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The Unexpected Fantasist
By Fernanda Eberstadt
Published: August 26, 2007
One evening in June, the Portuguese novelist Jos?aramago was addressing a small gathering at a book party in Lisbon. The occasion was the reissue of a volume of his poems originally published in 1975. Saramago, who is 84, is an austere man, extremely tall and so lean that he is practically concave. The night was hot, but he was wearing, as usual, a dark suit and tie. An outspoken atheist, Saramago maintains that religion is to blame for most of the world's violence. Yet in his old age he resembles nothing so much as a steely churchman from a Renaissance altarpiece, a St. Jerome in the desert.
Saramago first won fame in the English-speaking world two decades ago with the publication of his novel ''Baltasar and Blimunda,'' a picaresque love story set during the Portuguese Inquisition and written in a fantastical vein that drew him comparisons with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. His subsequent novels earned him a reputation for profound versatility. In his 1995 political parable, ''Blindness,'' a city is reduced to savagery by a mysterious plague of sightlessness. The Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles, who directed ''City of God'' and ''The Constant Gardener,'' is currently making a film of the book.
For many years, Saramago was mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature, but there were other Portuguese-language writers, like the Brazilian Jorge Amado, who seemed likelier bets. In October 1998, Saramago was preparing to fly out of Germany after the Frankfurt Book Fair when he was told not to board the plane, because he had just won the prize. He was a little stunned.
''He returned to the Frankfurt Book Fair, which was like Grand Central Station at rush hour,'' recalls Christopher MacLehose, the legendary former publisher of Harvill Press in England who helped introduce Saramago's novels to English-language readers. ''The place went mad.''
Zeferino Coelho, Saramago's Portuguese editor, remembers Saramago's subdued reaction: ''When he won the Nobel, Saramago said to me, 'I was not born for all this glory.' I told him, 'You may not have been made for this glory, but I was!' ''
It's not much of a stretch to say that Saramago has since regarded his literary fame chiefly as a means of spreading his political convictions. A member since 1969 of Portugal's notoriously hard-line Communist Party, Saramago spends much of his time at international forums, where he tends to deliver rather dull, pedantic speeches denouncing the European Union or the International Monetary Fund. Five years ago, however, he managed to create a worldwide scandal when, on a tour of the West Bank, he compared the situation in the Palestinian territories with ''Auschwitz.''
To the literary critic Harold Bloom, the comparison with Auschwitz was ''an unforgivable failure of imagination and humanity'' on the part of a novelist he considers ''second only to Philip Roth'' among living writers. ''Saramago's novels are endlessly inventive, endlessly good-natured, endlessly skillful,'' Bloom told me, ''but it baffles me why the man can't grow up politically. In 2007, to be a Portuguese Stalinist means you're simply not living in the real world.''
At the book party in Lisbon, Saramago was in a more lyrical mood. His unscripted half-hour speech ranged widely in subject matter, from his own ''blackness'' of feeling when the leftist Portuguese Revolution of 1974 took a social-democratic turn, to how neorealism in 20th-century painting was unjustly eclipsed by Surrealism, to the staircase Michelangelo designed for the Laurentian Library in one cloister of San Lorenzo in Florence. ''When I first saw this work, 30 years ago,'' he said, ''I trembled.''
Saramago concluded his talk: ''Every man has his own patch of earth to cultivate. What's important is that he dig deep.''
To one side of the lectern where Saramago spoke, a lushly beautiful dark-haired woman stood in a white suit. This was his wife, Pilar del Rio. From time to time, del Rio, struggling to catch her husband's eye, raised her hand to her mouth, indicating in insistent pantomime that he should drink from the bottle of water at his side. To me, she rolled her eyes at the absurdity of an old man too stubborn to hydrate himself on a hot summer night. Saramago seemed quite pleased to gaze at del Rio, but he wouldn't drink.
Saramago has a mixed reputation in his native land. When he won the Nobel Prize, Portuguese readers evidently felt vindicated that one of their countrymen had at last received this high honor. Coelho, his editor, told me that from October to November 1998, ''we printed 400,000 copies of his latest book. Overall, we have sold 2 million copies of Saramago's works -- this, in a country of 10 million people, is a lot.''
