I have read Saramago's works in both English and Spanish translation (his native language being Portuguese, with translations into Spanish being handled by Saramago's wife, Pilar del Río) and thematically, there is a lot that will alternately appeal to and repel the unsuspecting reader. A great many of his stories revolve not just around 'what if' situations, but 'why not' scenarios as well. One example would be the controversial 1989 novel, El Evangelio según Jesucristo (The Gospel According to Jesus Christ). In this novel, Saramago explores the possibility of a Christ being not just fully human and divine but fully human and divine in a way that includes a bit of resentment toward God the Father and a more sympathetic version of the Temptation than what is contained in traditional Christian accounts.
Another example of his fertile mind at word can be found in the 1995 masterpiece, Ensayo sobre la ceguera (Blindness). Imagine a whole nation losing its way, its sight...literally. A word filled only with a white blindness and human stumbling. What would such a world be like? How would the people change? Are there allegories for our world, for our understanding of what is transpiring? What ultimately becomes 'real' and what is consigned to the realm of the 'irrational' in a world without sight? Saramago here challenges the reader to consider this as the tale moves on and more and more people lose their sight and perhaps, themselves.
A third novel of his that I enjoyed was La caverna (The Cave), published in 2001. This is a more straightforward tale, one dealing with a Wal-Mart-like shopping/commercial center called simply The Center and how its rapaciousness affects the lives of a simple potter and his family. Yet within this tale, there is a mystery, a symbolism that is more than just a simple allegory. For the title refers to another, more famous cave that has been hypothesized and argued for millenia...
And the last novel of his that I've read is 2003's El hombre duplicado (The Duplicated Man). It is on the surface a relatively simple tale of a doppelgänger and one man's quest to meet his duplicate, but as tends to be the case with Saramago's stories, there is a wealth of speculation and doubt that bubbles under the surface. The conclusions reached are interesting, the impact rather disturbing to this reader, who enjoyed this book greatly.
But these brief paragraphs only speak of the surface features of Saramago's work; they do not address the originality contained within each page. Saramago does something very risky with his prose, something which I believe was done in part to match what is transpiring within the text: He abandons almost completely typical sentence/paragraph/punctuation style, favoring instead page-long sentences with a myriad numbers of clauses to substitute for sentences. Oftentimes, the paragraph breaks represent complete changes in thought and there are no quotation marks or emdashes to represent dialogue; all is found contained within a labyrinthine forest of commas. But yet oddly, this does not ruin the pace of the reading at all - no, the punctuational/syntaxical structure serves to focus the reader's attention on the text at hand, lending indeed an added sense of 'otherness' to the tale being consumed.
It is for this originality and how it plays out within his tales that I consider Saramago to be one of the greatest living novelists. How odd that this 83 year-old author did not become famous until his 60s. But yet there is a vitality there that belies the author's age, leading to works that I believe will be timeless and challenging for as long as one human being harbors doubts about the hows and whys of this quaint universe around us. Hopefully, there will be others who will try to challenge themselves and their readers' perspectives of themselves and the universe(s) around them the way Saramago bends and warps all around him.
For an interesting interview (translated into English over his latest novel, Las intermitencias de la muerte), go to this link to read more.