Jose Saramago (1922-2010)

June 21, 2010 | No Comments

The Year of the Death of Ricardo ReisThe Nobel-Prize winning author, Jose Saramago, died two days ago at age 87. His work first mesmerized me while I was spending time in Portugal some years ago, a perfect setting to be inducted into his disorienting, magical world. His prose, his concerns, seemed infused with its landscape and melancholy nature. Of his more than fifteen novels, and essay collections, including Blindness, Baltasar and Blimunda, and The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, my favorite remains The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. Unlike Florence or Paris, Lisbon is not instantaneously attractive, at first glance her bloom has gone, her architecture crumbles, the ironwork and azuelos chipped. Her charms are secretive, noir-ish, and surreal; her history is complicated and filled with regrets – she is Rick’s Cafe writ large. Yet she embraces the Moorish and the avant-garde simultaneously without strain, even as her alleys and trams echo with fado. Visiting Fernando Pessoa’s favorite restaurant, after reading about it and about him in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, was one of those rare and extraordinary moments when an author’s imagination and a reader’s reality coalesce. A gaunt, dour, short-tempered, octogenarian waiter in a faded black waistcoat flinched when I ordered chicken rather than fish. I’d been eating fish for weeks. There had been no menu, only a short recitation of simple options. I glanced over his shoulder, past his stubborn expression, at the stained white walls covered with askew, faded photographs of famous Portuguese who had eaten here over the decades, and sure enough, there was Pessoa. I ordered the fish. (The Guardian has an interesting profile of Saramago here and Boldtype has a tribute here.)