A few weeks ago, I began giving tours of Alfama, the millennium-old Moorish district of Lisbon and the city’s heart and soul. I have the pleasure of beginning my tour at one of the strangest buildings in town: the ‘Casa dos Bicos,’ or ‘pointy house’ as it is loosely translated. Built almost 500 years ago, it was chosen by the topic of this week’s blog to be the location for his Foundation: the José Saramago Foundation. Saramago was the first, (and so far only) Portuguese writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and only the second Portuguese ever to win one, (after Egas Moniz won the prize for medicine in 1949), and the building is used both to promote his works, and to further the aims of the United Nations Charter for Human Rights.
Saramago has been one of my favourite authors since I first read the stunning ‘Blindness‘ after finishing university, and which has stayed in my Top 10 books ever since, although having previously only read him in English, and having done no research into the man himself, I was pleasantly surprised to find that he was Portuguese when I arrived here, (I had always presumed him to be South American!)
Now that I live and love in Lisbon, I put forward one of his works as being the most quintessentially Portuguese, (or at least Lisboeta), pieces of literature you could possibly imagine: 1984’s ‘The Year Of The Death Of Ricardo Reis‘ is a beautiful, slow-paced novel which tells us the story of one of Lisbon literary legend Fernando Pessoa‘s most famous heteronyms, (an invented or separate facet of his personality), Ricardo Reis, returning home from Brazil to meet and talk with the ghost of the famous poet himself. Anyone who has ever visited Lisbon and enjoyed walking the streets at night, or seeing the sunlight glint off the cobble stones, will appreciate every line of this work.
The Foundation/Museum is a small but fascinating place, featuring walls of his works in various translated languages; various photographs of the man himself; a gorgeous bookshop; a staircase featuring quotes from his works; Roman and Moorish ruins in the ground floor; and the only real life copy of a Nobel Prize I’ve ever seen.
The outside of the building also features some impressive street art in honour of the Portuguese writer:
Saramago‘s style and attitude are not to everybody’s taste: as an atheist and Communist, he was constantly at loggerheads with the Portuguese government and church, and had beefs with everyone from Israel to the EU. Most notably, his 1992 novel ‘The Gospel According To Jesus Christ,’ a wonderfully blasphemous rethinking of the Bible through the eyes of one of its main protagonists, led to its being banned by the Portuguese government for entry into a European literary prize, an action which saw Saramago move to the Canary Islands in Spain for the rest of his life in protest at government censorship.
Saramago’s challenging writing style, (he did away with most punctuation, paragraphs, speech marks and suchlike in order to make dialogue more natural), made enemies of some readers, but the broad range of topics and ideas which he wrote about, (mostly after the average person’s retirement age), are fascinating: from politics to industry to history, and always with a focus on the human aspect of the story. I have mostly been working my way through any novels and short story compilations of his which I haven’t yet read, and next week’s blog will feature some reviews and quotations from these books. For now, I leave you with the view from outside the Saramago Foundation, which features an olive tree from his native village, Azinhaga, under which the man himself asked his ashes to be buried.