Lanzarote: José Saramago’s island, the beginning and end of everything
“They’ll take whatever they want from me, but no one can take away the air of Lanzarote,” he once told his publisher Juan Cruz. The island of volcanoes transformed the writing of the Portuguese Nobel laureate and he seeded this territory with sensitivity and philosophical inquiry.
It’s said that this island is a redemptive place: a mirror in which to look closely at the reflection of what you are.
Perhaps that’s why the essence of Lanzarote can be seen in the pages that the Portuguese Nobel Prize winner wrote in A Casa (Tías), his residence after he moved to the island in 1993.
Saramago recounts the reasons for his move in his autobiography: “As a result of the censorship by the Portuguese government of the novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, vetoing its submission for the European Literary Prize on the pretext that the book was offensive to Catholics, my wife and I moved to the island of Lanzarote in February 1993.“
A refuge in the village of Tías
When José Saramago and his partner, the journalist Pilar del Río, first saw the land where they built their home, it was “a wasteland” with endless possibilities and beautiful views of the sea.
Investing time and energy, the writer planted trees “letting himself be carried away by his emotions”: palms and Canary Island pines, two quince trees as a tribute to the filmmaker Víctor Erice and the painter Antonio López, an elm tree to celebrate the existence of his nephew Olmo and several olive trees, one of them brought from Portugal.
The library is still the soul of A Casa, the José Samarago House Museum, because “it was never conceived to store books but to welcome people”: friends, family, people like Eduardo Galeano, Susan Sontag and José Luis Sampedro.
The Portuguese writer organized his library according to very personal criteria: the volumes are arranged according to the countries of origin of their authors and by themes (history, politics). The exception is the titles written by women, which remain together in alphabetical order.
Ascent to Montaña Blanca and Montaña Tesa
He was 70 years old when he climbed the steep 600-meter-high Montaña Blanca, a volcanic cone he saw every day from the windows of his house, a little more than two kilometres from where he wrote.
In July 2009, he wrote in his blog:
“If I had the legs I had then, I would drop this writing right now, exactly at the point I’ve reached, to climb it again and to contemplate the island, all of it, from the La Corona volcano, in the north, to the plains of Rubicón, in the south, the valley of La Geria, Timanfaya, the waves of countless hills orphaned by fire. The wind would beat in my face, dry the sweat from my body, make me feel happy.”
He had never intended to climb Montaña Tesa, but when he reached its foot he couldn’t resist. “Since the beginning of the world we’ve known that mountains are there to be climbed and this one, there, waiting for so long, had even allowed erosion to carve it into steps and crevices, into ledges, all to help me in the ascent. It seemed wrong to turn my back on it, so I climbed it,” he wrote in his diary.
In the landscape of Lanzarote he found, “in the furious agitation of the air”, a deep pleasure, a state of euphoria, a certain location.
El Volcán del Cuervo, “a lesson in philosophy“
One of the most beautiful photos of José Saramago and Pilar del Río was taken by the photojournalist Sebastião Salgado inside the crater of the El Cuervo volcano: the couple are holding hands and moving forward together, confronting the impetus of the trade winds.
“Inside the broken crater of El Cuervo, without realizing it, many things become insigniﬁcant. An extinguished, silent volcano is a lesson in philosophy,” he wrote in his Cuadernos de Lanzarote (Lanzarote Notebooks).
João Francisco Vilhena also portrayed Saramago on his usual walks through the volcanic landscapes of the island, which had such an influence on his literary style. The writer used a beautiful metaphor to explain it: before Lanzarote, he was interested in sculptures, after Lanzarote he began to care more about the stone from which those sculptures were made.
The centenary of the writer who needed an island
On November 16, children aged nine and ten, in schools across the Canary Islands, Portugal and Brazil, simultaneously read La ﬂor más grande del mundo (The Biggest Flower in the World), an allegorical tale about the significance of certain small acts and the need we have to commit ourselves to caring for those who take care of us.
Thus began the celebration of the centenary of José Saramago, which will last until 16 November 2022 in different parts of the world, with a particular special focus in Lanzarote, a land that, although not the land of his birth, was his land.
Sunsets in El Golfo. After dinner conversations on the wall of the avenue of Playa Honda. Walks in Punta Mujeres. Together the colours, the emptiness and the textures of the island forged a state of mind, a gaze, new writing in the writer from Azinhaga.
There is no better way to confirm this than by sitting down to read the books that Saramago wrote during his time in Lanzarote (Blindness and all those that came later) in any point of the island where you can see the sea and the volcano.
Lanzarote appeared in the life of the Portuguese Nobel Prize winner just when he needed it most. He found here “tranquillity to live and to write”.
This is how he described the island: “It is as if it were the beginning and the end of the world.” That’s how we feel here too.