Kinna Reads

A blog of books, reading and world literature

José Saramago’s Best Five

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José Saramago, the Portuguese writer and Nobel Laureate, passed away one year ago this week.  If he was Ghanaian, we would hold a one-year “celebration” of his life and passing, called afenhyia, to mark the day. In Ghana, we just don’t let the dead rest, we continually mark their  death until we pass on!

We would go to church, visit his grave or burial site, and then gather at a public hall that can accommodate the expected huge crowd. We would wear styled outfits sown from black and white materials. Frankly, some people will look their best on the day.  The church would be Methodist, so I could sing my heart out. There would be donations to his wife Pilar, publicly announced so we know who gave the most money.  These announcements will elaborate on the nature of the donor’s relationship to Saramago or his immediate family. I might say something like:

“I first heard of José Saramago when he won the Nobel Prize in 1998.  I promptly run out, bought and read Blindness.  Since then, I’ve been an avid reader of his works. He was, and remains, one of my favorite authors. So if he has died and indeed a year has since passed, then I cannot help but come and mark this afenhyia with his family.  I donate the amount of …Ghanaian cedis to his wife Pilar”.

Well, this beloved novelist was not Ghanaian. And he was an atheist.  So the above described celebration just won’t do.  I’ve decided instead to present Saramago’s best five books, of those that have been translated into English.

Blindness (1997) – this was his latest book on the English-speaking market when he won the Nobel Prize.  The folks at Nobel HQ provided this rationale:  (Saramago)

“with parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony continually enables us once again to apprehend an elusory reality”.

Well, I can never understand these Nobel citations so I turned to Blindness for an explanation.  An epidemic of blindness, the “white evil”,  sweeps through the population of an unnamed city.  The main characters are The Doctor, The Doctor’s Wife, Girl with Dark Glasses and King of Ward 3.  A complete social breakdown ensues in the devastated city. What a terrifying, shocking, dizzying but compelling story.   Apocalyptic, dystopian. All this coupled with Saramago’s style of writing – his long, long sentences with very little punctuation – well, the two days that I spent reading this book are among my best reading days ever.  In short, I love this book.  But, but.  I think that iconic reputation of Blindness, as deserved as it is, benefited from the proximity of its publication to Saramago’s Nobel Award.

All the Names (1999) – Because if you threatened me with blindness, I would have to say that this is Saramago’s best book.  Where Blindness is loud, All the Names is quiet. It is the story of Senhor  José, a humble clerk who works in the Central Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths of a large, unnamed city.  He collects clippings on famous people as a hobby. He lives in a room adjoined to the Registry. To feed his hobby, he sneaks into the Registry and takes files with people’s information into his room.  This is against the rules.  One night, he accidentally takes the file on an unnamed woman. He becomes obsessed with finding out who the woman is.  A stunning tale of  loneliness, obsession and the crushing weight of bureaucracy.  All the Names is Saramago’s most touching book.

The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1991) – this is a chronicle of Ricardo Reis’ final year.  He is a Portuguese doctor who, for most his life, has been living and practicing in Brazil.  He returns to his homeland when he learns of the death of the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa.  Not much happens, plotwise, in this book.  Sometimes the ghost of Pessoa pops into Reis’ room for a chat.  It was in the middle of reading this book that I concluded that José Saramago was having too much fun writing his books.    Ricardo Reis is one of the heteronyms created by Fernando Pessoa.  Via Wikepedia, “the literary concept of heteronym, refers to one or more imaginary character(s) created by a writer to write in different styles”.  Saramago extends this concept and has the writer and his creation existing together.  Delightful.

The History of the Seige of Lisbon (1996) – A story within a story. It is an examination on language, writing and history.  In one story, a proofreader decides to insert the word “not” into a sentence in a book titled The History of the Seige of Lisbon that he is correcting and thereby changes history.  He is then urged to write the new history by his boss, who also happens to be his lover.  The second story is the the re-imagined history told as a historical romance.

The Stone Raft (1994) – Like Blindness, the characters in this novel have to grapple with and survive a near apocalyptic event.  The Iberian Pennisula suddenly breaks off from Europe and drifts west in Atlantic Ocean, heading for North America.  We follow five characters, each of whom unknowingly might have caused the split, as they journey together on the floating pennisula.  The Stone Raft is one of Saramago’s more obvious political allegories.  He published the book in 1986, the same year that Spain and Portugal joined the European Union.  He separates them from Europe in the year that Iberia joined the European unification project.  This book abounds with other challenging themes.  But it is, again, the playfulness, the language, the wit and irony that endears one to this book.  An original, critical and utterly entertaining fantasy.

