Nobel-winning novelist Saramago dies

Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago, the Nobel laureate best known for controversial works such as Blindness and The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, has died at age 87.

Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago, the Nobel laureate best known for controversial works such as Blindness and The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, has died at age 87.

Saramago died at his home in Lanzarote, one of Spain's Canary Islands, his publisher, Zeferino Coelho, said Friday.

He suffered multiple organ failure after a long illness, according to the Jose Saramago Foundation.

"The writer died in the company of his family, saying goodbye in a serene and placid way," the foundation said.

Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates honoured Saramago on Friday, calling the author "one of our great cultural figures.… His disappearance has left our culture poorer."

Saramago, a communist and atheist, was celebrated by fans in his homeland for being the first Portuguese to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1998.

"People used to say about me, 'He's good but he's a communist,' " the author said in a 1998 interview.

"Now they say, 'He's a communist but he's good.' "

The outspoken and often blunt writer also clashed with authority figures, including the Portuguese government. His move to the Canary Islands came in 1992, for instance, after right-wing government officials blasted his novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ as offensive to Catholics and barred it from being entered among the country's nominees for the European Literature Prize.

Late-life success

Born near Lisbon in 1922, Saramago was raised in a poor family. Though he never finished university, he continued to pursue part-time studies while employed as a metalworker.

He launched his literary career in 1947 with the release of his first novel, Terra do Pecado (Country of Sin). Though not considered a big success, its publication allowed him to move into a job as a translator and then a journalist and author of travel and poetry books.

Decades later, he returned to fiction, releasing internationally recognized, sometimes fantastical titles such as 1984's The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, 1986's The Stone Raft, 1988's Baltasar and Blimunda and 1991's The Gospel According to Jesus Christ.

In the latter, Saramago paints an alternate story of Christ, portraying the son of God as a fallible human who falls in love with Mary Magdalene and questions his role in establishing Christianity.

In 1995, he published one of his best-known novels, Blindness. The story follows an unnamed country suddenly stricken by a plague that leaves nearly every citizen blind, and the societal breakdown that quickly follows.

Though many celebrated his work, some criticized his writing as too intellectual and slow-paced. Others were frustrated at his experimental writing style, which often featured sentences that surpassed a page in length and a distinct lack of punctuation marks.

"I tell them to read my books out loud and then they'll pick up the rhythm, because this is 'written orally.' It is the written version of the way people tell stories to each other," Saramago once said.

Saramago continued to work into his final years. His recent books include All the Names, The Tale of the Unknown Island, The Cave, Death with Interruptions, The Trip of the Elephant and his biography, Memories of My Youth.

He also travelled regularly to book festivals and took part in promoting Blindness, the 2008 film adaptation of his book, which was directed by Fernando Meirelles based on a screenplay by Canadian Don McKellar.

Starring an international cast that included Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Gael Garcia Bernal, Alice Braga and Sandra Oh, the film screened at the Cannes and Toronto International film festivals before its theatrical release.

On Thursday, Saramago had even been announced as part of the lineup for the 2010 Edinburgh International Book Festival, slated to begin Aug. 14.

Saramago is survived by his second wife, Pilar del Rio, a Spanish journalist and translator of his books, and by his daughter Violante Saramago Matos, from his first marriage.

With files from The Associated Press