The 7 Lives of

Biography of José Saramago by Miguel Real

José Saramago’s long and agitated life can be unfolded into seven different lives (or seven moments), each with its own existential specificity and aesthetic horizon, where the drive of writing as a thread of continuity.


Coming to Lisbon at the age of two, this is where Saramago kept the memories from his childhood and adolescence that were made at Azinhaga and the house of his maternal grandparents, Jerónimo and Josefa, as described in As Pequenas Memórias (Small Memories). The creation of the family affections and the personality of little Saramago would be more determined by the rural environment of the Golegã area (the Lezíria (flatlands), the Tagus River, the animals, his grandparents’ house, the domestic rituals) than by the more rigorous and painful city environment, (the sternness of his father, little affection from his mother, shared houses, the nights slept g in his parents’ room…). The first chronicle of Deste Mundo e do Outro (Of this World and the Other, 1971), “A Cidade” (The City), reflects how Saramago understood the meaning of his life until the end of the 1960s, confessing to having been taken in by a feeling of strangeness by “the walls of the city” and his will to conquer them, naming the city; “Josephville” – he was the city, to conquer it was to conquer himself, to be accomplished.


This is the moment focused between the 1940s and 1950s – years of true existential crossroads: it is the transition period a student at the Industrial School to a locksmith at the Hospital of São José and an office employee in two Social Security Departments, whilst seeking social ascension (leaving his parents’ home, marrying Ilda Reis, living in Parede, the birth of his daughter Violante) and aesthetics (his discovery of Pessoa, his obsession with writing, the long nights at the Galveias Palace…), and overcoming the jobs in mechanics and clerkship. Saramago sets out to conquer the “city”, but fails: he writes poetry that he does not publish, Terra do Pecado (Land do Sin, 1947) was of reduced success, and he was never able to edit Clarabóia (Skylight, 1953). He starts other novels and writes numerous short stories. Slowly, Saramago changes skin (life), fighting the forces of social determinism that forced him into a petty bourgeois life and no longer a working-class urban life. If social ascension is meant to be outstanding, then the status of a writer, which is intimately desired and for which a person works incessantly, does not bring any true accomplishment. So strong is the failure that he will only publish another book almost twenty years later (1966).


This is the moment that corresponds to the 1960s and is related to Saramago’s work as editor at the Cor Editorial Studios, which made his name become publicly known in a more intellectual-literary setting, but negatively mentioned in a letter from 1965 to Rodrigues Miguéis, as “corporation”. In 1966, he defined literary “corporation”: “…its death. So many masquerades, so much falsehood, such an effort to look smarter than your neighbour, and above all be more celebrated. And all this beneath a cloak of Jesuit modesty, a cloak that is full of holes of pride and envy. And these people are the crème de la crème, and these people lead, guide, give interviews, preach, have opinions about everything and nothing” (letter to Miguéis, 20-3-66). The economic shortcomings, the intense editorial work, the translations, a strange passion for a “figure of a woman” and the desire to emigrate to Brazil (correspondence with Jorge de Sena), literary criticism in Seara Nova all had repercussions on his poetry as a reflection and synthesis of individual malaise and social revolt: publication of Os Poemas Possíveis (Possible Poems, 1966).


my chronicles are where everything is” (C. Reis, Dialogues with José Saramago, 1998, p. 52)