That’s my five.  If asked to pick a sixth book, I would choose between The Gospel According to Jesus Christ and Baltasar and Blimunda.  A special thanks to the translators, the late Giovanni Pontiero and Margeret Jull Costa.

What do you think of my best five? Agree or disagree (or as my 4-year-old is fond of saying, True or False)?

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Author: Kinna

I'm a bibliophile who reads and reviews international, contemporary and classic literary fiction. I'm partial to the works of African women writers.

38 thoughts on “José Saramago’s Best Five

  1. I suspect many readers are like me, in that they know of Saramago only from reading Blindness. Your tribute to him today is wonderful. I may find myself reading more of his work soon.

    BTW, I didn’t know you’re from Ghana. Are you living and blogging from there now?

    • Thanks, CB. Yes, I live and blog from Ghana now. Do read his other works. Blindness gets all the love. There is a real depth, complexity, and diversity of subject matter in his body of work.

  2. Kinna, what a beautiful celebration of Saramago! Like cbjames, I’ve only read Blindness. I do have The Double, which coincidentally I got yesterday at a second hand book market. Unfortunately, you don’t mention that book so it’s probably not so good? The premise sounds great so I will try it anyway.

    Thank you for the description of a memorial service for the dead. That sounds like a wonderful way to remember the dead and to help out those he left behind.

    • Thank you, Leeswammes. I had to limit myself to 5 and that’s why I don’t mention three other books of his that I’ve read. These are The Double, The Cave and Death with Interruptions. Really, you cannot go wrong with a Saramago book once you’ve gotten used to his style of writing. The only book of his that I find difficult to read is Seeing. So, yes, do read The Double. It’s a really good read too.

      • Thanks, Kinna! I will definitely read it then. I’ve heard that Seeing is difficult and too political (which I wouldn’t like). Still, I loved Blindness so maybe I will give Seeing a go, just to see what it’s like.

        It sounds like you’re a real Saramago fan! :-)

  3. TruAlse. Because I am yet to read a Saramango. And perhaps it is time I did. They all sound interesting… but I would be more interested in the sixth.

    • You mean, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ? Yes, a very good book. Saramago wrote such a humane portrayal of Jesus and his family. really intelligent, perceptive and mind-blowing. Huh, all his books are that good. Genius. Read his work, now :). I have all of them so you can borrow them.

  4. What a gorgeous post Kinna! I’ve yet to read any Saramago, but I’ve wanted to for awhile and now I have a great idea of where to begin. :)

  5. I have only read two Saramagos thus far, but they are the two topping your list, so yay me! ;) I actually think I would place All The Names at the top of my list, perhaps because that was the first book of his that I read and it just blew me away. It is so quiet and contemplative and I just thought it was wonderful.

    I have slowly been collecting Saramago’s books and have all the others that you list here, so I am excited to see what else is in store for me. I was so sad to hear of Saramago’s passing last year, but I am so glad that he left such a wonderful literary legacy behind.

    • Isn’t All The Names simply fantastic? And so different from Blindness. The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is also a bit quiet because of the characterization of the old doctor. He did leave a substantial literary legacy.

  6. Shame on me I haven’t read any of his books but I’m intrigued with Blindness and the The Gospel According to Jesus Christ.

    In my culture we remember the dead every year and spend one day picnicking and clear out our ancestors grave. Same annual honour but in different ways than yours. ;) Thanks for the post.

    • Blindness and The Gospel… are sufficiently different to give you a sense of his diversity. I hope you do read at least one of his books. Ah, the rituals of remembrance and commemoration of life. It’s something isn’t it?

  7. I’ve only read one work by Saramago, Death With Interruptions. I really loved it and it made me want to read more by him so I picked up Blindness at a used bookstore, I have yet to read it though. Thanks for the recommendations on other books by him you enjoy so much!

    Also, the celebration of life sounds like a really fantastic thing to do.

    • I liked Death With Interruptions a lot too. It’s also one that I feel illustrates Saramago’s playfulness in spite of the rather serious subject matter. He was always taking shots at government bureaucracies and their inefficiencies. He manages to weave that into his stories somehow, always laughing and poking fun at politicians. Do read Blindness :)

  8. I like ricardo reis best ,although not a huge fan of his books ,all the best stu

  9. I’m jumping on the boat with all the people who know Saramago only from Blindness. That was such a wonderful book that I don’t know why I haven’t read anything else by him since. Wonderful tribute and I’ll certainly be picking up more of his in the future.

  10. Kinna, his wife Pilar came to Lisbon with his ashes last week. They were deposited close to the centuries-old olive tree he describes in Little Memories – isn’t that lovely?

    Have you read Blatazar and Blimunda (Memorial do Convento)? It was my first, and still my favorite, Saramago. After that I also really liked Blindness and The History of the Seige of Lisbon, which I’ve only read this year. I feel very luck to be able to read him in his original language. It was a great post, thanks!

