A New Start for Stone

Posted on August 27, 2015 in Essays

José Saramago, Journey to Portugal, A Pursuit of Portugal’s History and Culture. Translated by Amanda Hopkinson and Nick Caistor (Harvill, 2000). 

José Saramago, off form, is fatally easy to parody. At his best, as in O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis (1984), he is as good as any European novelist now writing. His loose but subtle style – those long, unpunctuated sentences reading like the transference of thought itself to paper – is as receptive to ideas and impressions as a wire touched by a insect’s wing. Here, though, in what for such a late-maturing writer must count as an early book, he has yet to make it work for him. At one point he mocks Dom Joao VI for saying things like “His Majesty has the stomach ache” or “His Majesty would like pork scratchings!” But he does the same throughout, referring to himself up to eight times a page in the third person as “the traveller” (or occasionally “we”). It is a sad miscalculation, making him appear (as he is emphatically not) arch and portentous.

Journey to Portugal dates from 1979 when, at the age of fifty-seven and after various jobs and several minor works, Saramago became a full time writer. It was not published in Portugal until 1990, after the huge success of his novels of the 1980s. Presumably, his Nobel Prize- winning status has brought it into English. As a guide to Portugal, it fails. Saramago spends far too little time in far too many places, indulging far too many idiosyncratic whimsies, for anyone but a Saramago buff to want to retrace his steps. As a guide to Saramago, though, it is invaluable. For those already hooked on the major novels, Journey to Portugal is a must.

Looking back from a vantage point of twenty-two years, we can see two projects here. The first, over and above the wish to learn about his country, is to find himself as a writer. His six-month quest for material pays off handsomely, for many of the seeds of his later novels are here. In the family that lent its oxen to haul stones to build the church at Vimioso, is surely the inspiration, in Memorial do Convento (1982), for those oxen dragging marble slabs from Pero Pinheiro through the deep valley of Cheleiros to build the convent at Mafra. On his dispirited visit to the convent, he is unimpressed by an architecture speaking of only absolutism and the Inquisition. The very randomness of his journey suggests something of the picaresque wanderings of A Jangada de Pedra (1986). His fascination with ruined castles and with the tiles in the church of Sao Vincent de Fora depicting scenes from the conquest of Lisbon, looks forward to Historia do Cerco de Lisboa (1989). His admiration for an anonymous crucifix in the museum at Aveiro (“a back that must have borne heavy weights”, a face “the most human the traveller has ever set his eyes on”) anticipates the working, questioning Christ in O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo (1991).

Particularly interesting is his fascination with the miracles of folklore – the child Christ of Cartolinha who led the people of Miranda into battle against the Spaniards, St George of Braga who disgraced the priests when the rats ran out of his belly, the cockerel of Barcelos that, after being oven-roasted, crowed aloud from the carving dish to proclaim the innocence of a traveller unjustly accused. He retells these legends with a relish that makes it plain the fashionable “magic realism” of his novels has nothing to do with Latin American models but has a very local source.

The second project, in the aftermath of the carnation revolution of 1974, is to seize back Portuguese culture from the monarchy and the Inquisition and the Salazar dictatorship, and restore it to the people who carved stone and terraced the valleys and trod grapes and lived out obscure existences. A Marxist design, then, but there is nothing simple about this patriotic Marxism.

Portuguese Communism is a deeply ambiguous phenomenon – antediluvian Stalinist in its official postures, but attracting the allegiance of the most cultured, inventive and artistic talents of a whole generation. Here, for instance, is Saramago, the Communist, on a pair of lovers unable to point out to him the Chapel of Our Lady of Refuge in Romarigães: “Had the traveller not been so apprehensive, he would have rebuked these two ignorant lovers with little future ahead of them if they didn’t learn more about love than its earthly manifestation.” I lost count of how many churches, convents and shrines he visits. The index lists 250, but these are only the sub-entries for his visits to towns with more than one, and the final figure must be at least double that.

Journey to Portugal is more of a book of churches even than the 1963 classic by Ann Bridge and Susan Lowndes, The Selective Traveller in Portugal.

But with important distinctions. Saramago is in ecstasy over the tiny, weathered Romanesque churches he encounters in Tras-os-Montes and Minho, and he is prepared to accommodate the Gothic. But with rare exceptions, he draws the line at the Baroque, is normally a little bored by anything Renaissance, and finds most Manueline architecture too much a matter of external decoration. He loves granite, but hasn’t a good word for marble which doesn’t respond with roughness to the hand. Even with the Romanesque, he draws a distinction between the churches and the Church, the former carved by the labour of masons, whose individual marks are still visible, the latter “a joyless thing”, its only pleasures being “celestial and contemplative or mystical and ecstatic”.

The difficulty with this is that it sets what went wrong with Portugal so very far in the past. It is not just rock and roll Saramago detests, or the adverts in Porto, or the disco music he has to put up with over lunch in Penamacor. It is not just that he never once mentions football stadiums or bullfighting or cycle racing, or that he is scornful about American millionaires and German tourists and the despoiling of the Algarve. He is equally uncomfortable with the university at Coimbra, where he doesn’t visit the great library. He finds no challenge to the mind in the palace at Queluz, while the magnificent double cloister at the monastery of the Jeronimos is “beautiful but overloaded”. To conclude this catalogue of epic clearances, he reverences the houses of the writers he most admires – the novelist Camilo Castello Branco, the neglected poet Afonso Duarte, and Almeida-Garret whose own Viagens na Minha Terra he quotes. But he visits Povoa de Varzim, birthplace of Portugal’s greatest novelist, without mentioning Eca de Queiroz. I was reminded of that moment in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis when Fernando Pessoa is rebuked by the statue of Camoes for not mentioning him in Mensagem (“it was jealousy, but no matter”).

Ideally, one feels, Saramago would like to start again with this landscape. Not just before the dictatorship of “the hypocrite” (his only mention of Salazar), but before the earthquake when “a cultural bond” between Lisbon “and its inhabitants was broken”, before Philip II, before the Inquisition, back in the days when stone and miracles stood against the Moors. Visiting the castle at Monsanto with its astonishing piled boulders and ruined chapel, bare to the elements, he tries to imagine the lives of those who worshipped and took refuge there. As he walks back down to the village, the old men and women are sitting at their doorsteps, in the Portuguese way:

Take a man, take a stone, man, stone, stone, man, if there were time to take them and tell all their stories, to tell them and to listen, to listen and tell, once you’ve learned their common tongue, their essential I, the essential you buried beneath all the tons of history and of culture, so that just like the boulders in the castle, the entire body of Portugal would emerge from the ground.

So Jose Saramago began, in his mature style, with Dom Joao, the fifth monarch so named in the royal list, visiting the bedchamber of the Queen, and with the maimed Baltasar Mateus, otherwise known as Sete-Sois, crossing the Tagus for his encounter with Blimunda and the flying machine of Padre Bartolomeu. The rest has become history.


First published Times Literary Supplement, 3 August 2001