At the end of the 1960s and the early 1970s, Saramago is invited to write chronicles in the newspaper A Capital, he divorces Ilda Reis, falls in love with Isabel da Nóbrega, moves from Parede to her house in Rua da Esperança, in Lisbon, says goodbye to Estúdios Cor, continues working in translation and… he feels happy: for the first time in his life (50 years) he has time to write, the poetic quality of her chronicles reflects this new mood, he visits Paris, Italy and Spain. And what a great divorce: Ilda find a new life as a CP typist, becoming one of the best Portuguese typists of the second half of the 20th century and Saramago, with the publication of his chronicles in the newspapers, which will provide him with material for two books (Deste Mundo e do Outro, Of This World and the Other, 1971), and A Bagagem do Viajante, A Traveller’s Baggage, 1973), accesses the important function of composing the (anonymous) editorials of the most relevant newspaper for the political opposition, Diário de Lisboa (As Opiniões que o DL Teve, 1974). He participates in the Democratic Electoral Commission, joins the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) by the hand of the editor of his first poetry book (Augusto Costa Dias) and intervenes in the Congress of the Democratic Opposition. The “city” is now identified as the Estado Novo regime: its walls have to be toppled. The future is strongly unpredictable above all ambiguous, indeterminate, but it must have an exclusive meaning: to practice and praise “the word and the song” (last verse of the poem “Noite Branca”, in English “White Night”, which features in Provavlemnte Alegria, or Maybe Joy, 1970). This is what Saramago will do from his first chronicle to his last novel. It was mainly through these chronicles (some of rare beauty, as João Palma-Ferreira and Rodrigues Miguéis point out) rather than his poetry, an authentic card out of the deck of Portuguese poetry of this decade, that the journalistic elite of “Josephville” were conquered, although one cannot say the same of the literary and intellectual elites. Nevertheless, Saramago remained firm in the conquest of another wall in “Josephville”, “where the firm steps can fit / Of the queen and the king of this city” (last verses of the last poem of the same book: he was the King, and his queen, Isabel da Nóbrega. He publishes the very unique O Ano de 1993 (The Year of 1993) and Manuel de Pintura e de Caligrafia (Manuel for Painting and Calligraphy, 1977), a critical novel of conventional forms of representation, and also the set of short stories Objecto Quase (The Lives of Things, 1978). After March 11th, he becomes the vice-director of the most important newspaper in Portugal – Diário de Notícias, where, more than defending the positions of the PCP, he defends the “socialist revolution” or the movement of workers occupying the street, factories, houses, lands (Os Apontamentos, in English The Notes 1977). An extreme conflict crosses society (assaults in left-wing party headquarters, newspaper vans that go from North to South…) and Portuguese journalism, freedom of opinion and multi-party are understood differently from their current meanings: not expressed through the news content of each newspaper, but through the set of all newspapers, each identifying with a party position, defending an ideological project, or in other words, becoming, in itself, a “political actor” (João Figueira, Os Jornais como Atores Politicos – O Diário de Notícias, Expresso e Jornal Novo no Verão Quente de 1975, 2007, p. 131). In a very direct synthesis, Saramago’s DN is approaching the revolutionary left, the PSD Expresso and the Jornal Novo do PS and the group of “Nine”, winner of the military coup of 25-11-1975. In the DN, 24 journalists contest Saramago’s revolutionary positions, write a manifesto, the Expresso and the BBC report it before being presented internally in the newspaper for debate, Saramago demands a general meeting of workers, uses very harsh words (disloyalty, betrayal, political manoeuvring), leaves the room, the meeting fire the 24 journalists, the remaining newspapers speak of “sanitation” (the conflict was eminently political and reflected, in the same period, the taking of the newspaper República by the printers against the direction and elements of the newsroom). Saramago is fried on November 25, 1975, he is 54 years old, he is unemployed, with a hindered life, his Party does not support him: “The worst thing, however, was that day when I faced a cold, gratuitous and ruthless indifference, coming precisely from those who had the duty to offer me an outstretched hand” (Cadernos de Lanzarote, V, on April 22, 1995) – his communist comrades go to the newspaper O Diário, the new newspaper of the PCP, someone proposes Saramago as editor-in-chief, but the leadership of the Party considers him excessively leftist. In 1976, Saramago, “red, unemployed, a writer of little success, is again saved by his translations and, above all, unexpectedly, by a contract with the Círculo de Leitores: Guilhermina Gomes commissions him with the Viagem a Portugal, Journey to Portugal (1980), a new and personal “Guide to Portugal”. With politics, he had lost everything he had achieved. The walls of “Josephville” had again been enlarged; they repelled him, not now as the self-taught worker, but as the mature man who had managed to pierce them. It is necessary to conquer the “city” again, and follow the old warrior tactic: he retreats to advance, he lives in a co-op of the Agrarian Reform in Lavre (Montemor-o-Novo), where he gathers informative elements for the writing of his novel Levantado do Chão (Raised from the Ground, 1980).


