Ajubilant throng of well-wishers and proud Portuguese carrying long-stemmed red roses crowded around gentle Portuguese writer Jose Saramago, 76, at the Frankfurt book fair after he had been announced as this year's winner of the highest literary honour, the Nobel Prize for Literature. The affable, mild-mannered Saramago nearly missed out on the excitement he generated at the world's largest yearly book rights jamboree. He was about to board a plane for home at Frankfurt airport when the news broke and he was quickly returned to a cheering welcome, including cries from Spaniards of 'Lanzarote! Lanzarote!' - the Spanish Canary islands where Saramago has made his home. He had left the fair rather than hang around hoping to hear of a win, he said. 'A [Nobel] candidate cannot just sit by the telephone all day,' he said. 'If you expect a prize and don't get it, you're discouraged.' He should know. He has been on the Nobel shortlist for many years and admitted he had entertained some hopes when he was first nominated. But those hopes had weakened over the years of successive nominations. His quiet but dapper style belies his origins as the farmer's son who had to leave school in Lisbon and train as a mechanic because the family had no money. He held various jobs, as a draughtsman, editor and translator, then becoming a journalist and commentator. He is also a member of the Communist Party, though his magical realist works support the downtrodden without being dogmatic. His first book was published in 1947 when he was 25, but his next work, a book of poems, did not follow until 1966. The bulk of his work was published in the past two decades. Having come to writing late in life, Saramago is regarded as one of Portugal's most renowned contemporary writers, and has been translated into more than 25 languages. 'His slightly baroque, ironic style is comparable to the Latin American magical realists, particularly [Gabriel] Garcia Marquez,' says Ray Guede Mertin of the University of Frankfurt, who has translated his works into several languages. Saramago has published 10 novels and several volumes of poetry. Most of his prose has been translated into English, his most famous work abroad being Blindness. It is a disturbing allegory: a car fails to move when traffic lights turn green, and when a helpful passer-by opens the car door he finds the driver repeating 'I'm blind, I can't see anymore'. The passer-by takes the driver home and finds the next day that he, too, is blind. As an epidemic breaks out, the blind are incarcerated in a disused asylum where a fight for survival is only relieved by one person's ability to see and help them escape. Saramago has said of the book that 'this blindness isn't a real blindness, it's a blindness of rationality'. 'We're rational beings but we don't behave rationally. If we did there would be no starvation in the world.' Saramago, an atheist, has always been an iconoclast, criticising the establishment including the Church and veering between melancholy and comic inquiry. Another of his works, The Gospel According To Jesus Christ, caused a stir when published in the early 1990s and led to Saramago's self-imposed exile in Lanzarote. The book, which indicates that Jesus could have easily created a violent, intolerant religion, was picked as Lisbon's entry for the 1992 European Literary Prize, but was vetoed by the then conservative Portuguese government as blasphemous. Saramago's award, coming halfway through the five-day fair on October 8, enlivened what was otherwise a quieter Frankfurt than last year. One of this year's biggest frissons of excitement reverberated around a book on the economic crisis by one of the world's controversial figures and which, the winning publisher might hope, will stave off problems for it. George Soros' latest work, The Crisis Of Global Capitalism, was snapped up by Little, Brown for US$300,000 (HK$2.3 million). A surprise visit by Salman Rushdie to publicise his latest book following the easing of the Iranian fatwa, the award to Saramago, and author Ken Follett reflecting on whether bestsellers have killed classical literature, was all grist to the literary mill. But this was Frankfurt, the gargantuan yearly book rights fair, and it is the six-figure sums that really make the event hum. This, however, was a small six-figure sum, compared with those paid in previous years, perhaps following last year's cautionary tales. Elton John's autobiography last year excited bids of more than HK$72 million; it has not yet been written. And last year's other buzz-book, Robert Mawson's first novel The Lazarus Child which cost publisher Transworld GBP2.5 million (HK$32.6 million), has seen disappointing sales in Britain - and the sniggers were audible among the thousands of agents' and publishers' booths. Literary agent David Miller, who represents Booker shortlist surprise Magnus Mills, said one reason was the declining power of book editors to splash huge sums on books they fancied. Now bids are prepared with more care by committees that give a greater say to marketing representatives. Others say the 'virtual book fair' is keeping prices down. Eight weeks before the fair, the organisers issue the Frankfurt Rights Catalogue on CD-ROM, and two weeks later on-line. This year, 12,000 titles were covered; it is expected to cover 90,000 titles in the next few years. Fair director Peter Weidhaas said: 'This makes it possible to prepare one's visit to the fair more effectively.' The result is that publishers are less likely to get carried away at Frankfurt trying to get a book before someone else does, having barely read the manuscript. Frankfurt has grown in importance to include Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe, and has become an important place to gauge the newcomers, and for the newcomers to understand international publishing. Mike Morrow of Hong Kong publishing firm Asia 2000 has been to there several times and says as Chinese publishers become more independent of the government they are also becoming less highly specialised and more adept at selling. International publishers also make a beeline for Chinese publishers aiming to cement a deal because otherwise they fear pirating of the books on the mainland. 'We are doing business in countries we never thought possible or which did not exist when I first came [to Frankfurt]. Whoever thought we would be selling rights to China, or the Berlin Wall would come down,' said Marcella Berger, director of subsidiary rights for publishers Simon & Schuster. Chinese publishers are particularly interested in books about Hong Kong which is 'fascinating to the average Chinese', said Mr Morrow. And there is less suspicion. 'Hong Kong is inside the bamboo curtain now. We are not scrutinised as before.' But Hong Kong poet Leung Ping-kwan, who gave readings of his work at the fair, disagrees. Even among Chinese speakers 'there are prejudices about Hong Kong writers on the mainland and in Taiwan, and from overseas Sinologists', all of whom regarded Hong Kong writers as upstarts, he said. And he thinks quickening overseas interest in contemporary work is getting worse. But there is interest in the Asian story. One of the big sales at the fair was of a Japanese family saga by Ruriko Pilgrim, an anthropologist based in Bath, southern England. Aged five, she moved from Tokyo to Manchuria in China and was then evacuated to US-occupied Japan after World War II. Fish Of The Seto Inland Sea is the 'novelised autobiography' of Pilgrim's mother. Rights have been sold in six countries and British publisher HarperCollins said 11 American publishers had been keenly interested during just one day at the fair. Other than that, it is thin pickings for Asian authors. 'The mood in the region precludes a celebrity emerging from Asia,' said Mr Morrow. 'The closest this year is Martin Booth.' Booth's The Industry Of Souls has attracted increased rights interest since being shortlisted for the Booker - the winner will be decided on October 27 - according to his agent Katie McKay of Gillen Aitken and Associates. German and Danish rights were sold at the fair, but most of the deals for this and his new book, The Dragon Syndicates, about triads' international links, will be done in coming months. Booker nominee Patrick McCabe sold film rights for another Booker shortlisted novel, Breakfast On Pluto, to Steven Spielberg, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu's memoirs No Future Without Forgiveness were sold to Random House for US$90,000 after a fierce auction. Mountaineer Reinholdt Messner sold his book debunking the Yeti myth to Macmillan. But greater forward planning does not mean the end of Frankfurt. The best deals are still done face to face and book plans are still made with the fair in mind. 'Publishing remains a matter of personal exchange. Buying and selling rights has a great deal to do with getting to know and to trust the other party,' said Mr Weidhaas. 'It's about testing the waters, getting information, and - despite all the electronic input - accidental discoveries.'