On the one hand, the Nobel José Saramago. On the other hand, the eternal candidate António Lobo Antunes. What they have in common? Just Literature
The rejection of the book
"We gave gifts to famous people.” The headline of 1998’s Tal & Qual magazine promised a joke that would cause a lot of talk… and that would end up badly. During the festive season, the publication decided to give a book by António Lobo Antunes to Saramago, as a Christmas gift. And that’s where the rubber met the road: Saramago refused the gift saying: “Take it. I don’t accept it and I consider this a provocation”
Making a pun with the title of the book written by the Literature Nobel Prize Winner, Levantado do Chão(1980) [Picked up from the Ground], the magazine chose the tile “Atirado ao Chão” [“Thrown to the Ground”] for its story. Saramago didn’t actually throw the book to the floor, but he refused it. Intentionally or not, the magazine set the scene for the rivalry.
The provocative story, however, didn’t seem to cause a reaction on the other literary side and the issue almost seemed forgotten. Or maybe not.
Only much later, in 2008, did António Lobo Antunes seem to react. The writer confessed to LERmagazine’s Carlos Vaz Marques that he didn’t even know Saramago’s work, but he had once seen a picture of the writer throwing one of his books to the floor. Almost regretting it a few moments later, he quickly said: “It made me want to laugh. But the man isn’t even unpleasant to me. I don’t know him.”
José Saramago would take no time to answer, also in an interview for magazine LER:“Let’s not call it that way. Friendship, no. These are bigger words. A cordial contact.”
The rivalry would never be publicly acknowledged by any of the writers. Even so, the two authors still talked back and forth between the lines of sporadic interviews.
The personal issue was more important than the professional one. Both of their styles had always diverged. José Saramago was known for using an oral style, where the vivacity of Communication was more important than the orthographic correction of written language. António Lobo Antunes’ style was pronouncedly dense, with a career marked by a continuous linguistic renovation.
Other than a writer, José Saramago was a journalist, a playwright and a poet. Known militant of the Portuguese Communist Party (Partido Comunista Português – PCP), he was also a firm atheist. Throughout his career in Journalism, he wrote as a literary critic for the magazine Seara Nova, in 1972 and 1973, and was part of the newsroom of Diário de Lisboa, where he was a political commentator and managed the evening paper’s cultural supplement.
Between April and November 1975, he was the associate director of the newspaper Diário de Notícias, a title that gave a… more controversial reputation. Saramago intended for DN to be “an instrument at the hands of the Portuguese people, for the construction of socialism” and those who weren’t dedicated, might as well leave the newspaper. When a group of journalists handed in a document requesting the revision of the editorial line of the newspaper, no one was expecting the outcome: the suspension of 24 journalists, an episode that would be known as “saneamento dos 24” [“sewage of the 24”] and that would generate a lot of heat.
From 1976 on, he started living exclusively off his literary work and in 1988 he married Pílar del Rio. On the 29th of June, 2007, he built Fundação José Saramago for the defence and promotion of the Universal Declaration of the Human Rights and environmental issues. With the writer’s death in 2010, Pílar del Rio opened the doors of Fundação José Saramago to the public, in Casa dos Bicos, in Lisbon.
António Lobo Antures graduated as a medical doctor, later specializing in psychiatry, a field he worked in until 1985. He also worked as a tenant and doctor of the Portuguese army in Angola during the Colonial War, themes that have been used a lot in his books.
Even though there’s a 20-year age gap between the authors, both of them reached their literary peak in the 1980s and maybe that’s why there’s been a rivalry. Saramago became more famous when he won the Literature Nobel Prize, in 1998, with the bookLevantado do Chão. In 1995 he had won Prémio Camões, the most important literary prize in Portuguese language. Other than the indisputable international recognition of his prose in Portuguese language, José Saramago became known by his very peculiar writing style.
Even though he didn’t authorise the application of Brazilian orthography, semantics and syntax to his books, he often travelled to Brazil to take part in conferences and lectures. António Lobo Antunes, grandson of a Brazilian man, was rarely in touch with the country.
When asked about this topic by a Brazilian journalist, he answered with a certain pride: “I am a generous man, I decided to leave Brazil for Saramago, poor thing, and keep the rest of the world.”
The friction between the both of them was very public. In 2008, the staff of SIC Radical’s humoristic programme “Vai Tudo Abaixo na América” pulled a prank on the writer António Lobo Antunes. On the US based series, Lobo Antunes was interviewed by Wanderley Furacão, a Brazilian xenophobe who didn’t like Portuguese people, a character played by Jel, comedian and author of the programme. The writer, who was presenting his books at New York’s Public Library, was, purposely, mistaken with the rival José Saramago. The references to Saramago’s work and fame were abundant, but the name of the author was never pronounced in the “interview.”