- The Stone Raft by José Saramago, translated by Giovanni Pontiero
Harvill, 263 pp, £15.99, November 1994, ISBN 0 00 271321 7
We all know what a Euro-novel is. It’s clever and shallow, full of allusions to fashionable figures, and elaborately interested in its own making. The home product, by contrast, is solid and deep, staunchly unaware that there are any other cultural products in the world, and firmly convinced that the art which conceals art is the next best thing to having no art at all. On my left, Umberto Eco; on my right ... there are too many contenders, I can’t make out any individual faces in the crowd. I’m not suggesting there are no British Europeans, or that all Continental Europeans write Euro-novels; or that there aren’t solid and unfashionable novels which are distinctly shallow as well. But what if behind this caricature of a comparison there were genuine literary differences? What if there is a European habit or tradition, and our suspicion of it is chiefly a failure to recognise it for what it is?
What would it be? Well, it might be like the tradition Borges invented for the Argentinian writer. We would have access to it only when we stopped trying to be uniquely national or local; and it would be characterised by a sense that all the literature in the world was ours, but not as a burden or an inheritance, and not in the solemn way in which North American educators claim the Western canon as the track of their own mental history. Borges compares Argentinian writers to the Jews in relation to Western culture, the Irish in relation to English culture: ‘I believe that Argentinians, South Americans in general, are in an analogous situation: we can handle all the European themes, but without superstition, with an irreverence which may have, which already has, happy consequences.’ Culture in this sense, to add contemporary Europeans to the analogy, would be ours to play with, to learn from, to adapt and prolong, it would be what literature always is for genuine, irreverent, undiscriminating readers; for writers too, when they are also readers, and when they are not wondering whether their readers will like them. Our relation to this culture would be (mildly or not so mildly) dissenting, always slightly frivolous – at least it would look frivolous to sober eyes. But there would be a real liberation in it too. If we wanted to refer to Cole Porter or Philip Marlowe or Lassie, we could do it without being suspected of trying for the popular touch; if we came across Thomas Aquinas, we wouldn’t have to pretend we found the thought in an old cookbook. This may sound utopian (or nightmarish: chacun son dégoût), but that is the point: the ease of unassorted reference, the sense of play continuing where seriousness would have started for us long ago, is customary for writers like Calvino and Kundera, to say nothing of Eco. And to say something, now, of José Saramago.
Saramago, born in 1922, has published seven novels. Five of them are available in English (Baltasar and Blimunda, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, The Manual of Painting and Calligraphy and now The Stone Raft), The Stone Raft (published in Portuguese in 1986) has elements of the caricatural Euro-novel, moments when its whimsy lies a little thick, but it is also a novel in the European tradition I am trying to evoke. It looks allegorical, for instance, but turns out to be playing some kind of game with allegory. It refers to Cerberus and Hades as casually as it refers to Hitchcock, and it is about the idea of Europe: the idea Europe has of itself, and the idea Spain and Portugal have of those strange territories the other side of the Pyrenees. The narrative voice is amused, ironic, but not cynical: ‘the everlasting does not last for ever’; ‘man is undoubtedly an intelligent being, but not as intelligent as one would like’; ‘the objectivity of the narrator is a modern invention, we need only reflect that Our Lord God didn’t want it in His Book.’
