José Saramago – Portugal’s voice of conscience

Astonishingly, the English-speaking world has waited 32 years for a translation of Raised from the Ground by the Portuguese writer José Saramago. It is an extraordinary novel that echoes contemporary debates about the need for a new economic order.

Saramago(1)José de Sousa Saramago (1922-2010) was a novelist, poet, playwright, journalist and political activist. He delighted in telling the story of how he came by his strange surname. De Sousa was his family name, but when he presented his birth certificate on his first day of school, it was discovered that the clerk in his home village had registered him as José Saramago. The word means “wild radish”, something that country people fell back on to eat in hard times and the nickname by which the novelist’s father was known.

Despite several early attempts at novels, including Land of Sin (1947), Saramago became a full-time writer only in his late 50s, after working variously as a garage mechanic, a welfare agency bureaucrat, a printing production manager, a proof-reader, a translator and a newspaper columnist. In 1975, a coup overthrew Portugal’s Communist-led revolution of the previous year, and Saramago was fired as deputy editor of the Lisbon newspaper Diário de Noticias. Overnight, along with other prominent left-wingers, he became virtually unemployable.

With the publication of Raised from the Ground (Levantado do Chão) in 1980, Saramago created a voice and style of his own. The story of three generations of agricultural labourers from the Alentejo region of Portugal won the City of Lisbon Prize. The publication of Baltasar and Blimunda (1982) led to international recognition and his next novel, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, received both the Portuguese PEN Club Prize and Britain’s Independent Foreign Fiction Award. His success continued with The Stone Raft, in which the Iberian Peninsula breaks off from Europe and sails down the Atlantic Ocean in search of its Latin American and African roots, and The History of the Siege of Lisbon (1989), which tells the story of a proof-reader and the story of the Siege of Lisbon as it both is and is not told in the book he is correcting.

In 1991 Saramago published The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, which received the Portuguese Writers’ Association Prize and a nomination for the European Union literary contest Ariosto. However, the Portuguese government, bowing to conservative elements and pressure from the Roman Catholic Church, banned the book from the competition. Disheartened by such political censorship, Saramago went into exile on the Spanish island of Lanzarote, where he lived until his death. His later publications included Blindness, a parable of people’s folly and their ability to inflict harm on others, All the Names (1997) and Seeing (2004). In 1998 Saramago was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Writing in The New York Times in 2008 the critic James Wood said, “José Saramago was both an avant-gardist and a traditionalist. His long blocks of unbroken prose, lacking conventional markers like paragraph breaks and quotation marks, could look 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.”

Raised from the Ground recounts the lives of the Mau-Tempo (literally “bad weather”) family – poor landless peasants like the author’s grandparents. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Saramago spoke admiringly of these grandparents, illiterate peasants who, in winter, slept in the same bed as their piglets yet who imparted to him a taste for fantasy and folklore as well as a respect for nature.

Set in Alentejo in the south of Portugal, a region known for its vast agricultural estates, the novel contrasts local deprivations and hopes with political events at the national and international level. Even today many Europeans remain ignorant of this part of Portuguese history. Raised from the Ground can be compared with John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and the Haitian writer Jacques Roumain’s Masters of the Dew (1947) for its empathetic description of the way politics and ideology destroy the lives of ordinary people.

Raised from the Ground opens with a quote from Portuguese poet, playwright, novelist and politician João Baptista da Silva Leitão de Almeida Garrett (1799-1854). It resonates with one of the great injustices of the 21st century – global poverty:

“I ask the political economists and the moralists if they have ever calculated the number of individuals who must be condemned to misery, overwork, demoralisation, degradation, rank ignorance, overwhelming misfortune and utter penury in order to produce one rich man.”


8 comments on “José Saramago – Portugal’s voice of conscience

  1. Rachel says:

    Thank you for reminding me to read some more Saramago soon, Philip. I read The Double a while back and was utterly captivated. He is a unique voice. So it’s good to know another of his works has been published in English.

  2. Anna Barron says:

    I find Saramago’s writing completely absorbing and like a living thing so I could not read “Blindness” in its entirety but love “The Names”, “Baltasar and Blimunda”, “The Stpne Raft” and my favourite, “The Cave”. Thanks also for reminding me of him.

  3. It’s nice to find some fellow Saramago fans. He’s probably my favourite author and in fact inspired me to begin writing, and now, blogging.

    Raised From the Ground is sitting on my shelf patiently waiting to be read, though this blog post now means it is likely to be sooner rather than later!

    Best wishes,

    • Philip Lee says:

      Great authors are few and far between – despite the Booker and all those other prizes! Saramago seems to see the big picture. Glad you enjoyed the blog.

      • I completely agree. I read a couple of Booker prize winning books, having already read about 10 of Saramago’s, and they lost out in every category to Saramago. He was a truly deserving winner of the Nobel, and I’ll be more inclined to follow my own tastes in future, rather than the toast of the day.


  4. tillyv says:

    Another book to add to the growing pile by my bed! 🙂

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