Portugal's Nobel laureate

 

Internal arguments continue to divide the members of the Swedish Academy but the international literary fraternity - if not the Vatican - should be more pleased than usual with the decision to award this year's Nobel Prize for Literature to the veteran Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago.

Saramago is an inventive and imaginative European storyteller whose dense, multi-layered work is often entertaining and invariably rewarding, thanks in no small part to the lively echoes of Cervantes and Gogol, as well as subversive traces of Swift.

Few writers have managed to produce as much as he has during a relatively brief literary career. Although he published his first novel at the age of 25 - a book he has since disowned - Saramago was silent throughout the years of Salazar's dictatorship. By 1968 he was busy writing and published a collection of poetry in the late 1960s as well as essays, short stories and a play.

A latecomer to fiction he made up for this with an assembly line of long novels - Manual of Painting and Calligraphy (Lisbon, 1977; reprinted 1983) - a book not helped by its title because many readers assumed it was a text book - Raised from the Ground (Lisbon, 1980), Baltasar and Blimunda (Lisbon, 1982), The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (Lisbon, 1984), The Stone Raft (Lisbon, 1986), The History of the Seige of Lisbon (Lisbon, 1989), Blindness (Lisbon, 1990) and The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (Lisbon, 1991) - the last of which has done little to endear him to the Catholic Church.

The success of Baltasar and Blimunda on its publication in Portugal in 1982 suggested that Saramago, at 60, was on his way. It took another six years, however, before it was translated into English.

Many reviewers enjoyed this fantasagorical, picaresque love story set in the 18th century, which gathered much impetus from the menacing atmosphere of the Inquisition. Featuring a flying machine and a pair of suitably star-crossed lovers, Blimunda, a visionary and Baltasar, her onehanded soldier, the novel did however suffer from obvious comparisons with Latin American magic realism, which by the late 1980s had lost much of its novelty.

Saramago's style is formal and often old fashioned. He enjoys addressing the reader and frequently questions the intelligence and motives of his characters. His prose is weighty, dense and at times top heavy. If there are rules to writing fiction, Saramago appears to ignore them all.

Born in 1922 to a tenant farming family, he went to school in Lisbon but had a country childhood. He did not go to university and worked at a variety of manual jobs, including metal work, before becoming involved in publishing, initially as a reader before moving on to editing and translation. By the late 1960s he was commenting on politics for a Lisbon newspaper.

An avowed atheist and communist, Saramago joined the then illegal Portuguese Communist Party in 1969. Certainly political, he has spent his literary career satirising Portuguese politics - in a Swiftian narrative, The Stone Raft, the Iberian peninsula breaks away from Europe and drifts off into the Atlantic.

Yet for all his criticism of Portuguese politics including various attacks on the Communist Party itself, he is not as obviously a political choice as so many of the literature laureates have been; consider Solzenitsyn in 1970, Wole Soyinka in 1988; Joseph Brodsky the following year, Nadine Gordimer in 1991 or Toni Morrison in 1993.

Saramago is the fourth successive European to win. The English-reading world was largely unaware of his presence until a late burst of translations, cleverly published by the Harvill Press in London, introduced him to an audience which has become bemused by the amount - and length - of his novels.

His masterpiece is his highly literary, baldly practical examination of art and death, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. First published in English in 1992, it won that year's British Independent Prize for Foreign Fiction and dominated that year's fiction round-ups. It revealed that Saramago's prose can aspire to, and achieve, levels of lyric beauty.

It tells the story of the apathetic Reis, a doctor - of exactly what no one is sure. But he is interested in poetry, both his own doggerel and the superior verse of others. On returning to his native Lisbon after 16 years in Brazil, in a near dream-like state after a mythic voyage, he heads for a half remembered hotel and secures a room with a view. It is 1936. He seems intent on re-entering his old life.

But does he? Urbane, Oblomovlike, he becomes involved in a furtive affair with an undemanding chambermaid while also becoming obsessed with a sickly young man. Reis's return coincides with the death of the poet Ferando Pesso. The dead poet is soon visiting the doctor.

Two years ago The Gospel According to Jesus Christ was short-listed for the IMPAC Dublin International Literary Prize. A vastly ambitious, polemical rewrite of Christ's life which presents Jesus as a man caught in a bickering relationship with his mother. It is heavy-handed, forgettable pastiche.

Still, considering the range of Saramago's inventive parables, with their mixture of Portuguese history and imaginative fancy, this year's Nobel Prize has gone to a natural, obsessive storyteller and his achievement is also a weighty endorsement of European fiction.