The raft in question is the Iberian peninsula, which has seceded geologically, split off from Europe down the middle of the Pyrenees (a ‘tectonic enigma’ is what the narrator owlishly calls it), and is sailing out into the Atlantic. The big drama of the book is created by the fear that this immense raft will crash into the Azores, but the danger is averted by a mysterious last-minute change of course. Later the expeninsula starts to rotate on its axis, so that Portugal and Galicia run across the top from west to east, and it then floats further south, between Africa and Central America, before coming to a halt as sudden and unexplained as its departure from its old mooring. The President of the United Slates is welcoming to this new configuration until he thinks it may come all the way across the Atlantic and create a new American coastline. Other European governments utter polite versions of the notion of good riddance, until the young and rebellious, all over Europe, instigate massive disruptions under the slogan Nous aussi, nous sommes ibériques. Meanwhile, in Spain and Portugal, the tourists have abandoned their cars and their belongings, the rich have taken their assets and fled; while the homeless have invaded the luxury hotels and hung up their washing there. A ‘government of national salvation’ is formed in Portugal, but it turns out to have the same old time-servers in it, and to say the things that all governments say all the time (’words such as Blood, sweat and tears, or, Burying the dead and cherishing the living, or Honour your country for your country is relying on you, or The sacrifice of our martyrs will sow the seed of future harvests’). The Spanish are more relaxed, but then it’s not their coastline that is set to collide with the Azores. Side-effects include national worries about what sort of music to play on television and radio in a crisis (classical because it’s serious, or rock and pop and folk because it’s cheerful?), and the ‘game of the century’, a placing of bets (‘there were trillions of dollars at stake’) on when and where the floating island will come to rest.
All this, however, is a sort of global backdrop to a loosely unfolding tale of five chardrop to a loosely unfolding tale of five characters and a dog: a combination of shaggy pooch story and picaresque novel. These figures, Portuguese and Spanish, have had strange experiences, all magically connected (it seems) with the separation of the peninsula. One has been trailed by a vast flock of starlings; another has flung a stone into the sea with what suddenly seemed to be superhuman power; another has felt the earth move; another has drawn in the earth’s dirt a line which cannot be erased; the last has unpicked a woollen sock and discovered that the wool is endless. Are these things connected? How could they be, in any world we might recognise as rational? How could they not be, since a novelist has elected to put them into a single narrative space: ‘to think that there are people who do not believe in coincidences.’ Saramago’s epigraph is taken from the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier: ‘Every future is fabulous.’ It sounds like a prescription for magical realism, and indeed Carpentier is the author of the now threadbare phrase ‘the marvellous real’, lo real maravilloso. But strictly, and Saramago’s irony invites us to be strict about vatic pronouncements, the phrase means only that all futures are imaginary. Not that tomorrow will be great, but that even the drabbest tomorrow is only one of today’s fictions.
The five characters and the dog meet up, travel together; four of them find romance and pair off; one of them dies. Their journey takes them to the edge of the new cliff formed by the severed Pyrenees. They look down at the distant sea and think: ‘The world is coming to an end.’ But they think this in ‘jubilant grief’, and a narrative voice announces that ‘happiness exists’ and speculates that ‘perhaps that’s all it is, sea, light and vertigo.’ But this isn’t the end of the world, except for the character who dies. It’s only the new Pyrenees, and the end of story. The rest are left, as the book closes, not knowing ‘what future awaits them, how much time, what destiny’.
Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1984, English translation 1991) introduces a doubly fictional character, Saramago’s version of a figure invented by the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, into the rainy, historical Lisbon of the Thirties, at the moment of Salazar’s accession to power. The bewildered ghost makes the material world seem palpably real and dense, far more unshakeable and present than realism usually manages to make it, and this suggests a further, related feature of our European tradition. It may be that realism doesn’t have to be either straight or magical; and that play doesn’t preclude pain or historical sense. Realism could be allusive and self-constructing; we might believe in it because it was made up. When Saramago speaks, in The Stone Raft, of the ‘persistent indifference’ which supposedly separates the dead from the rest of humanity, he goes on mischievously to evoke his own earlier novel, where the dead Pessoa visits the fictional Reis: ‘foolish imagination and nothing else’.
Saramago’s wonderful Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991, English translation 1993) begins with a description of an undated engraving, which can’t have been made earlier than the 14th century after the death it depicts. ‘The sun appears in one of the upper corners of the rectangle to the left of anyone looking at the picture.’ Anyone looking: then or now or at any time since the 14th century. But the voice is that of a contemporary of ours, a man who has read Lacan and Groddeck, thinks of film, photographs and videos, and finds a connection between the Jews arguing in the Temple in the first century and the current ethnic policies of the state of Israel (‘Then tell me, do you believe that if we were one day to become powerful, the Lord would permit us to oppress those foreigners whom He Himself commanded us to love’); he even mentions the intifada.
