Adrift in Iberia

The Stone Raft

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

José Saramago
José Saramago; drawing by David Levine

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.

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