Yet Saramago also often appears to be disliked. In part this is the resentment of a country that has long been dominated by a small elite. In part, it is a matter of Saramago's own unaccommodating personality. Everywhere I went in Lisbon in June, people described him as ''cold,'' ''arrogant,'' ''unsympathetic.'' When my interpreter inquired at a DVD store if a documentary about Saramago was in stock, the young salesman, startled by the request, replied, laughing, ''I hope not!''
Abroad, even Saramago's champions concede that he is a somewhat prickly character. ''Jos?aramago is one of the most graceful men I've ever met,'' MacLehose told me, ''but he is pretty obdurate. He arrived at international recognition relatively late in life, after having long been a substantial thorn in the side of the Portuguese government, and he is very much his own man.''
Saramago himself appears undismayed by his reputation. ''I am not a bad person,'' he said at the book party. ''I hurt only with my tongue!''
the following day, I went to visit Saramago at his home in Lisbon. His permanent residence is in the Spanish Canary Islands, where he has been living in symbolic exile since 1992, when the Portuguese government, apparently under pressure from the Catholic Church, blocked his supposedly heretical novel, ''The Gospel According to Jesus Christ,'' from being nominated for a European literary prize.
He nonetheless keeps a pied-?erre in a modern middle-class neighborhood of Lisbon. Inside, the house, shuttered dark against the encroaching sunlight, is as impersonal as a hotel suite. Virtually the only books on the living-room shelves are those by the author himself. (His compound in the Canary Islands, by contrast, has a university-size library, which he makes available to students.)
Pilar del Rio served coffee in demitasses. Del Rio is an elegant, voluble journalist from Seville. She is Saramago's second wife -- they married in 1988 -- and is nearly 30 years younger than he. They met in the mid-'80s, when she was lecturing in Lisbon, she told me. Their marriage appears to be warmly symbiotic. Del Rio answers her husband's correspondence under the e-mail alias of ''Blimunda'' and serves as his Spanish-language translator.
Eventually Saramago descended from an upstairs study and, upright as a soldier, took his place in an armchair. We talked for four hours. I asked questions, my interpreter translated, Saramago answered. Most of his replies began, ''No, that is not true ... ,'' and briskly devolved into lectures on working conditions in China, or how the late Soviet Union was in fact a capitalist economy ''in disguise.'' His tone was dry, professorial: it seemed as if he could continue for another day or two without breaking a sweat or cracking a smile.
¶ The unyielding coolness is, admittedly, hard-won. There are few literary stars who have risen from as impoverished a background. Born in 1922, Saramago grew up in a small village about 60 miles northeast of Lisbon. His maternal grandparents were landless peasants who raised pigs, and Saramago's early years were spent hoeing, chopping wood and hauling water from the pump. In his Nobel lecture, Saramago described his grandfather Jerä(3$)nimo as ''the wisest man I ever knew.'' On summer nights when Saramago was a child, he recalled, his grandfather would take him to sleep outside under a fig tree and regale him with ''legends, apparitions, terrors.'' It was ''an untiring rumor of memories'' that later fueled his own literary imagination. ''If my grandfather had been a rich landowner and not an illiterate pig breeder, I wouldn't be the man I am today,'' Saramago told me. ''If I could choose my own background -- even with the cold of the winters, the heat of the summers, sometimes going hungry -- I wouldn't change a thing.''
When Saramago was 2, his parents, searching for work, moved the family to Lisbon. For the young Jos?the transplant didn't take. In ''As Pequenas Memä(3$)rias,'' his childhood memoirs, which were recently published in Portugal, he portrays his native village, to which he returned from Lisbon for long stretches every year, as ''the pouch into which this small marsupial -- quiet, secret, solitary -- retreated in order to create himself.''
The mark that the old village made on Saramago extended to his name itself. ''When I showed up, aged 7, for my first day of school in Lisbon, I had to present my identity papers,'' he told me. It was only then his parents discovered that the last name printed on his birth certificate was not their family name, de Sousa. The village clerk had instead registered the baby as ''Saramago,'' or ''wild radish.''
''It was an insulting nickname villagers gave my father,'' Saramago explained. ''The clerk wrote it perhaps because he was drunk, perhaps as a prank. My father wasn't very happy, but if that was his son's official name, well, then, he had to take it, too. I think never before in history has a son named his father.''
From his peasant roots, Saramago acknowledged, he has derived a certain fatalistic pragmatism. The narrative sensibility that runs through his fiction was described by the critic Irving Howe as ''caustic and shrewd.'' In one book, a character whose viewpoint the reader suspects lies close to the author's says, ''Unless I can see things with these eyes of mine that the earth will one day devour, I don't believe in them.''
