The architecture of José Saramago's purpose-built library, as it rises from a parched hillside on his adopted island of Lanzarote, creates the impression of a modern cathedral. Sunlight splinters through high, narrow windows of opaque glass that stretch the full two storeys; the clean, white walls and cool flagstones contribute to a sense of hushed reverence in the presence of so many volumes, ancient and modern, in so many languages. Here is a shrine to literature, an alternative religion for a Portuguese Nobel laureate, who left his homeland 14 years ago in protest at the government's censorship of his novel, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (it vetoed its submission for the European Literature Prize on the grounds that it was offensive to Catholics).
It takes some effort to believe that Saramago is about to turn 84 - not just because of his vivid physical presence, his barely-lined face and the quickness of his eyes and hands when he talks, but also because of his extraordinary productivity.
Although Seeing is published this week in English translation, he has produced another book in the meantime; Las Intermitencias de la Muerte was published last autumn in Portugal, Spain and Latin America (his Spanish wife, Pilar del Rio, translates his books as he goes along so that they can be published simultaneously for his large Spanish readership), and he is now working on an autobiography entitled Pequenas Memorias (Little Memories), about his childhood in rural Portugal.
But the image of the venerable novelist shut away in his island retreat, disengaged from the world, could not be further from the truth. Saramago is about to leave Lanzarote for two months of travelling, as he does most years, in part to promote the new novel, but mainly to speak at conferences and presentations on politics and sociology. 'Most of it doesn't have much to do with literature,' he explains, 'but this is a part of my life that I consider very important, not to limit myself to literary work; I try to be involved in the world to the best of my strengths and abilities.' Still a member of the Communist party, Saramago is a vocal opponent of globalisation and many of his best known novels have taken the form of political allegory. Does he believe that the artist is obliged to take on a political role? 'It isn't a role,' he says, almost sharply.
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