    • How touching. Yes, I’ve read Baltasar and Blimunda and loved it as well. To be honest, I’m a huge fan of his. As if that was not evident :). The only book of his that I don’t like is Seeing. I’m yet to finish a reading of it. I’m jealous. To be able to read him in the original language would be wonderful.

  11. Lovely post Kinna … I’m ashamed to say that I have yet to read Saramago. He’s on my list but I haven’t got to him. I’m impressed with the extent of your reading. Very impressive…and inspiring.

    • Thaks, whisperinggums. Yep I tend to do that with writers whose works I enjoy. Devour everything that they’ve written. I’m trying to do that with David Malouf, too.

      • Oh good for you Kinna … I’d like to do that but somehow I rarely do. I always mean to come back to an author I’ve loved but other books often do get in the way.

  12. I love the sound of your tradition! I want to do that for my grandmother. She passed in January, and she’d just love to know we were celebrating her a year later.

    I have not yet read Saramago, although I have Blindness waiting for me!

  13. Hi Kinna, great list! I can’t answer true or false because I haven’t read as many as you, but I did enjoy Death at Intervals very much. The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis I read many years ago, when I was quite young and perhaps didn’t appreciate the cleverness of the heteronym thing – my main memory of it is the guy sitting in a hotel with not much happening at all other than reading the newspaper. I think I need to return to it with older eyes. And I’m the opposite to everyone else on this thread, not having read Blindness yet. I’m often quite contrary about my reading, and avoid the books everyone’s raving about. But maybe it’s time to pick it up now!

  14. Amazingly enough, I only learned about José Saramago last year. I have read Death With Interruptions and The Double so far. I really enjoyed both of them. This list gives me a good starting point to continue my reading. Thank you!

  15. First of all great job! You did a wonderful text about one of my favourit writter’s in the world. I’am portuguese, yes! And I’m 15 years old. In school we have to learn Saramago ( just one book from him) which is Memorial do Convento ( Baltasar and Blimunda). Saramago is very aprecciated in Portugal but some people say that in the mother tongue( portuguese) is much more harder than translated. I agree with that opinion , but not in the general. Just some books are difficult to read and to understand.
    Thank you!

    • Oh! thanks for leaving a comment. I hear that opinion a lot: that Portuguese is difficult is read… I do agree with your assessment that perhaps some books are difficult to read and require dedication and time. I’m biased of course but Saramago’s books would be wonderful to read in whatever language and well-worth the effort.

      • Well but I don’t give up. He is a great ” thinker”! Have you only read Saramago as a portuguese writter? If your answer is yes, well, if you don’t mind I would give to you a recommendation : read Eça de Queirós. He is very good and he is compared to Dickens, Flaubert, Tolstoi …. like all the writters in the century XIX.
        Try and you will see that you won’t regret! Start with ” The Maias” .
        Thank you! Keep reading :)

      • Nope, cannot read Portuguese. I read The Yellow Sofa by Eça de Queirós. I really liked it. So I’m dying to read The Maias. Thanks for the recommendation,

  16. José Saramago is my favourite novelist. I’ve read all his novels, and a lot more by him. Thanks for keeping his memory alive. He’s no as famous and read as he should be.

    I’m devoting November to him in my blog, to celebrate his 90th anniversary.

  17. I know this is a bit strange, but which of his novels would you say is the easiest to read, the simplest..? I ask because I want to read one of his works in spanish and my spanish is low advanced…I know he is portuguese by the way..thanks!

    • In case it is still of help I would say that in terms of “advanced” language most of Saramago’s book shouldn’t be very particularly problematic. His trademark writing relies mostly in large blocks of text and “disolute” punctuation but not on the use of complicated word or convoluted senteces.

      If you are reading spanish go for the ones which were translated by Pilar del Rio (more or less the ones published since mid nineties). If you really push me hard to pinpoint a single book go for “El hombre duplicado” or “El viaje del elefante” which are the ones which I feel to be “gentler”.

  18. Hi all
    Im portuguese but i re read blindness and started re reading the gospel, but this time in english, since it was my non portuguese wife that got into Saramago recently, and the books were lying around.. I can assure you that little is lost in the english translation really. The man’s style is perfectly recognizeable in english prose, a fine work by the translator in my opinion, and also maybe luck on the fact that portuguese and english are not too distant as languages. That said, only once i noted something it was a bitch to translate, and that was when the doctor’s wife in blindness asks the prostitute (think it was) to call her “tu” as opposed to ” você”. Speakers of latin languages are familiar with the distiction. In english there is no such difference in register, at least not anymore. That said, it was the only thing so far where the translated version bumped

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