Thanks to Miguel for organizing Jose Saramago month. Multiple posts and links relating to Saramago and his works can be found at St. Oberose.
The Stone Raft by Jose Saramago is an extraordinary novel. This book has a fantastical but engaging plot, likeable and interesting characters along with deep political and philosophical underpinnings.
The plot is fanciful. The Iberian Peninsula, Spain and Portugal, break up from Europe and begin drifting in the Atlantic Ocean. Five people and a dog, all of which have experienced bizarre incidents that may or may not be connected with the breakaway peninsula, meet and begin a journey together.
Joana Carda is a woman who traces a ridge in the dirt that seems to magically reform every time it is wiped away. José Anaiço is a man who is followed by a flock of starlings everywhere that he travels. Joaquim Sassa is a man who inexplicably is able to skip an immensely heavy rock over an enormous distance of water. Pedro Orce is a pharmacist who is able to feel the Earth shake; though no one else experiences the same sensations the trembling is confirmed by seismographs. Maria Guavaira is a women who, when she begins to unravel an old sock, finds that the yarn is produced in infinite amounts. Finally, Ardent is a dog with amazing powers of perception.
When it is realized that the floating peninsula is a on a collision course with the Azores islands and catastrophe, the group takes to the road first in a car and later in a horse drawn wagon. José Anaiço and Joana Carda become lovers. Joaquim Sassa and Maria Guavaira eventually do so as well. Complications ensue as a result of these relationships. Much of the book details the group’s travels and adventures throughout Spain and Portugal.
Saramago has crafted his prose in a post- modern style. There are no quotation marks or line breaks for dialog. At times sentences and paragraphs go on for a lot of words. The mood is often light but at other times serious. The book is full of philosophical ruminations concerning people and life. The tone of the book is usually light but occasionally very serious.
There are obvious historical and political allegories and meanings connected with the movement of the peninsula. While I am not completely in the dark concerning recent Portuguese, Spanish and general European history and politics, my knowledge does not penetrate as deeply as I would like. Thus any political or historical commentary that I attempt to expound here is likely to be on superficial side. Therefore I will avoid commenting upon this angle of the story.
There seem to be additional multiple thematic and philosophical threads in this work. I do not pretend to understand or even to recognize all of these strands. However, one point that I think to be central here is what Saramago is trying to say about what is valuable and worth holding on to in life.
The text is very skeptical and cynical concerning many aspects of existence. Governments, police and militaries are shown to be capricious or incompetent. Human institutions and social organizations such as science and public opinion are dismissed and mocked.
Saramago goes further. Understanding of history and the past is shown to be nearly impossible. In several instances both the origin of artifacts and historical battles are given alternate interpretations. Even basic universal constants are shown to be precarious. For instance, cause and effect are shown to be ultimately inscrutable. Saramago returns to this theme in multiple instances. At several points in the narrative he contends that people overemphasize their own importance as well as their effects upon the universe.
“And there is no point in adding that any one of us has reasons enough for judging himself the cause of all effects, the reasons we have just mentioned as well as those that are our exclusive contribution to the functioning of the world, and I should dearly like to know what it will be like when people and the effects they alone cause will exist no more, best not to think of such an enormity, for it is enough to make one dizzy, but it will be quite sufficient for some tiny animals, some insects, to survive for there still to be worlds, the world of the ant and the cicada, for example, they will not draw back curtains, they will not look at themselves in the mirror, and what does it matter, after all, the only great truth is that the world cannot die. “
Later in several places in the novel the human tendency to search for meaning and a place in the universe is also shown to be futile.
“as if nature had nothing better to do than to think about us. It would all be much easier to understand if we were simply to confess our infinite fear, the fear that leads us to people the world with images resembling what we are or believe ourselves to be, unless this obsessive effort is nothing other than feigned courage or sheer stubbornness on the part of someone who refuses to exist in a void, who decides to find meaning where no meaning exists. We are probably incapable of filling emptiness, and what we call meaning is no more than a fleeting collection of images that once seemed harmonious, images on which the intelligence tried in panic to introduce reason, order, coherence. “
Again and again the narrative emphasizes that we live on unstable ground. The bizarre are seemingly arbitrary movement of the peninsula being the ultimate example.
Saramago does not present us with a philosophy of despair however. There does seem to be a meaning or at least a comforting aspect to life. This is human fellowship and companionship. I must confess that I needed to look up what starlings represent. I found that they often signify human harmony and mutuality. This fits as the book emphasizes the virtues of kindness, friendship, camaraderie and meaningful sexual relationships.
“Those living on their own, whether bereft of family or merely misanthropic, would be without recourse, but even they would not be excluded automatically from society, one has to have confidence in spontaneous solidarity, in that irrepressible love for one's neighbor that manifests itself on so many occasions, take train journeys, for example, especially in the second-class compartments, when the moment comes to open the basket of provisions, the mother of the family never forgets to offer some food to the other passengers occupying the nearby seats,”
Large groups and organizations of people do not really work in Saramago’s worldview. Our five protagonists (six if we count Ardent) are shown to be a loving group who support each other and give one another other meaning. Even the beneficent impact of friendship between human and animals is extolled. The author is not simplistic or Pollyannaish however. Sexual tensions threaten to pull the group apart. However, everyone ultimately sticks together, at least until the novel’s end. The group members never actually eliminate the conflicts but they persevere despite the obstacles.
I loved this book. It has an imaginative and intriguing plot, engaging characters, a distinctive style, and it is bubbling with philosophy and themes. As usual I have only scratched the surface of what one will find in this work. I recommend it to anyone who is not afraid of something different and likes to think about the world and humanity in terms of the big picture.