Yet coexisting with this flinty skepticism is a taste for the fantastical. The joke implicit in Saramago's fiction is that he has placed his sober, mistrustful protagonists in a world of magic, where countries detach themselves from the mainland and float out to sea, cities are struck by epidemics of blindness and an 18th-century renegade priest escapes the Inquisition in a flying machine whose means of locomotion is the human will.
This folk-tale sensibility is what differentiates Saramago's novels from the middle-class, urban mainstream of American and Western European literature. If his literary sensibility seems closer to the absurdism of Soviet-era novelists like Mikhail Bulgakov or the fabulist realism of South American masters like Julio Cortázar and Adolfo Bioy Casares, it is perhaps because fantasy and allegory are natural outlets for writers raised under political dictatorship.
In 1926, when Saramago was 3, a military coup overthrew the Portuguese republic. For the following 48 years, Portugal was ruled by a fascist regime whose slogan was ''God, Fatherland, Family.'' In the so-called New State of the dictator Antä(3$)nio Salazar, independent political parties and labor unions were outlawed, the press was ruthlessly censored and the economy was controlled by a few state-favored oligarchs. Salazar's secret police, supposedly modeled on the Gestapo, sent suspected dissidents to the infamous Tarrafal prison in the Cape Verde Islands.
Coelho, Saramago's editor and a fellow Communist, spent the last years of Salazar's regime in hiding. ''Except for our brief moment of glorious exploration in the 16th century,'' he told me, ''Portugal has always been a conservative, inward-looking place. We were ruled by the Jesuits and the Inquisition; we had no Enlightenment, no Industrial Revolution. It was not a difficult country to control. Salazar hated modernity. His ideal Portuguese was a small poor farmer, very Catholic, very submissive. Everything coming from the outside world was a menace, a potential source of contagion. We lived behind a curtain of silence.''
Saramago grew up in a household thoroughly anchored in the Salazarist system: his father was a policeman who over the years rose to be chief. ''He was not secret police,'' Saramago sought to clarify. ''He was just a street cop, directing traffic, a profession that many uneducated people chose. It was not very nice for him when I later developed quite different political convictions, but there was never any conflict between us.''
Yet in his memoirs, Saramago recounts an episode that suggests the startling violence with which his father could address ''conflict.'' One day, the young Jos?nd his father were playing table football. Saramago Senior was winning mercilessly. Their neighbor, a policeman with the criminal-investigation unit whom Saramago describes as being trained in exerting psychological pressure on prisoners, stood behind the young Jos?hitting him with his foot and taunting him, ''You're losing, you're losing.'' At last, Jos?feeling unbearably humiliated by these two men, jabbed the neighbor's foot and told him to shut up.
Saramago Senior responded to this show of disrespect by hitting his son so hard that he sprawled flat on the concrete floor. ''Neither the father nor the neighbor, both police agents and guardians of public order,'' Saramago writes, ''were conscious that they themselves were lacking in respect for someone who would have to become much older before he could finally tell this sad story. His own story and theirs.''
In the end, the Saramagos' move to Lisbon did not do much to improve the family finances. His mother's spring cleaning consisted of taking their blankets to the pawnbroker; with luck they could be redeemed the following winter. And despite Jos? academic promise, his parents could not afford to keep him in grammar school. At 13, Saramago was shunted into a vocational school, where he trained to be a car mechanic. There, in the school library, he discovered the poems of a man named Ricardo Reis, supposedly a doctor living in Brazil. What the teenager didn't know was that ''Ricardo Reis'' was one of the invented pseudonyms of Portugal's great modernist poet, the fantastically eccentric Fernando Pessoa.
Much as the young Saramago admired Reis's classical restraint, there was one line -- ''Wise is he who is satisfied with the spectacle of the world'' -- that stung him with its cynicism. This line, he explained in his Nobel lecture, eventually inspired the novel that is widely considered his masterpiece, ''The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis.''
