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Jose Saramago, the Portuguese writer and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, has died. He was 87 years old. Saramago died today at his home in the Canary Islands, where he moved after a public dispute with the Portuguese government. A committed Communist, Saramago was honored in his homeland as a major cultural figure, but he also made enemies because of his strong political beliefs.
NPR's Lynn Neary has this remembrance.
LYNN NEARY: Saramago was born into poverty in 1922 in a small village outside Lisbon. His parents were landless peasants who later moved to the city, where Saramago had the opportunity to go to school. Eventually, he had to drop out because of money, and he studied to be a mechanic.
But Helder Macedo, emeritus professor of Portuguese literature at King's College, London, says he never stopped educating himself.
Mr. HELDER MACEDO (Emeritus Professor of Portuguese literature, King's College, University of London): He was an avid reader, indeed a voracious intellectual in the sense of, you know, acquiring information as much as he could.
NEARY: Saramago wrote his first novel when he was in his 20s, but he hated it and abandoned fiction for many years, saying he had nothing to write.
He became a journalist and, in 1969, he joined the Communist Party.
In 1974, his party membership cost him his job as editor of a small Lisbon newspaper. It was then, says Macedo, that Saramago returned to fiction.
Mr. MACEDO: It was best thing that happen to him because, suddenly, he was without a job and with some time, and he started writing seriously. He is a belated writer, you know, a writer that really, I mean, if he hadn't written the books that he wrote when he was well into his 50s, we wouldn't be talking about him today.
NEARY: Saramago's 1982 novel, "Baltasar and Blimunda," was the first to be widely translated, and his work began attracting attention internationally.
In 1998, he became the first Portuguese writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. At a banquet in Oslo celebrating the award, Saramago said he owed a great debt to all those who have written in Portuguese.
Mr. JOSE SARAMAGO (Writer): (Through translator) The ones of the past and of today, it is through them our literatures exist. I am but one of them.
NEARY: Saramago is known for his imaginative blend of fantasy, fact and folklore. He takes on big subjects and big themes. In "The Stone Raft," he envisions a world where Spain and Portugal are literally cut off from the rest of Europe. In "Blindness," which was also made into a movie, the entire population of a city loses its sight.
Mr. MACEDO: It's not a once-upon-a-time but a what-if? What if suddenly the world population went blind? What if the Iberian Peninsula became separated geographically from Europe? He writes fables, you know, in a sense.
NEARY: And not surprisingly, Saramago has attracted his share of controversy.
In 1991, his novel "The Gospel According to Jesus Christ," which depicts a flawed, very human Jesus, was condemned by the Catholic Church.
The next year, the Portuguese government withdrew it from competition for a literary prize. Saramago accused the government of censorship and moved to the Canary Islands.
Ms. MARGARET JULL COSTA (Literary Translator): He's a writer who divides people. I think people either love him or hate him.
NEARY: Margaret Jull Costa has translated many of Saramago's novels.
Ms. COSTA: It's the way he writes. Partly, the people see it as being difficult, although it isn't really once you start reading it. And, you know, he liked this sort of argument, and so he did, I think, antagonize certain people, people of the right. You know, he liked to be polemical, I think.
NEARY: Controversies and all, Saramago left a profound mark on his homeland. Speaking today about his death, the prime minster of Portugal said, his disappearance has left our culture poorer.
Lynn Neary, NPR News.
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