Having made my way through Cain, it seemed fair to read another of Jose Saramago’s works before dismissing him as being inexplicably celebrated.
The Stone Raft may be the Portugeuse author’s most accessible work, from what I can gather.
Some of the same stylistic oddities–refusal to use quotation marks or change paragraphs when changing speakers–make this novel harder to read than it needs to be. Happily, in this work, he did not eschew capital letters. I have a theory that, had the author lived long enough, he might have eventually jettisoned spaces, margins, all punctuation, and, perhaps, preposition in a death spiral of obscurantism. I’m letting that annoyance go for now, however.
In The Stone Raft, we follow five diverse and peculiar characters around the Iberian peninsula after it breaks off from the mainland of Europe. We have a Spaniard who feels earth tremors that no one else feels and a Portuguese who throws a stone, far heavier than he should be able to throw, much farther than he should be able to throw it. A second Portuguese man is inexplicably followed by a huge flock of birds, while a Portuguese woman carries around an elm branch that she used to draw a line in the dirt around the time that the peninsula broke away. Was this woman anywhere near the Pyrenees? No, but somehow her action and the experiences of the three men and of a large, wandering dog, and of the woman that the dog leads the group to all tie in.
Don’t come to this novel if you’re looking for something to be tied up in a neat little bundle. Even the geology of the thing makes no sense. Does continental drift take place at 750 meters per hour? Do lines drawn with elm branches in Portugal cause geological shifts? Saramago, it seems, is suggesting that the world and natural, logical laws that we all cherish just don’t hold as much water as we’d like to think they do. That’s all very postmodern, but I have an issue more significant than punctuation to take up with this author.
In an epigraph to Cain, Saramago cites a scripture, ascribing it to the “Book of Nonsense.” This man, a true believer in Marxism and a confirmed atheist, has no use for religious–particularly Christian–faith. That is his prerogative, but the inconsistency of his values troubles me. Marxism is an ideology ostensibly built upon logic and evidence, yet if today’s logic proves to be inapplicable tomorrow–for example, if long established laws of geology cease to apply–then logic is of no value. At the same time, we have an author who claims for himself the right to reread the biblical accounts as he sees fit when they do not seem to fit his sense of decorum and logic.
The God of the Bible refuses to submit himself to logical structures of man. That secular men would find this refusal annoying shouldn’t surprise us. That those same secular men then dispense with the logical structures of man whenever it suits their whims only to be lauded as literary geniuses, however, strikes me as absurd.
Saramago creates an interesting world, one that abandons certain natural and human logic. That much is stock in trade for the Magical Realist, but when the resulting literary world does not provide any surrogate for this discarded logic, when it cannot connect its fancifully placed dots in something approaching a sensible manner, I would argue that it deserves no more respect than the implausible romances and spy thrillers that the literary set so freely dismiss.