José Saramago and a home in Tias.

The moment the tour guide invites you over the threshold of the place where José Saramago once lived, you know you are entering a house  of books; a house that was obviously his place of work, and also obviously his place of relaxation. To be shown round the premises is to take a stroll through the life of a writer who came here, to the island, to observe the rest of the world. He would say that, here, he could hear all the voices of the world but not its noise.

It was here that José would sit in his garden, on a lump of volcanic rock that he somehow found to be a comfortable seat, looking down on hundreds of square nautical miles of the Atlantic ocean, tasting the wind and at one with nature. Here he would meet with friends in the kitchen, in conversation over endless cups of Portuguese coffee. Here he would sit in the library, inhabited by ´books with people inside,´ and write his own last works.

Lanzarote celebrates artists

This literary walk will take you not only through the house where José lived but also through the universal writing he created, and you might even amble along some of the imagined Sidetracks and Detours he himself followed all across the arts when writing his poetry and prose.

Lanzarote loves to commemorate and to celebrate its much-loved and successful artists. In fact, they even do so for artists who are not, strictly speaking, ´theirs´ at all. The autobiography of this revered artist, a writer, reveals in its translated-to-English version that although he wasn´t born on the island, he did enjoy his greatest success here.

In fact, he tells us in his own words that he ´was born in a family of landless peasants, in Azinhaga, a small village in the province of Ribatejo, on the right bank of the Almonda River, around a hundred kilometres north-east of Lisbon. My parents were José de Sousa and Maria da Piedade.´

´José de Sousa would have been my own name had not the Registrar, on his own initiative added the nickname by which my father’s family was known in the village: Saramago. I should add that saramago is a wild herbaceous plant, whose leaves in those times served at need as nourishment for the poor. Not until the age of seven, when I had to present an identification document at primary school, was it realised that my full name was José de Sousa Saramago…´

Not only was José´s full name not correctly registered but nor was his date of birth for reasons that were something to do with tax payments.

Nevertheless, his autobiography translated into English by Fernando Rodrigues and Tim Crosfield makes fascinating reading, and in detailing his family tree, reveals elements of life in France and Portugal during the First World War and later discusses the living conditions he was brought up in with his parents and brother in Lisbon. There are some charming schoolboy memories, too, of how he ´learned hand-writing with no spelling mistakes´, which must have come in handy during his adult life as writer and recipient of one of the most prestigious awards in the literary world.

His autobiography also recalls his first forays into writing with poetry pamphlets entitled Possible Poems (1966) and Probably Joy in 1970. A collection of his newspaper articles was then collated and published at the end of 1971.

The nineteen eighties were entirely dedicated to working on novels such as Baltazar and Blimunda, 1982, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, 1984, The Stone Raft, 1986, and The History of the Siege of Lisbon, 1989.

José´s work was no stranger to controversy, however and when the Portuguese government sought to impose censorship on his work, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991), vetoing its presentation for the European Literary Prize, suggesting their reason for doing so was that the book could be construed as offensive to Catholics, he and his wife left Portugal to settle here on Lanzarote. It would be only five years later that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first ever award for works written in Portuguese.

Nobel Prize For Literature

The Nobel Prize in Literature is a Swedish literature prize awarded annually, since 1901, to an author from any country who has, in the words of the will of Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, ´produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction´.

Though individual works are sometimes cited as being particularly noteworthy, the award is based on an author’s body of work as a whole. The Swedish Academy decides who, if anyone, will receive the prize. The academy announces the name of the laureate in early October, and many readers will recall the media-contrived outcry of a few years ago when the prize was awarded to Bob Dylan for his canon of lyrics, poetry, novels and short stories.

José Saramago, on accepting his prize, promised he ´would not take on the duties of the Nobel as would the winner of a beauty contest, who has to be shown off everywhere . . . I don’t aspire to that kind of throne, nor could I, of course.”

And so it is that José, who often cited Franz Kafka as being a major influence on his writing, is now commemorated and celebrated on Lanzarote. Much of his fictional output has also been translated into several languages and so the Lanzarote house he once lived in is of interest to tourists and visitors who come to holiday on the island from many different countries.

