Thanks to Miguel for organizing Jose
Saramago month. Multiple posts and links relating to Saramago and his works can
be found at St. Oberose.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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. “
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. “
and again the narrative emphasizes that we live on unstable ground. The bizarre
are seemingly arbitrary movement of the peninsula being the ultimate example.
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,”
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.
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.