Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Stone Raft - Jose Saramago

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.

One example,

“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.


LMR said...

Brian, thanks for joining this event, and thanks for this lovely review.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks again for organizing Miguel and thanks for putting up volumes of insightful and interesting commentary on Saramago up on your site!

Tom Cunliffe said...

This sounds like an immensely difficult book and I am surprised that you loved it - obviously your ability to deal with this sort of thing is greater than mine! I think I will leave this one for now and be content with your excellent review which I am sure will be a valuable resource for Portuguese literature students for years to come!

Ryan said...

You've been reading a lot of Saramago lately and every one of them sounds extremely interesting. I'm going to pick this one up because I like the premise of a floating peninsula.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tom - Thanks for the good word.

This one was actually not too difficult. I found that Baltasar and Blimunda was actually a little more challenging due to its style. I would classify this book as moderate on the post modern style scale :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Ryan - I do find Saramago very intersting.

Other then this book I have only read Baltasar and Blimunda. Miguel is the real Saramago expert.

Caroline said...

I wonder what happened this review didn't come up in my reader.
Any way - here I am. THis sounds so fantastic.
I get the feeling Saramago often choses almost dystopina settings or very extreme happenings to test his characters, their world view... Minor writers attempt such things and fail but it sounds he does it very well which is no minor feat.
I like animal characters or animals in novels when it is well done. Coetzee writes so well about animals.
I knew I would hear of the one or the other great novel during this month.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - I think that he often, but not always sets his stories in these fantastical, dystopian, or very distressed worlds.

I have not read Coetzee but a quick look at his entry in Wikipedia indicates that I should.

I heard that Saramago loved dogs. Though I only saw the movie I recall a dog playing a moderately important part in Blindness.

LMR said...

Dogs show up in The Stone Raft, Blindness, The Cave, and Seeing. He was a great dog lover.

Coetzee has written a novel I loved: Waiting for the Barbarians. It's heartbreaking.

Brian Joseph said...

I quick look at the plot summery of Waiting for the Barbarians makes me think that it is a very powerful book!

LMR said...

Brian, I have posted your review in my blog. Once again, thanks for participating!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Miguel!

vb said...

saramago is an amazing story amazed the way he chooses his character and the way he weaves the plot around....i haven't read this one should give it a try..ur review evokes interest in me...thanks for this one..

vb said...

no wonder he he quoted this this
“Words were not given to man in order to conceal his thoughts”

Brian Joseph said...

Hi VB - I definately agree, at least what I have read has been amazing. Though incredibly bizarre, his plots tend to pull one in and seem plausible, at least when one is reading the book.

That is a great quote!

Lucy said...

I've only read Blindness, but this sounds so interesting. I love how Saramago combines ordinary people with extraordinary circumstances and conditions. The plot that you've described seems to consist of so many layers - if I find myself wanting a challenging read I may give it a go! Thanks for the review, and all the best.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lucy - It really is a multi layered book in terms of philosophy and theme. Since I wrote this blog I have read a little commentary on this work and it has opened my eyes further.

I would say that this book was not all that challenging. I find many other writers who are called post modern to be much more difficult.

Maria Behar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Maria Behar said...

(I deleted the previous post because of typos.)

Hey, Brian!

What an utterly FASCINATING review!! Works like these, abounding with philosophical themes, are very interesting, if challenging, to read. Although I have heard of Saramago (I found out about Saramago month much too late, alas...), I have yet to read one of his books. I first encountered his work at the annual Miami Book Fair, which takes place every November, right here in Miami, Florida. I remember seeing one of his books for sale in one of the booths. I almost bought it, too. What a missed opportunity!

From what you've written in this review, as well as the quotes you've included, it sure sounds like Saramago was an existentialist, at least to some extent.

It's interesting that some Latin writers gravitate to the literary style known as "Magic Realism". I'm thinking of authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende. There's also a little-known Cuban author, Daina Chaviano, who writes in this style. Well, she's not that well-known outside of Cuba. She now lives in Miami, and I bought her latest novel, "La Isla de los Amores Infinitos" ("The Island of Eternal Love") when it came out two years ago. I met her in person, too -- at the Book Fair, and she signed the book for me!!

Anyway, I think that Saramago's work definitely falls within this style. It's not quite fantasy, not quite reality, but a fascinating mixture of both. This literary style allows the author to comment on current events, as well as philosophical theories, while at the same time allowing him/her to write some highly imaginative scenarios. I'll have to get a copy of this book, and immerse myself in it. It sure sounds like it will provide some hours of very stimulating reading!!

Thanks for your interesting thoughts!! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Hey Maria - Yes I definately would say that Saramago displayed existentialist thoughts. Though I am a little fuzzy on the branches of the belief system, he definitely fell into the category of believing that life's meaningleessness can be made meaningful by kind acts, helping others and warm relationships.

He also definitely was a Magical Realist. I have read Gabriel Garcia Marquez but not Isabel Allende or Daina Chaviano. I really want to.

James said...

A great review of yet another fascinating novel from Jose Saramago. My introduction to Saramago was The History of the Siege of Lisbon more than a decade ago. I have read others since then, none quite as good, but I'll put this one on my tbr list.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - I have not read The History of the Siege of Lisbon but I should. I have really liked everything that he has written that I have read.