In fact, the house he lived in has been turned into The José Saramago Home Museum. It was opened on 18th March 2011 and now tourists and islanders alike have the opportunity to visit and wander through the writer’s work and leisure areas. The house is situated on the edge of Tias by a roadside and roundabout on which is placed an intriguing metalic sculpture that is a flowing abstract design of his initials.

The tour begins in the attractive, light and airy entrance hall which has a César Manrique engraving, and also includes work by Portuguese artists and Spanish pieces by Pepe Damaso, Millares and others.  In the studio, visitors can see the simple pine desk at which he worked as well as family photos and his Nobel Prize for Literature !  

Dee Dutton, our photographer,in a section of Jose´s library

The most eye-catching aspect of the house, though, is the collection of the fifteen thousand books José owned, all stacked and shelved in genre and catalogued order.

The living room was an area for relaxing and reading; and still contains some of José´s favourite pieces of art, including paintings by Tapiés and Oscar Niemeyer.

The kitchen, which remains a warm, pleasant room overlooking a charming garden, was witness to the numerous meetings José held with fellow artists.

It was in the library, built in 2006, that José Saramago wrote two final novels, “El Viaje del Elefante” and “Cain”. 

In the bedroom, where he died on 18th June 2010, a drawing by Rafael Alberti is displayed.

The conference room, with an engraving of the Nobel Prize for Literature by Gao Xingjian, is now used for conferences

All these rooms can be viewed by those taking the tour, at the end of which there is an opportunity to visit the museum shop where souvenirs and José Saramago’s books can be purchased.

The tour costs only two euros for residents and eight euros for visitors to the island. Those taking the tour are given a pretty impressive little hand held piece of technology which also enables them to hear a commentary in their own language for any room or area they step inside. The walk through parties are usually quite small, and have their own guide and, on our tour, our guide was, like Sara Hernandez at Salinas de Jabunio and arts curator and guide Estefania Comojo, knowledgeable and enthusiastic and receptive to questions.

During a particularly charming part of the walk in which we were shown round the kitchen and then invited to sit on the terrace to enjoy a complimentary cup of coffee, we learned that the young couple who were the other members of our group live on nearby Feurtaventure and had come over to Lanzarote for a five day visit.

Being of Portuguese origin, however, they were well familiar with Saramago´s work and were huge fans. They gave us some interesting insights into how respected is his work in his country of birth and said that his writing is still hugely applauded for its insightful social comment. The young lady herself is a writer, influenced by and sharing the attitude to life of Saramago.

It also emerged during this chat that our guide had been working alongside José´s widow when they heard on the radio news the announcement of the Nobel award to Bob Dylan. I asked whether our guide thought that José, such a poet and social observer himself, would have approved of this new recipient and his work. She replied that his wife told her that he certainly would have done, and that he knew of and enjoyed Dylan´s work.

Throughout our conversation, though, we all lapsed into occasional silence, to admire what must surely be one of the most wonderful views on the island. Sitting in this mature garden, with its strategically placed Olive and Palm trees, we could see all the way down to the coastline, stretching from Puerto Del Carmen down to Playa Quemada.

The tour was a hugely enjoyable adventure and lasted for an hour and a quarter. That didn´t include the half hour or so we then spent looking round the highly impressive gift shop, buying an English translation of one of José´s novels, as well as a translation in pamphlet form of his Nobel Prize For Literature acceptance speech, and an impressive wooden reconstruction of the commemorative artwork that stands at the approach to the house.

These will be sent over to our son who lives in South Korea and who told us during our first phone call to him after coming to live on Lanzarote, that  he had looked on a map of the island and reckoned we didn´t live far from the former home of an author he was interested in. ¨You should go and have a look, dad. It´ll be really interesting.´ We did, and it was, and we gained a real insight into the life and work of a prolific author of more than forty literary pieces in thirty years as a writer.

Anyone then still looking for even further information about a man who wrote for theatre and also composed literature and fiction, as well as being a poet and social observer in his role as a journalist, can visit the on-line source of information that is http://www.Josésaramago.org/ or www.acasJosésaramanga.com

The site tells us that his skill as a writer saw him create more than twenty novellas, five plays and four collections of poetry. This skill was developed from his own wide reading, in a public library in Lisbon. It was there, as he would later recall in his autobiographical writing. ´that, with no help or guidance except curiosity and the will to learn, my taste for reading developed and was refined.´

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