''ricardo reis,'' which was published in 1984, is a work of richly layered ambiguity. It is also the book in which Saramago deals most directly with the dictatorship under which he spent most of his life. The novel opens in the gloomy, flood-beset winter of 1935. The protagonist Reis, hearing of his friend Pessoa's death, returns to Lisbon from Brazilian exile to visit the poet's grave. Saramago's Reis is a kind of absurdist ''man without qualities,'' and the book's action is minimal: Reis installs himself in a hotel; goes for aimless walks about the city; sits on a park bench, reading the newspaper; exchanges pleasantries with his fellow hotel guests, among them a contingent of rich Spaniards fleeing the ''Reds''; has an affair with a chambermaid; and receives the occasional visit from the ghost of Fernando Pessoa.
In the foreground, stultifyingly polite trivialities. In the background, world-historical disaster: Franco's crushing of Spain's Republican government; Mussolini's murderous conquest of Abyssinia; Hitler's invasion of Czechoslovakia. Reis, who is a conservative monarchist, proves an unconsciously comic transmitter of the day's news: ''Thank heaven there are still voices in this continent, and powerful voices at that, who are prepared to speak out in the name of peace and harmony, we are referring to Hitler. . . . Let the world know that Germany will pursue and cherish peace as no other nation has ever cherished it before.'' Yet what makes the novel so affecting is the restraint with which Saramago portrays his hero's dimly dawning consciousness that his own preconceptions are no longer adequate to an understanding of the world's horrors.
Like all Saramago's fiction, ''Ricardo Reis'' plays on notions of reality and nonreality, being and nonbeing, contrasting Reis, who for all his stubborn particularity is a figment of another writer's imagination, with the mass dissolution of individuality required by Europe's rising totalitarian parties (''We are nothing'' is the slogan recorded in a hotel guest book by a visiting mission of Hitler youth). The novel ends with an image of Pessoa leading an all-too-willing Reis to the realm of the dead.
As a young man Saramago may have been inspired by Reis, but he had none of the sophistication of that cultivated expatriate. ''For my first two years out of school, I was a mechanic at a garage,'' he told me. Over the next three decades, he worked ''in a welfare agency, as a locksmith, at a metal company, as a production manager at a publishing house.'' And also as a translator, magazine critic and newspaper columnist and editorialist. At 22, he married a secretary at the state railway company, who later gained renown as an engraver. In 1947 -- the same year as the birth of his only child, Violante, now a biologist living in Madeira -- Saramago published a first novel that has never been translated into English. It would be 30 years before his next work of fiction (also untranslated) saw the light of day. ''I had nothing to say, so I said nothing,'' is Saramago's characteristically phlegmatic explanation. ''Was I unhappy? Not at all.''
During this time, his marriage fell apart, and he was fired from various jobs for political reasons. ''Did I suffer?'' he asked me. ''No more than the millions of my compatriots living under a regime without freedom.'' In 1969, he made the transition from what he describes as ''critical citizen'' to Communist Party member.
It's not hard to see why Saramago was tempted by Communism. Following the dictates of cold-war realpolitik, the Western democracies were happy to welcome fascist Portugal into Atlanticist institutions like NATO. For decades, the strongest opposition to Salazar's dictatorship came from the Portuguese Communist Party, and its members suffered accordingly. ''I was lucky,'' Saramago told me. ''I was never arrested. Many times it could have happened, but my comrades in prison had the courage and dignity not to betray me.''
Salazar died in 1970, and his successor, Marcelo Caetano, proved incapable of liberalizing a regime that was preposterously obsolete. Portugal was the poorest nation in Western Europe -- a nation whose chief exports were cork, sardines and cheap labor. Yet for 13 years, it was mired in three simultaneous wars halfway around the world. These wars, waged against independence movements in its African colonies of Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau, consumed more than 40 percent of the national budget. The conflicts were nasty, bloody and increasingly unpopular at home.
On April 25, 1974, rebel leftist armed forces led a successful revolt. By evening, troops occupied Portugal's two major cities, Lisbon and Porto, the government's leaders were under arrest and people were celebrating in the streets. ''I was working at a newspaper,'' Saramago recalled. ''People knew something was about to happen: the regime just needed a little shake to topple it.'' In the euphoric pandemonium that followed, workers occupied factories, landowners' estates were seized by peasants, homeless people took over empty apartment buildings and tram conductors declined to collect passengers' fares. It was a 20th-century anomaly: a successful left-leaning revolution in Western Europe. Within the revolution's first year and a half, three-quarters of the economy was nationalized, and Portugal's African colonies gained independence.
