Page last updated at 07:30 GMT, Monday, 22 June 2009 08:30 UK

Jose Saramago still going strong

By Alfonso Daniels
BBC News

Jose Saramago
Saramago spends only a few months of the year in Portugal

In a quaint former working-class neighbourhood in Lisbon, a simple white two-storey house stands out from all the others, marked by a blue ceramic of a beautiful young woman on the facade.

Her name is Blimunda and she is the character of the novel that brought Portuguese Nobel Prize laureate, Jose Saramago, world fame in 1987.

Inside, the 86-year-old author, considered the best living author alongside Philip Roth by literary critics including Harold Bloom, slowly comes down the steps aided by his wife, in a rare interview granted to a British publication.

Few doubt his literary genius, but Saramago is even more famous for his fierce Leftist views - he recently took on the fight against Italy's rightist leader, Silvio Berlusconi, whom he calls "vomit".

And in 2002, he compared the Palestinian territories with Auschwitz.

"I'm a hormonal communist, my body contains hormones that grow my beard and others that make me a communist. Change, for what? I would be ashamed, I don't want to become someone else," he says.

Respiratory illness

Saramago spends only a few months every year in Lisbon. His permanent residence is in the Spanish Canary Islands where he has lived in symbolic exile since 1992 when the Portuguese government blocked his allegedly heretical novel, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, from being nominated for a European literary prize.

Jose Saramago Mini Biography
Born in Azinhaga, Portugal in November 1922
Moved to Lisbon aged two
Trained to be a mechanic at 13, later became a civil servant
Married first wife Ilda Reis in 1944, divorced 1970. Embarks on relationship with writer Isabel da Nobrega which lasts until 1986
First book published - The Land of Sin - in 1947. Daughter Violante born
1949 - becomes manager of a metal company
1950s - works for a publishing company
Marks return to literature in 1966 with Possible Poems
Goes on to publish novels including Journey to Portugal (1981), The Stone Raft (1986), Baltasar and Blimunda (1987) and Blindness: A Novel (1995)
Begins relationship with Spanish journalist Pilar del Rio who he marries in 1988
1998 - awarded Nobel Prize for Literature

The clocks of his house there are set at 4pm, the time he met his wife Pilar del Rio, a Spanish journalist 30 years his junior who he married in 1998.

This explains in part his fluent Spanish which he speaks in a very weak voice - a consequence of a life-threatening respiratory illness he contracted two years ago.

But this has not stopped him from writing profusely. On June 25 he will present his latest book, El Cuaderno (The Notebook), a compilation of his popular blog entries where he lashes out against the Pope, Tony Blair and George Bush.

And he recently completed another novel that will be published in the autumn.

"I wrote it very quickly, it's possibly the book that I've written the most enthusiastically. It will have some 200 pages and will contain a surprise," he says.

Suddenly he stops to think for a moment, adding: "I can't say any more, not even announce its title or else I would give it away."

It will become the latest of countless other books he has written, one of which, Blindness, was turned into a movie by Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles, the director of City of God.

Rural roots

An extraordinary feat - to use his own words - for someone born in 1922 in the dirt-poor village of Azinhaga, some 60 miles north east of Lisbon. He spent much time with his maternal grandparents, illiterate peasants who raised pigs and lived in a shack with mud floors and a leaking roof.

Saramago's parents moved to Lisbon when he was two in search of a better life. His father got a job as a traffic policeman but that did not represent a break with his rural roots.

"We spent every holiday in the village and that was crucial. When I arrived the first thing I did was to take my shoes off and go with my friends to the river, to walk in the fields. When we had to return to Lisbon the last thing I did was put my shoes back on, by then my feet had grown so it was quite painful," he recounts, smiling.

Jose Saramago
Saramago is not a fan of Hugo Chavez

He enjoyed sitting under a fig tree listening to stories of legends and apparitions from his grandfather Jeronimo. For some this explains his taste for the fantastical in his novels, written with his trademark lack of punctuation, but he shrugs off this suggestion.

"No, no, no, if everyone who heard stories from their grandfathers started writing, we would have plenty of writers. I don't know why I always loved reading, in my home in Lisbon we didn't even have books so I had to go to the municipal library."

Is his rural upbringing behind his legendary pessimism? "No, not at all. I was a serious, melancholic child. I've always tended to see the dark side of things, I think one's born like that," he replies.

Self-made man

He adds that he has become even more pessimistic with time: "Nothing is getting better, even the British democracy which seemed untouchable now has MPs who even charge expenses to pay for their dog food, shameful."

He admits that there have been huge technical advances, but says that morally things are worse than before.

I may have three, four years more to live, maybe less.
Jose Saramago

"With the economic crisis they're trying to save the furniture but capitalism will remain."

His only flicker of hope lies in recently-elected US president Barack Obama, while he surprisingly dismisses Leftist Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez for his "dangerous tendency towards totalitarianism."

However controversial his views are, most agree that Saramago is a self-made man. His parents could not afford to keep him in grammar school, so at 13 he trained to become a car mechanic.

He spent the next three decades working as a locksmith, at a metal company and in a welfare agency, publishing his first novel in 1947 with no success.

From then on he virtually stopped writing, or so he thought until last year when he discovered boxes filled with manuscripts from that period that he had completely forgotten.

Late literary bloomer

But writing was not Saramago's focus at the time. In the late 60s he joined the Communist Party, becoming deputy director of the newly nationalised newspaper Diário de Noticias after the fall of Portugal's fascist dictatorship in 1974.

Much of Portuguese intellectuals' distrust towards him stems from that period since he allegedly purged anyone opposed to the Communist Party from the paper, accusations he strongly denies.

Ironically, he was soon fired after the failure of a Leftist coup in 1975. This proved to be a blessing in disguise since it finally forced him to turn to literature to survive and, from there, fame followed.

"Are you ready?" his wife warmly asks him at the end of the four hour-long interview. As he guides me outside, I ask him about his future plans.

"I may have three, four years more to live, maybe less. Every time I finish a book I wait for another idea, it may not come this time, we shall see," he smiles as he waves good-bye.

Print Sponsor

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific