The Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal) is about to drift away from the rest of Europe. "Those who are curious, not to say skeptical, will want to know what is causing all these serious developments, as if the simple breaking up of the Pyrenees were not enough for them, with rivers turning into waterfalls and tides advancing several kilometers inland, after a recession that has lasted millions of years. At this point the hand falters, how can it plausibly write the words that are about to follow, words that will inevitably throw everything into jeopardy, all the more so since it is becoming extremely difficult, should such a thing ever be possible in life, to separate truth from fantasy."
All of José Saramago's novels are fables, if not always by virtue of the subject matter than by virtue of the rhythm and cadence of his prose. When we hold one of them open and begin reading -- whether it's The Stone Raft or its predecessors, Baltasar and Blimunda, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ -- it's like having a musical score in front of our eyes and the sudden gift of being able to imagine the sound of the notes, the chords, the instruments.
As for the style of Saramago's prose, it's a cross between the late Thomas Bernhard and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Maybe you haven't read Bernhard? Then imagine an Austrian intellectual writing The Autumn of the Patriarch. There's a cascade of literary rhythm and the drumbeats to move it along, and the realization that magic realism doesn't begin and end with One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Just before the first cracks appear in the Pyrenees separating France and Spain, Joana Carda scratches the earth of Carbiere and all the mute dogs set to howling; Joaquim Sassa picks up a heavy stone -- and hurls it far into the Atlantic; Pedro Orce stands up and he'll forever feel the ground trembling; José Anaico goes for a walk and a flock of starlings begins to follow him; and Maria Guavaira begins to unravel a sock only to find that there's no end to the thread.
These characters will seek out and encounter one another as the erstwhile peninsula unmoors and begins sailing west at about 18 kilometers a day. That's not all that fast, but soon enough there's a mass exodus from Lisbon, Oporto, Coimbra and other coastal cities since nobody wants to be in the front row when Portugal plows into the Azores. Before that crisis intensifies, however, Joaquim Sassa has heard about and found José Anaico, the two of them travel from Portugal to Spain to find old Pedro Orce, these three then return to Portugal where they meet Joana Carda in Lisbon, and now this unlikely quartet is driving north, to the site where Joana Carda had drawn the line in the soil with an elm branch.
They find the spot, they investigate it, if standing around being mystified can be called investigation, and as they leave they encounter a dog with a blue thread hanging from its mouth. Somehow, the dog convinces them to follow him in their jalopy. There's a great deal of subtle, wry, or understated humor as the pilgrimage once more gets underway.
"For the second time, Joaquim Sassa said that this was utter madness, trailing after a stupid dog to the ends of the earth without knowing why or for what purpose, to which Pedro Orce replied abruptly, betraying his annoyance, Scarcely to the ends of the earth, we'll reach the sea before then.. And in this fashion they arrive in Galicia, northeast of Santiago de Compostela, stopping only when they approach the doorstep of Maria Guavaira, the woman who'd begun to unravel a sock to no avail.
This review, long enough already, would be twice as long if I explained the personal relationships that develop as the characters come to know one another. Even the dog, tentatively called Pilot and Faithful for a few pages, is permanently named Constant (but -- mistakenly? -- called Ardent in the closing paragraph). Soon enough there are even a couple of horses, Grizzly and Chess.
What is the book about? Uprootedness and displacement, obviously; everything's on the move in this book, and there appears to be a certain amount of political allegory as well. One senses that continental Europe is secretly pleased to see its southern neighbors floating off into the sunset; likewise, the United States is magnanimous when it seems that the island will rip itself up when it strikes the Azores. Later on, however, the US and Canada demur at the prospect of a new neighbor settling down in territorial waters.
There are some interesting and surprising twists and turns as The Stone Raft comes to an end, not the least being that most of the women on the island are pregnant. One will ask, What does this imminent mass birth signify? It's just one more puzzle for the reader who wants to delve deeper into this often very delightful book, a book in which "the journey continues."
Portugal's José Saramago is a worldclass writer -- I'm always telling people I meet that he deserves the Nobel Prize -- but I'd give his three other books in English a slightly higher recommendation. Deceiving words, to some extent, because The Stone Raft is full of wonderful lines and wonderful moments that we simply won't find anywhere else.
Overcome evil with good, the ancients used to say, and with good reason, at least they put their time to good use by judging facts that were then new in the light of facts that were already old. Nowadays we make the mistake of adopting a skeptical attitude toward the lessons of antiquity. The President of the United States of America promised that the peninsula would be welcome, and Canada, as we will see, was not pleased. As the Canadians point out, Unless the peninsula changes course, it we who will be playing host and then we'll have two Newfounlands here instead of one, little do the people on the peninsula know, poor devils, what awaits them, biting cold, frost, the only advantage for the Portuguese is that they will be close to supplies of that cod they're so fond of. They will lose their summers but have more to eat.
The spokesman at the White House hastened to explain that the President's speech had been prompted fundamentally by humanitarian considerations without aspiring to political supremacy, especially since the countries of the peninsula had not ceased to be sovereign and independent just because they had gone floating off over the waters, they will have to come a halt one day, and be like every other country, and then added, For our part, we solemnly guarantee that the traditional good-neighbor policy between the United States and Canada will not be affected by any eventuality, and as proof of America's desire to maintain friendly relations with the great Canadian nation, we propose setting up a bilateral committee to examine the various problems arising in the context of this dramatic transformation of the world's political and strategic physiognomy, which certainly constitutes a first step toward the birth of a new international community comprising the United States, Canada, and now the Iberian countries, who will be invited to participate as observers at this meeting since they are still not physically close enough for there to be any immediate prospect of specifying the eventual form of this integration.
The Stone Raft, by José Saramago, translation by Giovanni Pontiero (Harvest Books, 304 pp., $13 paper)