Monday, September 27, 2010

A Fantastic Voyage

When I speak with someone who has read Jose Saramago I invariably find out that the particular book they read was Blindness.  I attribute this to it being the book released in an English translation immediately prior to the Nobel Prize announcement, thus well stocked on bookshelves when the announcement came.  It's unfortunate as out of the four novels I've read Blindness was by far the least enjoyable.  Actually, it was the next work I read after the excellent Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis and, due to my disappointment with it, it took three years before I read anything else by him.  Fortunately Blindness seems to be an anomaly as the other three novels I've read were wonderful, including my most recent reading of The Stone Raft.

The Stone Raft continues to reinforce my impression of Saramago as a great spinner of tales, but it really highlights his accomplishments as a stylist.  The plot is fantastical: the Iberian peninsula breaks off from Europe and goes sailing around the Atlantic.  There is massive societal upheaval as a result, but it never falls into darkness or looks bleak.  Five people who have had extraordinary experiences at the time of the break manage to come together and find something special with each other.

The writing style is unique and made the book a pure pleasure to read.  It weaves straight narrative, history, geography, philosophy, and tidbits of wisdom throughout, but rather than have constant digressions from paragraph to paragraph it often manages to include several of these digressions within the same paragraph.  Where some plots are described as meandering, the method employed by Saramago is better described as interjections.  They are rarely longer than a sentence or two and they never break up the flow of the novel.  What's more, the tone of the novel is consistent from the first page to the last.  In an earlier post about Faulkner's Soldier's Pay I wrote that there were inconsistencies on the style and tone.  There are no such lapses in The Stone Raft.  I invite the prospective reader to flip open a copy of this novel and read a paragraph at random.  In that brief reading you will have found the style of the entire work, without a single break in consistency. 

The narrative voice is omniscient, but with unique traits: it can reveal a characters thoughts but I never felt myself getting close to their inner lives.  There was always something being held back to prevent this full character disclosure.  Also, the voice is very conscious of itself as a narrator, interjecting comments on narrative technique throughout the novel amongst the other interjections.

To speak of his characterization, none of the characters are fully fleshed out but this seems intentional, as suggested above.  The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis and History of the Siege of Lisbon are more character driven works so I can't doubt Saramago's ability to create complex and real characterizations, but the five primary charters of this novel are vague through to the end.  You rarely see into their inner lives.  I feel that this is done to add to the fable-like manner of the story, to allow these characters to represent the everyman/woman.

There were several elements of the novel that I admittedly didn't fully grasp outside of the broad outlines, such as his frequent interjections in one section on identity and belonging within Europe, and the ties that bond Spain and Portugal to the rest of Europe.  This isn't a critique of the work but only my own understanding of the time.  The book was written in 1986 so I imagine it's unlikely for anyone who hasn't lived through that period in that place to fully understand what he's getting at.  However, this makes for a richer and varied reading depending on the audience.

If Saramago is a new name for you then heed my reservations about Blindness and delve into one of his other works.  You shouldn't be disappointed.

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