The historic Casa dos Bicos in Lisbon, in the lower part of town near the Santa Apolónia railway station, is a beautifully restored 16th-century edifice originally built after an Italian model, Ferrara’s Palazzo dei Diamanti. Since 2012, it has been the headquarters of the José Saramago Foundation (Fundação José Saramago). The Foundation – which, set up in 2007, antedates Saramago’s death at the age of 87 in 2010 – is dedicated to the memory and continuation of the work of Portugal’s great novelist, 1998 Nobel literature laureate and campaigner for a better world.
The building hosts temporary exhibitions and concerts, and its library and bookshop are open to the public daily. The bookshop sells Saramago memorabilia ranging from keyrings to coffee-cups and, more importantly, the full range of the author’s works in both Portuguese and Spanish, as well as numerous versions in other languages. The library offers a massive collection of originals, translations – to see all of Saramago’s works together in a vast range of languages from Croatian to Korean is enormously moving – as well as biography and criticism. It also offers showings of a film relating the home life of the writer and his wife Pilar del Río in their later years on Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. The full contents of the library, translations and critical works included, are listed on the Foundation’s website, thus making it an example for other similar societies, present and future.
Outside the Foundation is a holm-oak (in Portuguese, azinheira), the signature tree of Saramago’s home region, the Ribatejo in central Portugal (the same tree features in ‘Grândola, Vila Morena’, the song by another canonic Portuguese militant, the singer-songwriter José Afonso, which, aired on the radio on 25 April 1974, sparked off the country’s anti-fascist revolution).
Next to the tree are two slabs in the ground. One reads: ‘José Saramago 1922-2010’; the other: ‘Mas não subiu para as estrelas se à terra pertencia’ (‘But it did not rise to the stars, for it belonged to the earth’). Those words, though not identified on the slab, are from the closing sentence of Memorial do Convento (Baltasar and Blimunda), Saramago’s novel of 1982, and recall the writer’s lifelong rejection of religious discourse and his affirmation of the material world as the authentic space of human struggle.
Struck by the tree and its slabs, I photographed them with care. Yet it was only afterwards that I realised the full significance of the scenario they formed. A few days after my return from Lisbon, I discovered on the internet, at:
that the holm-oak had been brought from Saramago’s native village, Azinhaga in the Ribatejo, and not only that but – of this I admit I had had no idea – under that tree is the resting-place of José Saramago. His ashes are interred, not in Azinhaga or on Lanzarote, but there under that azinheira in Lisbon. I had been at José Saramago’s grave without knowing it, and for that reason as for many others, the exemplary Fundação José Saramago will remain etched on my mind, as a memorial to Saramago and to literature.
The site of the Fundação José Saramago (versions in Portuguese and Spanish), is at: