RIP José Saramago

June 18, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

José Saramago, the only Portuguese-language recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, died today at age 87. An avowed Communist and atheist, Saramago was best known for novels such as Baltasar and Bilmunda and Blindness, which employ an unbroken prose that critic James Wood characterized as both avant-gardist and traditionalist: his writing, said Wood, was “forbidding and modernist; but his frequent habit of handing over the narration in his novels to a kind of ‘village chorus’ and what seem like peasant simplicities allowed Saramago great flexibility.” Stephen Henighan wrote, “For Saramago’s fiction, wisdom has meant a steady migration toward parable,” and said that the later novels “have plumbed the ominous universality of mainly nameless figures enduring ordeals visited upon them by forces they do not understand.” Henighan saw in the author, as he aged, a “growing preoccupation with the ultimate futility of all human effort.”

For his part, critic Harold Bloom felt that Saramago “was the equal of Philip Roth, Günther 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.”

Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, the year after Blindness was published in an English-language translation. That book was made into a film by acclaimed director Fernando Meirelles in 2008.

Gradually, like a cloud of steam flowing back to its place of origin, Tertuliano Máximo Afonso’s terrified spirit returned to his exhausted mind, and when Helena asked, So what was this bad dream about, tell me, this confused man, this builder of labyrinths in which he himself is lost, who is lying now beside a woman who, although known to him in the sexual sense, is otherwise entirely unknown, spoke of a road that had ceased to have a beginning, as if his own steps as they were taken had devoured the very substances, whatever they might be, that give or lend duration to time and dimension to space, of the wall, which in cutting across time, cut across both, of the place where his feet had stood, those two small islands, that minuscule human archipelago, one here, the other there, and of the sign on which was written STOP, ABYSS, remember, who warns you is your enemy, as Hamlet could have said to his uncle and stepfather, Claudius. She had listened to him surprised, slightly perplexed, she was not used to hearing her husband express such thoughts, still less in the tone in which they had been spoken, as if each word were accompanied by its double, like an echo in an inhabited cave, in which it is impossible to know who is breathing, who has just spoken in a murmur, who has just sighed. She liked the idea that her feet were also two small islands, and that very close to hers rested another two, and that the four together could constitute, did constitute, had constituted a perfect archipelago, if there is such a thing as perfection in this world and if these sheets are the ocean where it chose to be anchored.

The Double, José Saramago

Nothing new under the sun

July 28, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Even for Nobel Prize-winning novelists. Word has it that José Saramago’s new novel will feature elephants, not people, as characters. (Given the Portuguese writer’s assessment of humanity in books like Blindness and The Double, this is perhaps unsurprising.)

From the National Post‘s Afterword blog:

On Monday, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced it had acquired Saramago’s new book The Elephant’s Journey, which is “based on the real-life epic journey of an Indian elephant from Lisbon to Vienna in the 16th century.” The novel, which will be published fall 2010, will be translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull.

An elephant as the lead character, embarking on an epic journey? Where have I heard that one before?