Adrift in Iberia

The Stone Raft

by José Saramago, translated by Giovanni Pontiero
Harcourt Brace, 292 pp., $23.00

The Pyrenees have been more of a psychological barrier for mankind than a physical one. Although armies have long known how to go round them, ideas have seldom followed the drums. So often they seem to have been launched at the center, to have hit the mountain tops and then bounced back to the thrower; on occasion they have cleared the heights only to fall into ungrateful hands that have hurled them furiously back.

General Franco, for example, felt that he had nothing to learn from Europe—except, of course, for some military lessons from Germany. Everything he believed to be wrong with Spain—liberalism, socialism, freemasonry, and so on—was an unwelcome import from Europe. In the nineteenth century, which he called “the negation of the Spanish spirit,” continental contamination had turned his country into a “bastardized, Frenchified and Europeanized” monstrosity. For her salvation, he proclaimed, Spain needed to return to the Golden Age of Ferdinand and Isabella, an age during which the Moors could be persecuted and the Jews expelled without interference from busybodies such as the League of Nations or the European Community.

Confronted so often by such attitudes, northern Europeans found it easy to accept the self-image of the Iberian conservatives. Yes, they used to say, perhaps Spain is different, it is after all very near Africa, and the Arabs were there for an extraordinarily long time. Look at their habits too, the way they kill bulls for pleasure and shoot prisoners and inquisite heretics. It’s not at all European, at any rate not at all nineteenth-century Anglo-French European. Perhaps they are simply not by nature suited to representative government.

Iberian liberals and socialists long sought to overthrow this self-fulfilling cliché, and in 1936 some Europeans responded by joining the International Brigades. It is strange therefore to find the idea of peninsular uniqueness endorsed and transmuted into fiction by an unrepentant Portuguese Communist. In The Stone Raft José Saramago cuts Iberia physically from Europe without any feelings of regret or nostalgia. As he remarked after the novel’s publication in Portugal, he was happy to imagine himself on that immense raft (Iberia) which had nourished the roots of his identity and collective heritage.1 Like Franco, he required nothing more from Europe.

Saramago is not afraid of the contamination of any formal European ideology. Indeed, as a supporter of the Portuguese Communist Party, he is hardly in a position to denounce foreign dogmas. His real objection is to European practices and attitudes, to the habit of interference that is built into the EC, to the condescension and indifference which the central, more populous powers of the Community display to the slighter countries of the periphery. These habits have fashioned a nationalist from unlikely material, a nationalist whose Iberian vision, however, is sometimes disturbed by a residual feeling that Spain too is not entirely innocent of condescending behavior toward her smaller neighbor.

Born in 1922, Saramago wrote little during the Portuguese dictatorship that survived until 1974, and his literary output before 1980 was largely confined to poems, essays, and stories. He then started to publish his principal novels, which have been translated without enormous delays, and in due course acquired both fame and infamy. One novel, the historical fantasy Baltasar and Blimunda, has been elevated to Appendix D (“The Chaotic Age: A Canonical Prophecy”) of Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon, while another, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, won the Foreign Fiction Award given by the London Independent. Set in the Lisbon of the 1930s, Ricardo Reis is a melancholy masterpiece, a meditation on the dilemmas of an intellectual living in a time of political upheaval. Realizing, however, that he has neither the power nor even the will to influence events, the main character stumbles aimlessly through the city, holding onto life by means of his relationships with two women and his dialogues with the ghost of the poet Fernando Pessoa, one of whose “heteronyms”—invented characters reflecting different facets of Pessoa’s own nature—was named Ricardo Reis.

A subsequent novel, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, gained even more renown than its predecessors when the Portuguese minister of culture tried, on grounds of blasphemy, to remove it from the list of contestants for the 1992 European Literature Prize. Saramago profited greatly from this imbecility, selling 20,000 copies of his book in a single week in Portugal and winning his country’s Writers’ Association Prize for the best novel of the year.

The Gospel is in fact an intensely religious book, passionately written and so beautifully translated by Giovanni Pontiero that it seems to convey the rhythms and resonance of the Authorized Version. It certainly contains much to shock traditional believers, notably Christ’s crucifixion appeal for the forgiveness of God: “Men, forgive Him, for He knows not what He has done.” Yet in spite of the author’s atheism, it is written with such respect for the figure of Christ, and with such integrity and warmth, that readers can hardly fail to be moved. Perhaps the book’s unexpected tone can be explained by Saramago’s throwaway remark that a person “needs a’fair dose of religion in order to make a coherent atheist.”2 Or as he has observed elsewhere, atheism is “a kind of religion without God or rather religious feeling related to the absence of God.”3

Saramago’s ascent typifies that of a successful writer from a literature almost unknown outside its country of origin. After years in the wilderness, he is suddenly discovered and taken up by Western literary establishments amid much breast-beating about how Anglo/Francocentric we are to have ignored such a genius. Identified as the successor to García Márquez, he is then regularly touted as a future winner of the Nobel Prize—a possibility doubtless enhanced in this case by the fact that no Portuguese writer has ever won it. By the time he reaches Saramago’s current position, his reputation is unassailable: each new novel is hailed as further evidence of his talent (and our blindness), and its author more or less acquires immunity from criticism. In this respect he is much more fortunate than major British novelists who are usually informed by reviewers that their latest work does not live up to the expectations aroused by the previous one (which in turn failed to fulfill the promise of the one before that).

