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José Saramago's Modern Fairy Tales


Shortly before he received the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature, Portuguese author José Saramago published a fairy tale called The Tale of the Unknown Island. In it, a bold dreamer sets out to find the unknown island, and his dreaming generates what he seeks. Though Saramago is best known for his novels—and the 2008 film adaptation of his novel Blindness—his short stories distinguish him as a modern teller of fairy tales. In 2012, two years after Saramago's death, a collection of his stories was published. The Lives of Things contains stories that might all be called fairy tales, but at least one of them could be called nothing else. "Reflux" opens with a lengthy and complicated sentence that substitutes for "Once upon a time," and it goes on to describe the mad ambition of a king who redesigns his city in an effort to conceal any sign of death.


As in many traditional fairy tales, moments of comic absurdity balance the somber plot. Scientists are ordered to find ways of detecting any sign of death, and so

the case of that wise man could be cited who invented an instrument which lit up and made a noise whenever it encountered a body, but it had one serious drawback insofar as it could not distinguish between live or dead bodies. As a result, this instrument, handled of course by living people, behaved like someone possessed, screeching and flashing its indicators in a frenzy, torn between all the reactions from both the living and the dead surrounding it, and in the end, incapable of providing any reliable information. —Jose Saramago, The Lives of Things

Saramago keeps alive the fairy tale tradition by letting it reflect the technological developments of the modern world. In "Embargo," another story from the collection, a driver is held captive by his car during a gasoline shortage.


"The Centaur" is a story also collected in Nadine Gordimer's 2004 anthology Telling Tales—the royalties for which went to fund HIV and AIDS work in southern Africa. This poignant story describes the experience of the world's last centaur in realistic sensory and emotional detail. Perhaps because it draws more from myth than from fairy tale, the centaur's tragedy is not balanced by comedy but only by its beauty.





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