 1969.
Among the first to shake the winner’s hand was Michael Naumann, picked to be Germany’s culture minister in the newly elected Social Democrat-led government. “This is very important for Portugal, a land that has been so marginalized,” Naumann said.
Indeed, the prize is part of a Portuguese renaissance. The country drew 9.8 million visitors this summer to the Expo ’98 world’s fair--a celebration of its long-ago history as a seafaring power and its quarter-century passage from backward, shut-off dictatorship to the club of modern Europe. Last spring, it was accepted into the group of 11 European nations that will adopt the euro as a single currency Jan. 1.
While Saramago voices reservations about joining “the club of rich countries,” he has made peace with Portugal’s leaders. He and his Spanish wife return several times a year to an apartment they keep in Lisbon, the Portuguese capital.
Saramago, the son of poor farmers, left high school to work as a locksmith. His first novel, “Country of Sin,” published in 1947, told of peasants in moral crisis.
Like 20th century Portugal, Saramago was a late bloomer. Working as a translator and a journalist, he wrote little fiction until after the rightist dictatorship of Antonio Oliveira Salazar ended in 1974. “Rising Earth,” his tale of a poor people’s revolt, won Lisbon’s top literary prize in 1980, launching his career as a best-selling author at age 58.
“He is remarkable for being utterly and indelibly Portuguese,” Times book critic Richard Eder wrote last year. “Centuries of fog, decline and melancholy. . . . How could a great Portuguese writer, in this doleful trio of national conditions, do anything but flower into skepticism? The flowering in this desert--or marsh--is brilliant: fantasy, humor and a need to read the world’s messages backward for what they conceal.”
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Passages from novels by Nobel literature winner Jose Saramago:
From “Blindness,” published in English last month:
“Words are like that, they deceive, they pile up, it seems they do not know where to go, and, suddenly, because of two or three or four that suddenly come out, simple in themselves, a personal pronoun, an adverb, a verb, an adjective, we have the excitement of seeing them coming irresistibly to the surface through the skin and the eyes and upsetting the composure of our feelings.”
From “The History of the Siege of Lisbon,” published in English in 1997:
“My problem in this situation is to know whether I should have blushed before or if I should be blushing now, I can recall having seen you blush once, When, When I touched the rose
in your office, Women blush more easily than men, we’re the weaker sex, Both sexes are weak, I was also blushing, How come you know so much about the weakness of the sexes, I know my own weakness, and something about the weakness of others.”
From “The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis,” published in English in 1990:
“Nations struggle against each other on behalf of interests that are not those of Jack or Pierre or Hans or Manolo or Giuseppe, all masculine names to simplify matters, yet these and other men innocently consider those interests to be theirs, or which will be theirs at considerable cost, when the time arrives to settle accounts. The rule is that some eat figs while others watch.”