June 18, 2010 / 1:03 PM / in 7 years

Nobel-winning Portuguese author Saramago dies at 87

<p>Portuguese Nobel literature laureate Jose Saramago attends a news conference to promote the film "Blindness" in Madrid March 3, 2009. REUTERS/Susana Vera</p>

LISBON/MADRID (Reuters Life!) - Jose Saramago, the Nobel prize winning Portuguese writer who riled authorities with his works melding magical realism and biting political comment, died on Friday at his home on the Spanish island of Lanzarote, aged 87.

Saramago, a card-carrying member of Portugal’s Communist Party who won the Nobel prize in 1998, courted controversy through his long career, his works often harshly critical of Portuguese history, conservatism and religion.

The Saramago Foundation said he had died of multiple organ failure after a prolonged illness.

“I think this is a great loss for Portuguese culture,” Prime Minister Jose Socrates told journalists. “His works have made Portugal proud, his death will leave our culture poorer.”

President Anibal Cavaco Silva said that Saramago “will always be a point of reference in our culture.”

Just last year, Saramago angered the Catholic Church when he said at the launch of his last book, “Cain,” that the Bible was “a handbook of bad morals” and a “catalog of what is worst in human nature.”

His confrontations with Portuguese authorities were frequent, which may help to explain why his popularity was perhaps greater abroad than at home.

“He may have been better known abroad than in Portugal,” said Batista Bastos, a fellow writer.

Saramago went into self-imposed exile in 1992 after the Portuguese government excluded his novel “The Gospel according to Jesus Christ” from its official entry for a literary prize. He had lived in Lanzarote in the Canary Islands since then.

The novel, which depicts Jesus as the son of Joseph, not God, had come under fire from the Vatican and Saramago accused the Portuguese government of censorship.

Saramago came to fame late in his career but he is indisputably Portugal’s best-known modern literary figure, having been translated into 25 languages.

In 2008, his novel “Blindness” was turned into a hit film by Brazilian director Fernado Meirelles, starring Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo.

He wrote his first novel in 1947 but then waited some 35 years before producing to critical acclaim works such as the “Memorial do Convento” (translated as “Baltasar and Blimunda”) about the building of the convent of Mafra outside Lisbon.

The book was described by Italian film-maker Federico Fellini, a lover of exuberant images, as one of the most interesting he had ever read.

The story, a fantasy about two lovers trying to escape the Inquisition with a flying machine, was turned into an Italian-style opera and performed at Milan’s La Scala in 1990.

SYMPATHY FOR THE UNDERDOG

Saramago was born into a poor rural family in Portugal’s southern Alentejo region on November 16, 1922.

He was too poor to pay for university and his first job was as a metalworker. He attributes his sympathy for the underdog -- his characters include chambermaids, peasants and victims of persecution -- to his humble roots.

Asked once in an interview with Reuters to explain his success in becoming Portugal’s best-known living writer, he shook his head wearily.

“I‘m not a genius,” he said. “I just do my work.”

Saramago’s lyrical style, weaving together fantasy, Portuguese history and attacks on political repression and poverty, has led to comparisons with Latin American writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, also a former Nobel winner.

But Saramago denied there was an influence and said old masters like Spain’s Miguel de Cervantes and Russia’s Nikolai Gogol impressed him more.

“European literature doesn’t need to borrow magic realism and fantasy from Latin America. Any country can have its own magic realism roots,” he said.

His writing style can be difficult, dispensing occasionally with traditional punctuation and grammar. But it is rooted in a profound feeling for language and its rhythms.

The Nobel Foundation said in 1998 the prize was given to Saramago “who with parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony continually enables us once again to apprehend an elusory reality.”

Despite his Communist beliefs -- he was a guest of Cuban leader Fidel Castro at several official functions -- Saramago said he did not write to serve ideology or political activism.

Other prominent works include “The Stone Raft” (1986), an allegory on isolationism in which the Iberian Peninsula physically breaks away from Europe, “The History of the Siege of Lisbon” (1989) set in Medieval Lisbon, and “The Cave” (2000).

He was married to Spanish journalist Pilar del Rio -- who translated his books into Spanish.

Additional reporting by Andrei Khalip; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton

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