Indicating a grieving woman in the picture, helpless at the foot of the central cross, the voice says, ‘Bearing in mind ... the considerable influence of this iconography exercised by one means or another, only some unlikely inhabitant from another planet, where no such drama has ever been enacted, could fail to recognise that this anguished woman is the widow of a carpenter called Joseph.’ This is not a simulation of Christ’s life, but a recreation of it, and when the writer repeatedly, ironically speaks of ‘this gospel’, he means not the real and only one, some sort of competitor for Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but our gospel, the one a sceptical but still God-haunted age might want to build for itself. If you wonder, as I did, what a long-time man of the Left like Saramago is doing with this stuff, the answer lies not in the possible truth or moral authority of Christianity but in its continuing place in the world, the ‘considerable’ contemporary influence of that iconography of sacrifice and abandonment and forgiveness. Saramago’s Christ dies asking mankind to forgive God, the relentless author of centuries of pain: ‘Forgive Him, for He knows not what He has done.’ Except that He does know; He’s had a long conversation with Christ and the Devil about it, and the tour de force within this novel which is itself a magisterial tour de force, is God’s answer to Christ’s question about the consequences of his crucifixion and resurrection. You don’t really want to know, God says; Christ insists. ‘Very well, then’: God starts with the terrible ends of Peter, Andrew and James. It almost comes as a surprise to learn that, among those close to Christ when alive, John and Mary Magdalene will die natural deaths. Not so Philip, or Thomas, or Matthew (‘the details of whose death I no longer remember,’ God casually says), or another Simon not called Peter, or James, or Matthias. And God then gives us four pages of saints and martyrs and horrible torments, a bare list, names in alphabetical order so as not to ‘offend any susceptibilities about order of precedence’. God also contemplates further centuries of asceticism and war, and the Devil says:
it wasn’t enough for all these people to have died when their time came, in one way or another they ran to meet their death, crucified, disembowelled, beheaded, burnt at the stake, stoned, drowned, drawn and quartered, skinned alive, speared, gored, buried alive, sawn in two, shot with arrows, mutilated, tortured, within or outside their cells, chapter-houses and cloisters, doing penance and mortifying the flesh God gave them without which they would have nowhere to rest their soul, these punishments were not invented by the Devil.
A little later the Devil says: ‘One has to be God to enjoy so much bloodshed.’
This perspective is expressed in the plot by the novel’s concentration not on Christ’s death or even his life, but on Herod’s massacre of the innocents soon after Christ’s birth, Joseph is warned of this event, not in a dream, as in the Gospel according to St Matthew, but by over-hearing a conversation among soldiers. He rushes home to tell his wife and remove the child, but tells no one else, and for this human failing, this forgetting of what ought to have been a solidarity of the oppressed, Joseph can never sleep again without dreaming of the massacre. When he dies, crucified by accident, because he is mistaken for a follower of the rebel leader Judas the Galilean, Joseph bequeaths the dream to the child Jesus, who now also dreams only of the massacre. In this world of pious Jewry, no one except the Devil is able to ask why an omnipotent God should need the death of so many children to start his own son on his path of sorrow. But the Devil’s question is the book’s theme. The birth and death of Jesus Christ are an incarnation of unavoidable, universal guilt, as if this were the gospel according to Ivan Karamazov or Franz Kafka. Jesus was allowed to escape the massacre, he thinks, ‘so that I might learn of the crime which saved my life’. He means Joseph’s silence, which, although criminal, as Joseph himself comes to see it to have been, didn’t save Jesus’ life, it only failed to save the life of the other children. Jesus was spared because Herod’s soldiers didn’t find the cave where the family lived. Even here Jesus is concentrating on his guilt, enlarging its circle, assuming a ghastly destiny. A more orthodox but equally scary formula appears earlier in the book: ‘God does not forgive the sins He makes us commit.’