Saramago died on the Canary island of Lanzarote. He had lived there with his wife, Spanish journalist Pilar del Rio, since 1992 because Portugal’s government had removed his novel The Gospel according to Jesus Christ from the short-list of a literary prize because it displeased the Vatican.
That was not the only time he clashed with the Catholic church – his last novel, Cain, blames God for the murder of the biblical figure Abel – nor with the Portuguese government.
A member of the Communist Party when it was banned by the Salazar dictatorship, he took part in the 1974 revolution, later criticising governments that retreated from the radicalism of the carnation revolution.
Saramago published poetry but was best known for his novels. These tend to start from an unlikely premise – Portugal breaks away from Europe and floats across the ocean, the pseudonymous personality of Portugal’s best-known poet wanders around Lisbon, almost all a country’s people go blind – to follow their own logic, often with satirical implications.
“From these impossible premises, more or less logical consequences follow, more or less fabulously narrated; with light digressions, tense asides and much moody self-reflexiveness,” comments Daniel Soar in the London Review of Books.
Saramago succumbed to the failure of several organs after suffering a long illness, according to his Spanish publisher Alfaguara.
“This is a great loss for Portuguese culture,” said Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates. “His work was the pride of Portugal and his death impoverishes our culture.”