We are now in the 1980s and, throughout Saramago’s life, this moment corresponds to the conquest of the “city” – the full accomplishment as a Portuguese writer and the launch of his writing work at an international level. If Levantado do Chão (1980) is the launch pad, Memorial do Convento (Baltasar and Blimunda, 1982) is the full recognition of Saramgo as a public intellectual. Everyone surrenders to this new type writing. Óscar Lopes, the most important literary critic of the time, points out its two revolutionary characteristics: 1. – the style, which resurrects past moments of the Portuguese language; 2. – a new conception of a historical novel, not based on the reconstitution of the past, but on the projection on a timeless plane of the deepest and most permanent yearnings of the poor, the people. In this decade, Saramago focuses on the reality and on the history of Portugal: the permanent social imbalances of Portugal using the Alentejo (Levantado do Chão) as an example, a critical and satirical (but not parodic) conception of the elites who have bent the history of Portugal (Memorial do Convento, or Baltasar and Blimunda, 1982), the criticism of the sceptical vision of the Portuguese intellectual (O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, 1984 – a kind of aesthetic boxing combat between the author and Pessoa in the ring that is Portugal), a new vision of the foundations of the history of Portugal as a sovereign country, without help and domination of the foreigner (História de Cerco de Lisboa, or in English, The History of the Siege of Lisbon, 1989), the cry and liberation of the Iberian Peninsula from technocrat and liberal capitalism, dominated by monopolies (A Jangada de Pedra, Stone Raft, 1986 – not by chance, the year in which the two Iberian countries enter the EEC). At the end of the decade, he no longer feels the need to write novels about Portugal (except for in a small part of A Viagem do Elefante, The Elephant’s Journey, 2008), he becomes an international writer. The “city” had been conquered, Josephville was Saramago, he was confused with the city, his name was quoted with respect and admiration. From 1986/88, a new life with Pilar Del Rio, “the woman who changed the course of his life” (his, from Saramago) (JC de Vasconcelos, Conversations with Saramago, Conversas com Saramago, 2010, p. 52) that brings him another side of the “city”, not yet lived to its totality – intense passion, love, tenderness, total understanding of the other, an everyday life lived in completeness, being whole through the other, is, in an old definition of love, “the one without whom I am not” – he lacked to overcome the wall of feelings and affections present in an intimate relationship. He lacked the patent smile of happiness. Pilar Del Rio brought this to him.


Since 1991, Saramago assumes the role of an international writer, abandoning Portuguese themes and focusing on the analysis of human nature (A Estátua e a Pedra, The Statue and the Stone, 1999), he began to live in Lanzarote (“But this is in fact paradise”. Last Cad. de Lanzarote, VI) applying the analysis that until then had restricted to Portugal in a universal way: the human need to live according to a religious illusion (Envegelho Segundo Jesus Cristo, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, 1991), the anthropological and philosophical analysis of power (Ensaio Sobre a Cegueira, Blindness, 1995) and the analysis on the labyrinths produced by human reason (Todos os nomes, All the Names, 1997; A Caverna, The Cave, 2000), the need for a revolution through voting, or the absence of it (Ensaio sobre a Lucidez, Seeing, 2004). At this point, the recognition of his name and work is now worldwide. Not only had Saramago conquered the “city” but he was recognized as one of its most important renovators, bearer of the view of society as a community, the foundation of his novels.


The last moment, 1998 to 2010, the year of his death. Due to the award of the Nobel Prize in 1998, Saramago is at this time absolutely and totally accomplished as a writer and a citizen of the world, speaking in all capitals and openly expressing his opinion: today, the world belongs to high finance and is heading towards a higher level of economic exploitation, even towards a new war. After all, to his own surprise, Josephville was not a city, it was the whole world – and the pig keeper kid of Azinhaga had become one of his literary kings. From 1993, in Lanzarote, he created an intimate “Josephville” with Pilar Del Rio and their friends. At this moment he was aware that he had revolutionized the Portuguese language and literature and that his name, without idolatry, shined alongside those of Gil Vicente, Sá de Miranda, Camões, António Vieira, Almeida Garret, Eça de Queirós, Fernando Pessoa and Raul Brandão. He died angry with the world, but happy with himself – I can imagine his last thought: a 19-year-old boy under the portico at the entrance to the Galveias Library, in a chequered shirt, collars and cuffs groomed by his mother, pants, and shoes, thinking: “we will always arrive where they await us. Let’s take the first step.”