Saramago was appointed deputy director of the formerly fascist Diário de Noticias, a newly nationalized and Communist-dominated newspaper. Under his sway, people claim, it became an unofficial organ of the Communist Party. Many Portuguese intellectuals' dislike of Saramago stems from this period. Jorge de Azevedo, who runs a large book distributor, put it to me this way: ''For Saramago, black is black; there were no different viewpoints, no debate. He was hard on people working at the newspaper who were not party members; he made life extremely difficult for them. Because of this, he has a tough image that remains.''
By the following year, the revolution was unraveling. The country was crippled by strikes. A series of quarrelsome coalition governments collapsed. The military, called in to crush political protests, sometimes obliged, sometimes sided with the protesters. In November 1975, there was a failed coup by leftist factions, after which the country gradually moved into the social-democratic, market-oriented mainstream.
Saramago was promptly fired from his newspaper job. From having been briefly in a position of relative power and influence, he was once again unemployable. ''It was a dark time for him,'' Coelho told me.
Saramago does not agree. ''Being fired was the best luck of my life,'' he told me. ''It made me stop and reflect. It was the birth of my life as a writer.''
ot many great novelists begin in their late 50s. By that age, Saramago, it is true, had long been publishing op-ed columns or the odd collection of poetry. But there was nothing to prepare readers for the ripely inventive fiction that began pouring out of this late-middle-age ex-newspaper director.
His first big success was ''Balthasar and Blimunda'' in 1987. Set in 18th-century Portugal, Saramago's novel tells the story of a trio of misfits caught up in the Inquisition: a priest bent on constructing a flying machine and the two lovers who serve him -- a one-handed ex-soldier named Balthasar, and Blimunda, a sorceress's daughter. The novel is eccentric, rambling, humorous, touching. In it you see already crystallized the author's enduring habits and preoccupations: his love of lists; his ex-mechanic's fascination with how things are made, whether it be a bellows or a prosthetic hand; his at-once rudimentary and impossibly romantic conception of male-female relations. (In Saramago's novels, a man and a woman fall in love and are forever fused in a lifetime's ecstatic, round-the-clock coupling, a perpetual readiness to rut aided by the fact that in his world there are no children to get in the way.)
Saramago's most distinctive trademark is his punctuation, or rather the lack of it. His fictions are constructed in run-on sentences disrupted by only commas, a flood of prose in which narrative observation, individuals' thoughts and dialogue go unmarked. In addition, many of his books refer to one another, and all the characters talk exactly alike, giving their conversations the feel of an internal monologue. It is as if a continuous reel of a silent film were being projected in a movie theater that is empty save for one extremely garrulous spectator.
That spectator is Saramago's narrator, an unidentified personality who presides over all the novels. The literary critic James Wood has described this narrator's voice as that of ''a sly old Portuguese peasant, who knows everything and nothing.'' The narrator is slightly split, as if, like Saramago's Ricardo Reis, he were always just on the verge of realizing he is the figment of someone else's imagination. His tone is jocular, grumpy, laboriously facetious; he is fond of truisms and of faux-na?theological speculation (does God have one eye or two? Can the Devil fly?). Yet he is also a postmodernist by inclination, fascinated by semantics and the art of grammar. Occasionally, these dual modes -- village gossip and literary theoretician -- converge in such beguiling throwaways as: ''The objectivity of the narrator is a modern invention, we need only reflect that our Lord God didn't want it in his book.''
If Saramago and his narrator are not quite the same person, they do, however, share a fundamental pessimism. ''I'm not delivering any news if I tell you the world is a piece of hell for millions of people,'' Saramago said to me. ''There are always a few who manage to find a way out, humans are capable of the best as well as the worst, but you can't change human destiny. We live in a dark age, when freedoms are diminishing, when there is no space for criticism, when totalitarianism -- the totalitarianism of multinational corporations, of the marketplace -- no longer even needs an ideology, and religious intolerance is on the rise. Orwell's '1984' is already here.''
Can fiction make the world a better place? ''An ethical novel can perhaps influence a reader temporarily,'' he went on, ''but no more. I write as well as I can, but when my readers say, 'Your book has changed my life,' I don't believe it. Maybe like a New Year's resolution -- for a week you try to be good, then you forget.''
