The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Gentle knight, where are you headed'

Journey to Portugal By José Saramago, Harvill, £ 6.95

In his novel, The Stone Raft (1986), José Saramago imagines the entire Iberian peninsula — Spain and his own country, Portugal — as an island on the Atlantic, separated from the Continent and floating southwards towards “a new Utopia”. This great raft, Saramago recalls in his 1998 Nobel oration, is “a mass of stone and land, covered with cities, villages, rivers, woods, factories and bushes, arable land, with its people and animals”. The men and women in the novel continually travel through this breakaway peninsula as it furrows the ocean: “The world is changing and they know they have to find in themselves the new persons they will become.”

This fiction of compulsive travelling, “a delirium of will and imagination”, derives from Saramago’s own “viagem a Portugal”, in an old motorcar in the autumn of 1979 — a journey to Portugal made by an eminent Portuguese. “Where journeys are concerned” — Saramago points out in his preface to the English translation of Viagem a Portugal (1990) — “insisting on the difference between an in and a through and a to is something much more profound than a play on words or a simple vocabulary exercise.” Intending to enter Portugal from beyond its frontiers, Saramago drives out to Spain and then crosses the border into Portugal from the northeast, entering along the river Douro through the town of Miranda do Douro. The book is divided into six sections, each corresponding to a segment of the country, as Saramago winds his way down its length over a period of about six months.

It begins with the traveller stopping his car by the Douro, “with the engine already in Portugal but the petrol tank still in Spain”. He then preaches, parodying “his own precise manner of the fastidious traveller”, a mock-Franciscan sermon to the fish in the river on the crossing of “watery frontiers”. His journey, and the book, ends at what appears to be “the world’s end”. On the Finisterra do Sul, at the southwestern tip of Portugal, the traveller feels, looking down on the Atlantic, that he cannot go any further. “Down below, the waves sweep silently against the rocks. Everything is a dream.” This journey, from an actual frontier to the imagined edge of the world, traverses a terrain which is at once bounded and immense. Looking away from the Continent, out across the ocean, conscious of Europe ever at its back, disdainfully looking over its shoulders. The traveller also journeys along the regress of history. He “salvages” along the way “an ancient Portugal which was beginning, finally, while still doubting whether it wanted to or not, to move towards the twentieth century”.

This salvaging is historical, but brings recognitions and discoveries which are inevitably personal. Saramago remembers discovering poetry in his teens during long evening hours in Lisbon’s private libraries, “with the creative amazement of the sailor who invents every place he discovers”. This sailor prefigures the “traveller” in the Journey, in which the narrator never uses the first person. He is a self-estranged and self-performing figure, who maintains a delightfully ironic and melancholy distance between looking, feeling, lingering and moving on. This leads to the creation “over the unstable map of memory, the supernatural unreality of the country where one has decided to spend one’s life”.

The traveller’s Portugal is therefore luminously unreal — the land of “collective dreaming” and “supernatural pageantry”. It is peopled with the stories which Saramago associates with his grandfather, Jerónimo, swineherd and storyteller, who took into his bed with his uncommonly beautiful wife, on cold winter nights, the weakling piglets from the sty and kept them alive in the warmth of his blankets — “legends, apparitions, terrors, unique episodes, old deaths, scuffles with sticks and stones, the words of our forefathers, an untiring rumour of memories”. This old, earthy kindliness is essential to the traveller’s “sentimental journey”, and to that vision of “the entire body of Portugal” which he fleetingly sees emerging from the ground as he sits in “the town of stone” in the shadow of Monsanto castle. It informs the saints’ legends, miracles and romances strewn, like epiphanies and temptations, along his path. It is seen in Our Lady of the Forsaken in Largo do Paço, dressed in lace and wearing a wide-brimmed fedora, with all the airs and graces of Goya’s La Maja; in a picture of St Anne teaching the Virgin Mary to read, reminding the traveller of Juliet’s nurse; in the story of the magic cockerel of Barcelos, which crowed magnificently even after being roasted and served, to prove the innocence of a wronged Galician; in the guard at Guimarães castle who accosts the venerable shade of Afonso Henriques (“Gentle knight, where are you headed'”) and then tells him the way to where Afonso’s tired horse might get some water.

But this “single Portuguese idiom” finds its most enduring form in stone, in the “mysteries of Lusitanian granite”. Thus the Journey is also a picaresque tale of architectural encounters. Churches, cathedrals, castles and towns confront the traveller, and the entire history of the land is played out in his responses to the styles of architecture and stonemasonry to which the pedro formosa or beautiful stone is subjected — Romanesque, Gothic, Manueline, Baroque. Romanesque simplicity and Baroque grandezza become the good and bad angels fighting over his soul. And the Romanesque always wins — it is the “good style”. In this, the traveller’s gaze is both antique and modern, for Romanesque purity of form is identified with the minimalism of abstract painting in the private language of his eye. The numerous black-and-white photographs in the book, taken by Saramago himself, depict churches, towns and landscapes in a sort of afternoon stillness and desolation. They remind one of the haunting shots of empty Italian towns — timeless, and yet so modern — in Antonioni’s L’Avventura.

This epic journey of the human eye is then “a perfect training in melancholy”, a series of valedictions “brimming with sadness”. But it also brings an abiding sense of the blessedness of life, the possibility of happiness in the simplest encounters between eye and stone. Looking closely at the capitals of a Gothic porch, the traveller sees “true love in the leaning heads and linked hearts of two creatures, smiling with sheer joy at the difficult spectacle presented by the world. The traveller stops smiling, surveys the smile transfixed in stone, and experiences a wild envy of the mason who sculpted those two animals in love. That night the traveller returned to his dreams, only this time they became transformed into living stone.”

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