The Life and Works of Portuguese José Saramago


Saramago in 1999 in Italy

José Saramago in 1999 in Italy by Sampinz – WikiCommons

Nobel Prize winner José Saramago is perhaps one of the most famous literary masters to come out of Portugal in the 20th century. Saramago is actually the first Portuguese-language writer to win the Nobel Prize, ever! I’ve read a few of his works and I can confidently say that I agree: he is a very talented author. 

Saramago’s writing career started quite late in his life, as he published one book when he was 23 years old, and then proceeded to go on a 30 year hiatus before publishing his second in his late 50s.

There’s much more to learn about this prize winning author, keep reading to discover the life and works of Portuguese José Saramago!

Early life

José Saramago was born in 1922 in Azinhaga, Portugal to a very poor family of rural workers and grew up in poverty in Lisbon. Although Saramago began working at an early age as a mechanic, he eventually began working in a publishing firm, and from there became a journalist and a translator.

Saramago was a known active member of the Portuguese Communist party since 1969, and The New York Times has been quoted in saying that, “Mr. Saramago was known almost as much for his unfaltering Communism as for his fiction.”  

In 1969, Saramago began to publish poetry, and from 1974-1975, he served as an editor for a Lisbon newspaper. He resigned from this position as there began to be an anticommunist movement in Portugal, and did not publish anything more until he was in his late 50s.

Although he was fired and was left to search for a job in a country that did not want to hire Communists to do anything, Saramago quotes this time in his life as being extremely fruitful for his writing. Even though he didn’t publish anything for decades, he never stopped writing for himself.

José Saramago’s career as a writer

O evangelho segundo Jesus Cristo (1991; The Gospel According to Jesus Christ

O evangelho segundo Jesus Cristo (1991; The Gospel According to Jesus Christ by José Saramago – WikiCommons

Saramago is known for a fantastic style of writing that is mixed with realism. For example, one of his most well-known books, Baltasar and Blimunda, is a story about 18th century Portugal during the Spanish Inquisition. The main characters are a wounded war veteran and his lover who escape from a bad situation using a time machine that is powered by the human mind.

Another success, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, tells the story of one of the alter ego writer personalities of Portuguese poet and author Fernando Pessoa that lived on after the author himself had died. Not only does the story give an inside view of Saramogo’s take on Ricardo Reis, the novel is filled with deep reflections on Portuguese history and culture. 

One of Saramago’s perhaps most controversial works is a novel called The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, published in 1991. Saramago’s conservative Portugal was appalled by the novel that depicts Jesus as a human that makes normal, sometimes unsavory, human mistakes. The Catholic Church apparently pressured the Portuguese government to restrict the book from competing for the 1992 Aristeion Prize, which they did. As a result of what Saramago considered to be censorship, the author removed himself and his wife from Portugal and fled to the Canary Islands, where he lived for the rest of his life.

Many of Saramago’s works have been reproduced as movies. The Stone Raft tells the story of what would happen if the Iberian Peninsula breaks away from the continent and exists as an island in and of itself. The novel was published in 1986 and was made as a film in 2002.

Another novel, Blindness, tells the story of what happens when a freak epidemic leaves most of the world’s population blind. A film by Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles appeared in 2008.

In addition to over 20 novels, Saramago published essays, short stories, plays, and poetry. In 2006, he completed a memoire which focused mostly on his childhood and the hardships he experienced when living in poverty.

Nobel Prize and legacy

"Obrigado" Saramago

“Obrigado” Saramago, advertisement thanking Saramago for his legacy after his death – WikiCommons

In 1998, Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature. When presented with the prize, he was praised as an author “who with parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony continually enables us once again to apprehend an elusory reality.”

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

Before winning the Nobel Prize, Saramago was relatively unknown outside of his native Portugal. Today, he is recognized across Europe and in the United States for his fantastic novels.

Saramago suffered from leukaemia later in his life, and died in 2010 at the age of 87. His death was unexpected, as Saramago and his doctors had thought that he was recovering from his disease. He was scheduled to speak as the guest of honor at the European Writers’ Parliament in Edinburgh, Scotland. Saramago founded the EWP with fellow Nobel winner Orhan Pamuk in August 2010, but sadly, Saramago died in June of the same year before he was able to attend.

A few years earlier, in 2007, Saramago also founded the José Saramago Foundation. The foundation focuses on promoting culture in Portugal, and also focuses on raising awareness on environmental issues around the world. In 2011, the foundation announced that they had found a novel written by Saramago in the 1950s that was never published. Skylight was published posthumously in 2011.

José Saramago in 2008

José Saramago in 2008 – WikiCommons

Saramago’s funeral was attended by no less that 20,000 people, and his ashes are buried under an olive tree in the courtyard of the José Saramago Foundation.


Are you looking for a few titles to add to your reading list? Look no further, you’ve now discovered Portuguese writer José Saramago! Go back through this article and make note of the titles I’ve mentioned, and then head to your local library or bookstore.

I love learning about different authors, and I love sharing what I’ve learned with you all, so thank you for reading!

If you want to learn even more about Saramago’s native Portugal, and you find yourself in Lisbon, why not Jon one of our walking tours? Click here to find out more!

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