José Saramago, old-fashioned Communist and modern fabulist, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998, died at his home in Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, his publisher said June 18. He was 87. The first Portuguese-language writer to win the Nobel, was known almost as much for his pro-Palestinian views as for his fiction—he once described an Israeli blockade of Ramallah as being “in the spirit of Auschwitz.” He became a very public intellectual after his rise to prominence, decrying globalization, Israeli policy and multinational corporations. Saramago turned to writing fiction only in his late 50s, after Portugal’s 1974 Communist-led revolution was overthrown and he was fired from his editor’s job at a Lisbon newspaper. Like other other prominent leftists, he became unemployable. “It was the best luck of my life,” he said in a 2007 interview. “It drove me to become a writer.”
Perhaps his most famous work, widely credited with bringing him the Nobel, is his 1995 novel Blindness, about a city of people suddenly going blind and the utter destruction of civilization that followed. A film version, scripted by Canadian actor and screenwriter Don McKellar and directed by Oscar-nominated director Fernando Meirelles was released in 2008, starring Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo. Saramago, suspicious of the film industry’s sensationalism, had originally refused to sell the film adaptation rights to Meirelles, Whoopi Goldberg, or Gael García Bernal. But in 1999, producer Niv Fichman and McKellar visited Saramago in the Canary Islands; Saramago allowed their visit on condition that they not discuss buying the rights. McKellar explained the changes he intended to make from the novel and what the focus would be, and two days later he and Fichman left Saramago’s home with the rights. McKellar believed they had succeeded where others had failed because they properly researched Saramago; given his feelings about the film industry, offers of large sums of money alone would not move him as much as a proposal sensitive to the novel’s themes would. The only conditions set by Saramago on McKellar’s proposal were for the film to be set in a country that would not be recognizable to audiences, and that the canine in the novel, the Dog of Tears, should be a big dog.