Lanzarote’s most famous 20th century figure was undoubtedly the architect César Manrique. This extraordinary man gave a large part of his life turning this volcanic island from potentially just another tourist trap into something architecturally quite different.
It is thanks to his creative influence that Lanzarote has not sprouted an ugly set of high-rise hotels, but has retained its charming low traditional buildings. His own amazing house – skillfully constructed from five subterranean blue-black volcanic bubbles – is open to the public and definitely worth a visit.
What is not quite so well known is that the island was also home to another great artistic figure – José Saramago, Portugal’s greatest contemporary writer and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
During his twilight years he lived in a modest house in the inland Lanzarote town of Tías. This house is now a museum and part of the José Saramago Foundation. Its contents offer a fascinating insight into the life and work of this renowned and controversial novelist.
Saramago was born in 1922 in Azanhaga, a village in the Ribatejo, but moved to Lisbon with his parents in 1924, where he began his education, excelling in all subjects. His academic career never actually went beyond Grammar School, due to his family’s poor economic circumstances, so he trained to be a mechanic. However, whenever time was available between jobs, he continued to study literature and published his first novel, Land of Sin, when he was 25.
Saramago later ceased mechanical work to become editor of the Lisbon newspaper Diário de Notícias. It was around this time that he joined the then illegal Portuguese Communist Party, continuing as a member throughout his life.
He lost his editorial role when the government changed hands in 1974 and turned to translating French manuscripts into Portuguese. Exposure to high quality literature soon began to spark his own creative genius and he returned to writing, publishing a succession of cynical and darkly humorous novels, some of which gained international recognition.
Saramago’s first marriage had ended in divorce in 1970 and he met his second wife, Spanish journalist Pilar del Rio, in 1986. This was the same year he released A Jangada de Pedra (The Stone Raft), a fantasy story about Spain and Portugal being separated from the rest of Europe by a fault line in the Pyrenees! It was a successful union and Pilar remained at his side for the rest of his life.
However, it was his next project, O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo (The Gospel According to Jesus Christ) that caused uproar in Portugal and was condemned by the Catholic Church for its depiction of Jesus as a person with human flaws and passions.
The country’s conservative government contested the novel’s entry for a literary prize in 1992 and this triggered Saramago and his wife to leave Lisbon and settle in Lanzarote. His next novel in 1997 told of an inescapable blindness that swept through society, turning it into primitive chaos, and further accolades followed with the publication of Todos Os Nomes (All the Names) that conveyed the basic human need for connection in a lonely world. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature the following year at the age of 75.We struggled to find Saramago’s home, Casa Abierta (Open House) in Tías, even with the help of detailed directions from our travel agent. On our eventual arrival, the reception team was delighted to discover we were Portuguese residents. They informed us that the great man, after settling on the island, compiled a set of annual journals titled Notebooks from Lanzarote.
These revealed him to be a man who was obviously devoted to his wife and very much at peace with his surroundings, drawing inspiration from the amenable climate and the rugged volcanic landscape. He often said that his house was “made of books” and it became rapidly apparent during our tour that literature did indeed fill the air.
The lady who conducted our leisurely personal tour, animatedly described his extensive art collection, key events in his life and showed us many of his personal artefacts. The highlights of this hour-long introduction to ‘everything Saramago’ were his study, dining room, library and very homely kitchen. The spacious library contained an extensive book collection, meticulously catalogued, that lined the walls from floor to ceiling. The English authors were extensive and even included P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster series!
Our tour ended in the colourful flower garden where we admired the view whilst supping an excellent ‘bica’ of Portuguese coffee. Saramago wisely insisted on being supplied with coffee from his home country rather than drinking some of the rather inferior Spanish brands!
Before leaving, we visited the house-museum’s bookshop, where we were advised that the best ‘starter’ book for those who want to begin digesting some of Saramago’s works was As Pequenas Memórias (Small Memories), written in 2006.
We later purchased the English translation of the book and relished learning more about his life as a child. Small Memories is a rambling distillation of his earliest recollections as he went back and forth between his grandparents’ home in Azinhaga and his parents’ successive dwellings in Lisbon.
He describes watching silent movies, fishing in the river, his early attempts at romantic attachments and the untimely death of his brother, Francisco, at the age of four.
At the back of the book, he rather mischievously annotates a series of family photos. Under a picture of himself, possibly in his early twenties, his caption reads: “By now, I had a girlfriend. You can tell by the look on my face!”
It is an endearing book and together with the tour of his intriguing Lanzarote home, it has given us a wonderful introduction to the works of Portugal’s greatest 20th century novelist.
By Nigel Wright
Nigel Wright, and his wife Sue, moved to Portugal eleven years ago and live in the countryside near Paderne with their three dogs. They lived and worked in the Far East and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s, and although now retired, still continue to travel and enjoy new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening, photography and petanque.