Published in Portugal in 1986, The Stone Raft was translated after The Gospel presumably because its contents were judged less likely to cause the kind of furor which produces spectacular international sales. It is after all an entirely peninsular, sub-Pyrenean novel.

One day a seismic rupture takes place at either end of the mountain chain, causing a gap to open along the length of the Franco-Spanish frontier. Another split occurs at Gibraltar, leaving the Rock in place but allowing Iberia to drift into the Atlantic. A good deal of panic follows. The rich behave badly (fleeing the peninsula by air), the poor behave well (it is hardly a crime to occupy the abandoned hotels), and all governments everywhere make a series of futile gestures and pompous pronouncements. People flee into the interior when it looks as if the great raft is about to collide with the Azores, but it somehow avoids the islands and comes to rest somewhere in the ocean. Its movements are not entirely clear, and Saramago, who tells us that “concision is not a definitive virtue,” does not always help us with his clarifications:

That afternoon…they learned that the peninsula, after having traveled in a straight line to a point due north of the northern-most island of the Azores, the island of Corvo, and from this summary description it should be clear that the extreme southern tip of the peninsula, the Punta de Tarifa, found itself on another meridian to the east, north of the northernmost point of Corvo, the Ponta dos Tarsais, the peninsula, then, after what we have tried to explain, immediately resumed its displacement to the west in a direction parallel to that of its initial route, or rather, let us see if we are making ourselves clear, resumed it some degrees higher.

While the raft drifts across the seas, five characters and a dog meet up and meander about the peninsula. Each of them (including the dog) had a curious experience at the time the cracks began—one is followed everywhere by a flock of starlings, another finds that a line scratched on the ground with a stick is indelible—and believe it to be connected with the rupture. So they wander along, at first by car, later by horse-drawn cart, discussing their experiences and trying to understand what has happened. The two women have affairs with the two younger men and subsequently become pregnant. But since they also seduce the reluctant older man one day in a wood, no one is sure who the fathers are. Eventually the old man dies, and the book ends with his burial. We are not told what happens to the other characters.

This essentially picaresque novel has been praised in Europe for its style and wit. Certainly it bears the hall-marks of Saramago’s prose, including a regimen of parsimonious punctuation which permits only commas and full stops. Elsewhere the author has explained that he sees himself as “an oral narrator” whose words are “intended as much to be read as to be heard.”4 As oral narrators do not require dashes, colons, or inverted commas, Saramago similarly dispenses with them. Although the method is full of dangers, the dialogue can gain from such austerity and indeed does so in passages of The Gospel and Ricardo Reis. But in the less intense and less controlled atmosphere of The Stone Raft it is generally unsuccessful and sometimes leaves the reader puzzled about who is actually talking.

As for wit, it flashes sporadically rather than flows through the work. There is an amusing debate about what kind of music should be played on radio and television before Iberia crashes into the Azores; and there are occasional, very Saramagesque injunctions such as, “you must never be ironic with the authorities, either they don’t notice and it’s pointless, or they notice, and it only makes things worse.” But all too often the humor is pedantic and contrived. In reaction to their governments’ complacency toward the Iberian catastrophe, European protesters start spraying slogans, “Nous aussi, nous sommes ibériques,” a gesture of solidarity that spreads throughout the Continent and encourages the author to spend a page translating it into almost every known language from Finnish to Bulgarian. Saramago’s wit is frequently blunted by a pedagogic streak, a sleeve-twitching tendency he seems to deploy in order to remind the reader that he is an original writer. Here is a typical example:

The morning awoke overcast and drizzly, a familiar figure of speech but one that is incorrect, because mornings do not awaken, it is we who awaken in the mornings, and then, going to the window, see that the sky is covered with low clouds and the rain is drizzling down, tiresome for anyone caught in it, but such is the power of tradition that if there were a ship’s log book on this journey of ours, the clerk would inscribe his first paean as follows, The morning awoke overcast and drizzly, as if the skies were gazing down with disapproval on this adventure, the skies are always invoked in these instances, whether it rains or shines.

In Ricardo Reis the principal character and the two women he is involved with are delineated clearly and seem alive. So do the people from The Gospel, where Saramago succeeds in creating full-blooded human beings from the stained-glass, two-dimensional figures of the Bible. But none of the characters in The Stone Raft is real or interesting. Indeed the author has made so little effort to differentiate them that almost any remark made by one could have been made by each of the others.

