PEN is saddened by the loss of José Saramago, Portuguese novelist, playwright, and journalist, who died on June 18, 2010, at the age of 87. In 1998, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature for the universal values of human freedom and dignity expressed in his highly inventive and allegorical work. Saramago was a master storyteller whose themes derive from life in Portugal under the 40-year right-wing dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar, conveying the need for people to take action against their oppressors and create their individual destinies. Born into a peasant family and trained as a car mechanic, his first literary recognition came from Portuguese PEN in 1982 for Baltasar and Blimunda, a novel celebrating the creativity and heroism of common workers in the building of Portugal’s most prized 17th century monument. The rich alternate worlds Saramago imagined can be found in such works as: The Stone Raft (1986), in which the Iberian Peninsula literally breaks off from Europe in search of its identity and a better life for its inhabitants; The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991), which presents an all too human Jesus at the hands of a selfish and capricious God; Death at Intervals (2005), which describes the unwanted consequences of life in a small country where for a time no one dies; and, perhaps his most famous work, Blindness (1995; 2008 film with Mark Ruffalo and Julianne Moore), in which a plague of blindness leads to barbarism in an unnamed city causing the only sighted character to reflect after the blindness disappears as mysteriously as it came, “I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, blind but seeing.”

As a Communist, an atheist, an outspoken critic of Portuguese entry into the European Union, and an author who rarely used periods, José Saramago was a controversial figure in Portugal. He was the epitome of the socially engaged writer, and the words he spoke during his Nobel Prize acceptance speech appear to us as both timeless and timely:

In this half-century, obviously governments have not morally done for human rights all that they should. The injustices multiply, the inequalities get worse, the ignorance grows, the misery expands.… The multinational and pluricontinental companies whose power—absolutely non-democratic—reduce to next to nothing what is left of the ideal of democracy. We citizens are not fulfilling our duties either.… Let us common citizens therefore speak up. With the same vehemence as when we demanded our rights, let us demand responsibility over our duties. Perhaps the world could turn a little better.”

Twenty thousand mourners stood before Saramago’s coffin in gratitude to their great cultural figure, whose literary success does honor to the Portuguese language, spoken by more than 170 million people worldwide. Edmund White wrote of Saramago in The New York Times, “No candidate for a Nobel Prize has a better claim to lasting recognition than this novelist.”