Editorial justice for José Saramago on his centenary

Pilar del Río, widow José Saramago, shows a copy of the first novel of the Portuguese Nobel Prize in Literature. / Efe

The work of Portuguese Nobel is completed with the rescue of ‘La viuda’, his first novel and unpublished in Spanish for 74 years

Miguel Lorenci

In 1947, a 24-year-old Portuguese man named José Saramago delivered his first novel to an editor. Humble and introverted, he had been a locksmith apprentice and worked as a clerk in a public hospital in Lisbon. He dreamed of being a writer, but had to comply with the wishes of the publisher to get his novel published. It was titled ‘The Widow’ but it appeared as ‘Land of Sin’ and passed with more pain than glory. In 1988, half a century later, the Swedish Academy awarded Saramago the Nobel Prize in Literature for “making an elusive reality understandable, with parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony.” Now editorial justice is done and 74 years later Alfaguara publishes ‘La viuda’ in Spanish with its original title.

The Lisbon publishing house Minerva published that novel that has remained unpublished for so long and that appears in Spanish eleven years after Saramago’s death (Azinhaga, 1922-Tías, Lanzaote, 2010). It is the happy prelude to the events of the first centenary of the birth of the award-winning writer, which is celebrated in 2022. A cascade of exhibitions, conferences and publications will follow one another in a program that begins with an exhibition on November 2 in Lanzarote, the Saramago’s last residence, and which will extend through Portugal, Spain and Latin America to conclude at the Guadalajara International Book Fair (FIL) in the fall of 2022.

“That his first novel appears with the title he wanted is an act of justice and historical memory,” says Pilar del Río, the writer’s widow, president of the Saramago Foundation and literary executor of the Nobel Prize. She recalled that her husband “neither signed a contract, nor did he receive a shield”, but that “he was happy publishing a novel that could be the first and last of his career.” And it was that it hardly had an impact and discouraged a Saramago who thought very much about writing the next one. “It is a novel very from his youth and completely different from what he would write later, but it was decisive for his career,” says Del Río.

“Now we can say that Saramago’s work is complete in Spanish,” says Pilar Reyes, editor at the helm of Alfaguara, a label that throughout 2022 will publish all the titles of its Saramago Library with new covers by Manuel Estrada. “It will be a year full of new visits to a work that is fully current,” says the editor.

Customary

Saramago finished writing ‘La viuda’ when his daughter Violante was born and gave her to his friend Antonio María Pereira to read. It came into the hands of the editor Manuel Rodrigues, who put two conditions to publish it: not paying royalties and changing the title from ‘A viúva’ to ‘Terra do sin’, in his opinion much more commercial.

It went unnoticed, until in the ninth decade of the last century Saramago obtained international recognition thanks to ‘Levantado del piso’. This success led specialists to review his previous work and led to the recovery of this traditional folk tale of a rural nature about María Leonor, a widow and mother of two children, which shows how social pressure can destroy the reputation of a woman who only seeks to rebuild her life after the death of her husband.

Carlos Reis, a professor in Coimbra and one of the great authorities in Saramago, is the curator of the centenary that will have four axes: the biographical, the readings, the publications and the academic meetings. A good handful of events will be held in Spain “which was Saramago’s second homeland and the one he chose at the most difficult moment of his life,” Reis recalled. The expert assures that the work of the Nobel Prize “remains fully valid”, that “it breaks borders and continues to be with us” and that as a whole it is the result of the ‘leitmotiv’ of the Portuguese writer: “I live in uneasiness and I write to get uneasy.”

In Azinhaga, Saramago’s hometown, one hundred olive trees will be planted, each bearing the name of a character from the writer’s works. “This set is the greatest and the best tribute that can be paid to José Saramago,” said his widow. Pilar del Río recalled that her husband’s remains rest under an olive tree in Portugal and how much she loved “the tree that marked the landscape of her childhood.”

In Lanzarote, where Saramago spent the last years of his life, the centenary events will begin with an exhibition by the photographer Daniel Mordzinsky, before which all the great Hispanic letters of the last half century have posed. There will also be a recital by José Luis Gómez, academic and actor, who will read texts by Unamuno, Azaña and Saramago himself. In June of next year, a special edition of ‘The trip to Portugal’ will also be published with unpublished photos found by Pilar del Río in a suitcase.

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Editorial justice for José Saramago on his centenary

Hank Gilbert