At his best Saramago does not much resemble García Márquez. But there are moments when his writing seems a parody of the Colombian writer on an off day, his characters possessing little identity besides their names and proceeding interminably on their unexplained and irrational ways without nuances of thought or behavior. After a while the reader of The Stone Raft loses interest in what they are doing and does not even care who is going to bed with whom.

In The Gospel Saramago writes with great tenderness of the passion of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene. In Ricardo Reis he conjures a moment of erotic intensity from a kiss between a crippled girl and a middle-aged doctor. But in The Stone Raft love is depicted with such banality that even the author allows his scenes to fade, archly terminating one copulation with the aside, “let us put it discreetly lest anyone accuse us of crudely portraying scenes of coition, an ugly word that has fortunately become obsolete.”

Saramago’s American publishers describe the Pyrenean split as “a metaphor for the driftlessness of modern society and the search for identity.” In Europe the novel has been regarded as a satire on the abuse of power, while in Portugal it has been seen variously as a “discovery of the inner world and man’s innermost feelings” and as “the perfect portrait of the Portuguese character and the nation’s sense of mission throughout its history.” Neither of the last two explanations seems particularly valid to a non-Portuguese reviewer, although nationalism is plainly one of the keys to the book. The simultaneous impregnation not only of the two heroines but of the entire fertile population of the peninsula presumably symbolizes the “rebirth” of Iberia following its separation from the rest of Europe. Indeed Saramago even creates a poet to proclaim the raft as “a child conceived on a journey and [who] now finds itself revolving in the sea as it waits to be born in its watery womb.”

Although authors are notoriously unreliable guides to their own work, I think Saramago has been frank with his explanation of the genesis and meaning of The Stone Raft. Writing some years ago in the Times Literary Supplement, he described the novel as “the outcome of a historical grudge.”5 It was published in Lisbon in the year that Spain and Portugal joined the European Community and directs most of its satire against Iberia’s new partners. But behind the mockery of the House of Commons and the Brussels Commission burns an almost obsessive resentment against continental disregard for the two countries that once led Europe’s overseas expansion. Saramago objects not only to the “congential deformation known as Eurocentrism” but to that

other aberration whereby Europe is Eurocentric in relation to herself. The rich countries of Europe who revel in the narcissistic view that wealth makes them culturally superior, regard the rest of Europe as something vague, diffuse, a trifle exotic and somewhat picturesque.6

Saramago’s bitterness sometimes expands to embrace Spain, which he thinks also tends to ignore his own country. The Spaniards, he said recently, have an “amputation complex”: for them Portugal (which was united to Spain from 1580 to 1640) is like an amputated limb which they prefer not to look at.7 But even if its press pays no attention to the Portuguese, Madrid cannot rival Brussels as an object of the author’s obloquy. In tones alarmingly similar to that petty-bourgeois outrage which is still so regrettably rampant in Britain and France, Saramago castigates the EC for the destruction of Portugal’s agriculture and the loss of identity. Why, he complains, should the EC order the Portuguese to plant eucalyptus trees which they don’t want? Musing on his novel, he says he

would be prepared to bring my wandering raft back from sea after having learned something during the voyage, if Europe would acknowledge that she is incomplete without the Iberian Peninsula and make a public confession of the errors, injustices and outrages she has committed. For, when all is said and done, if it is expected of me that I should love Europe as if she were my own mother, the least I can ask is that she should love, and indeed respect, all her children as equals.8

I do not know Portugal and cannot say whether this is a common view. But it seems an exaggerated reaction to a fairly minor misdemeanor. After all, in the long list of Western crimes against the world, indifference toward Portugal hardly ranks in the first league. Perhaps the author’s real grievance stems from history’s diminishment of his country’s international position.

It would be nice to leave Saramago doggedly clinging to his raft and writing more novels of the caliber of The Gospel and Ricardo Reis; for although he is well into his seventies, he shows no sign of flagging. But the skeptical reader will doubtless enjoy the irony that Saramago himself has lately abandoned Portugal to live in the Canary Islands. Explaining the transfer is complicated, even to himself. Lisbon is now noisy, ugly, and polluted, he says, and the Portuguese have become increasingly selfish. Last year, when the EC made Lisbon cultural capital of the year, a journalist asked him what Portugal could contribute to world culture. It would be difficult, Saramago twice replied, to have a living culture in a country as dead as his own.9

So perhaps the raft was barren all along? Perhaps the impregnation of all its womenfolk was simply an illusion? Or maybe a distinguished novelist merely found himself enmeshed in a fable that never quite unwound.

  1. 1

    A country adrift,” The Times Literary Supplement, December 9–15, 1988.

  2. 2

    Giovanni Pontiero, “Interview with José Saramago,” P. N. Review, 1989.

  3. 3

    Harvill News, Summer 1993.

  4. 4

    P. N. Review, 1989.

  5. 5

    TLS, December 9–15, 1988.

  6. 6

    TLS, December 9–15, 1988.

  7. 7

    Mi Lisboa ya no existe,” El País, January 15, 1994.

  8. 8

    TLS, December 9–15, 1988.

  9. 9

    El País, January 15, 1994.