Nonetheless, for all his pessimism, in Saramago's most powerful novels there remains a stubborn sprig of utopianism, flickers of ''what if?'' and ''why not?'' In ''The History of the Siege of Lisbon,'' published in 1989, Saramago redevises the past. His hero, Raimundo Silva, is a lonely, impoverished proofreader who, like Melville's Bartleby, finds himself inexplicably driven to an act of quiet sabotage. Correcting a manuscript on the Reconquista of Lisbon in the 12th century, Silva inserts one word in the text that he imagines will change the course of history. In the original text, an army of crusaders on their way to the Holy Land are asked to join King Alfonso's attack on Lisbon: after Silva's amendment, they decide ''not'' to help. The Iberian Peninsula thus presumably remains Muslim, and the world is spared the Inquisition, as well as the discovery of America.
''The Gospel According to Jesus Christ,'' published in 1991, is Saramago's most tetchily subversive work. Saramago is the kind of old-fashioned atheist who is hopping mad at a God who he believes does not exist. His novel's starting point is the Massacre of the Innocents, when Herod, the Roman king of Judea, learns that the future king of the Jews has just been born in Bethlehem and orders that all the baby boys in that village be slaughtered. In Saramago's telling, Joseph, husband of Mary, overhears the collective death sentence by chance and manages to hide his own son while leaving the others to perish. It is therefore in atonement for his earthly father's sin in indirectly colluding with Herod's iniquity, as well as for God's in allowing the massacre to occur, that Jesus is later forced to give his life. (The amateur Freudian may wonder if there isn't an echo here of a Communist son's guilt at his father's serving as a policeman under Salazar.) On the cross, Saramago's Jesus asks humankind to forgive God his sins.
''The Gospel'' polarized readers, both in Portugal and abroad, and led to Saramago's self-imposed symbolic exile in the Canary Islands. The effect on Saramago's work has been stark. His Canary Island novels are denuded of all the aching particularity, the clamor, reek and clutter of his Portugal works: austere and monitory parables, they often take place in an allegorical urban landscape as stylized as a computer game. In a book like ''Las Intermitencias de la Muerte,'' which will be published in the United States in the spring, his subject is nothing less than the folly of man's search for eternal life.
To some observers, Saramago's exile has made him less relevant than other contemporary Portuguese greats like Antonio Lobo Antunes, who, using the polyphonic techniques of high modernism, continues to explore the psychic wounds left by Portugal's recent political history. To others, Saramago has taken on the role of a more universal conscience, giving his literary fables about the failures of democracy or the tyranny of corporations a broader reach.
For the director Fernando Meirelles, who is making the film of ''Blindness,'' this universalism was the great achievement of that work. ''It's an allegory about the fragility of civilization,'' Meirelles told me. ''Ten years ago, I wanted to make my first feature film from the book -- I was attracted by the paradox of making something visual about sightlessness -- but Saramago said no. Whoopi Goldberg and Gael Garcá Bernal both tried to buy the rights; he refused. Finally, my producer and screenwriter came to the Canary Islands and spent two days with Saramago and talked him into it.''
Saramago acknowledged to me that many people approached him about filming ''Blindness.'' ''I always resisted,'' he said, ''because it's a violent book about social degradation, rape, and I didn't want it to fall into the wrong hands.''
today saramago is planning his next novel. ''Maybe it's my last book,'' he ventured during our conversation in Lisbon. ''When I finish a book, I wait for the next idea, and sometimes it takes a long time, and I get worried. When I finished 'Pequenas Memä(3$)rias,' I wondered if the cycle was now complete. I had for the first time in my life a sense of finitude, and it was not a pleasant feeling. Everything seemed little, insignificant. I'm 84. I could live perhaps another three, four years. The worst that death has is that you were here, and now you're not.''
He glanced over at his wife with almost a twinkle in his eyes and said to her: ''If I'd died before I met you, Pilar, I'd have died feeling much older.'' He continued: ''At 63, my second life began. I can't complain. The things you think are a big deal are not so big. I've won the Nobel Prize. And so?''
Saramago's novels seem, like the flying machine in ''Baltasar and Blimunda,'' to be propelled by the sheer force of human will. Sometimes their author's mulishness leaves him, in his public life, stuck up a tree, with his unswerving allegiance to a political ideology that has buttressed many of the world's most murderous tyrannies. But long after Saramago's dusty jeremiads are forgotten, readers will still relish his sly tales of one-handed soldiers and sorceresses' daughters, of proofreaders with the power to overturn history with an inserted ''not.''