On Friday, the Portuguese author José Saramago died at the age of 87. Saramago, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1998, was known for his lyrical, experimental novels, his idiosyncratic prose style, his staunch Communism, and his gift for courting controversy. Among his works are the novels Blindness, Death With Interruptions, and The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, which was the object of so much ire from Catholics that it was deemed ineligible for a literary prize in 1992. Here's what critics are saying about Saramago and his place in the culture:
- He Asked the Big Questions... A New York Times obituary by Fernanda Eberstadt makes it clear that Saramago strove to treat weighty concerns. Calling Saramago's style a combination of "surrealist experimentation and a kind of sardonic peasant pragmatism," Eberstadt goes on to praise the novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis as "a delicate meditation on identity and nothingness, poetry and power." She also notes that "paradox was Mr. Saramago’s stock in trade. A militant atheist who maintained that human history would have been a lot more peaceful if it weren’t for religion, his novels are nonetheless preoccupied with the question of God."
- ...And Didn't Worry About Offending People An obituary by The Associated Press recounts the "storm of protest" Saramago touched off in 2002, "when, during a visit, he compared Ramallah, a Palestinian city blockaded at the time by the Israeli army, to the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Holocaust survivors and intellectuals, including left-wing doves who were highly critical of the Israeli government's policy toward the Palestinians, condemned Saramago's statement as false and anti-Semitic."
- He Was Indelibly Political... Benjamin Kunkel at n+1 mourns the death "not only of arguably the greatest novelist of the last quarter century, but of a great political novelist" as well. Kunkel notes that "most critics didn’t know how to square Saramago’s Marxism with his fiction. His politics, however, suffuse most of his novels ... As for the premise of Death With Interruptions, from 2005, according to which the people of a nameless country simply stop dying as of one New Year’s Eve, this was not a mere magic-realist conceit but the framework for a meditation on the gray capitalism of aging European societies."
- ...And a Bit of an Oddball, points out Politics Daily's Carl Franzen (a former contributor to The Atlantic Wire). Franzen rounds up a number of surprising data points about Saramago, including that his parents falsified his birth records, he was an ardent blogger through the last years of his life, and at one point he expressed a wish to be portrayed by Morgan Freeman in a movie.