LISBON - José Saramago, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in literature for early novels that explored historical themes from unconventional angles and later works in which inexplicable events threaten society's underpinnings, has died. He was 87.
The writer died Friday at his home in Lanzarote, Spain, after a lengthy illness, according to the website of the José Saramago Foundation.
Saramago, the only Portuguese winner of the literary prize, was 60 before he wrote most of the novels for which he was honored, having worked as a car mechanic, civil servant, publishing company production manager, and newspaper editor before becoming a full-time writer.
He joined the Portuguese Communist Party in 1969, during a dictatorship that had outlawed the party, and was a contentious figure in the nation's public life.
After a military-led government with Communist participation took power in 1974, Saramago the next year became deputy director of a leading newspaper, Diario de Noticias, where opponents on the staff said he helped impose pro-government news coverage. He was fired after a November 1975 confrontation that reduced the Communists' role in the government.
In 1991, the government blocked the nomination of his novel "The Gospel According to Jesus Christ" for a European literary prize, calling it offensive to Catholics. The book portrays a Jesus who has sex with Mary Magdalene and is a pawn in a power struggle between God and the devil. The government's decision prompted Saramago and his wife, Spanish journalist Pilar del Rio, to leave Portugal for Spain's Canary Islands, where he lived for the rest of his life.
In 2002, when he visited the Israeli-occupied West Bank, he said Israel was guilty of "a crime we put on the same plane as what happened as Auschwitz." He later said he chose the reference to Auschwitz to provoke a response from Israelis.
The Nobel committee, in awarding the prize, praised the "rich, multifaceted" prose, the "wealth of imagination" and the "skillfully evoked atmosphere of unreality" in Saramago's works.
His writing was marked by long sentences and paragraphs, minimal punctuation and frequent digressions on human nature. "Probably I'm an essay writer who, as he doesn't know how to write essays, writes novels instead," he said in an interview cited in the Guardian newspaper in 2002.
Several of his novels in the 1980s look at periods of Portuguese history, including "Baltasar and Blimunda," a love story set in the early 18th century, and "The History of the Siege of Lisbon," about a proofreader at a publisher who rewrites the history of the 12th-century conquest of Lisbon.
His later books focused on other themes. "Blindness" described an unnamed city hit by an epidemic of unexplained sudden blindness, depicting the ensuing social and political breakdown. In "The Stone Raft" Iberia literally breaks off from the rest of Europe.