I was saddened to hear about the recent passing of the author Jose Saramago.
Saramago was a Nobel prize-winning writer who was hugely popular in his home country of Portugal where it was reported that some 20,000 people attended his funeral (!) when he was buried last week. He had a good innings, living to the ripe old age of 87.
Which was not to say Saramago wasn’t active in the later years of his life. In fact, he only actually gained international fame in his mid-fifties and didn’t write some of his most widely recognised works until he was in his Seventies. Even at the end, he was still active. I was actually only a few weeks shy of seeing him attend the Edinburgh Book Festival in August.
A devisive character, Saramago was an outspoken atheist and active member of the Portugese Communist Party who managed to upset the Catholic community in his country on a regular basis and so much so that they had at one stage attempted to block his writing from competing for Eurpoean Literary Prize. His political and spiritual beliefs often provide an interesting context to the content in his books.
Personally, I credit one of Saramago’s most widely read books, Blindness, for getting me back into regular reading after I had gone through something of a dry spell. It tells the story of a country which suddenly experiences a mass epidemic of blindness where, with the sole exception of an unnamed doctor’s wife, everyone loses their vision and can only see a ‘sea of milky white’. The story follows the experiences of several strangers who are herded into an asylum as the government tries unsuccessfully to contain the spread of blindness. The group struggle with the increasingly poor living conditions, hygiene and degrading morality of those that they are locked in with.
Blindness is written in Saramago’s trademark style. On his biography on Wikipedia, it rather cheekily states that Saramago didn’t finish grammar school. No kidding! He writes in a highly experimental style where he has no time for commas, quotation marks, paragraphs, character names or capitalization. Effectively the book is a rather imposing wall of text that goes on, page after page. And yet they are still effortlessly readable due to Saramago’s affable and colourful narrative in which he describes the events as if he were a storyteller around a campfire.
Since finishing my last book, Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, I had once again entered into a bit of a lull, struggling to find something to read that would hold my interest. Saramago’s passing gave me the idea to try another one of his titles. I settled on another tale with a rather fantastic concept. This time, a country wakes up on New Years Day to find the complete absense of death. It tells the story of how the country deals with the political, religious and social ramifications of immortality, particularly as the circle of life continues on in other countries. It’s called Death In Intervals and I’m thoroughly enjoying it.
R.I.P Jose Saramago
16 November 1922 – 18 June 2010