In Appalachian Jack Tales, the powers include things like the ability to jump seven leagues, or to shout so loudly the mountains quake, or to drink the entire contents of a river or sea. Well, the helpers in this modern fairy tale by Jose Saramago are less dramatic, but much more mysterious.
Let us begin with Pedro Orce, an elderly Portugese pharmacist who awakes one morning with the ability to feel the earth move beneath his feet. Then, a Spaniard named Joaquin Sassa picks up a large stone and hurls it into the sea. To his astonishment, the stone does not fall at his feet, but vanishes in the distance. A third man, Jose Anaico, suddenly finds himself surrounded by flocks of starlings which fly above his head everywhere he goes (He is known as “the King of Starlings.”) What could all of this mean?
At the exact moment that Orce, Sassa and Anaico discover their remarkable gifts, the countries of Spain and Portugal undergo a remarkable alteration. The earth is split from the continent of Europe by a gigantic fissure that runs the length of the Pyrenees, thus creating a great peninsula that begins to float slowly away. As a stunned world watches this event on TV, the media reports the ensuing events with a fervor that alternates between awe and dread. Is it the apocalypse? Governments convene and trade agreements are revised.
Of course, when the media reports a number of odd events that have occurred in conjunction with the departure of Spain and Portugal, they mention Orce, Sassa and Anaico. Hearing about themselves through the media, they arrange to meet. Before long, the three men are traveling in Sassa’s Deux Chevaux, an eccentric car with a canvas roof, and they are shortly joined by a woman named Joana Carda who has also had an extraordinary experience: when she draws a line in the dirt with the branch of an elm tree, she discovers that the line cannot be erased. Two more characters eventually appear: Maria Guavaira, who has discovered an endless ball of blue yarn; and a mysterious dog who cannot bark, but who seems to have been “sent to be their guide” on their journey. Where are they going? Why, to see the end of the world — the shattered chasm that marks the cleaving of a continent.
The world is filled with disasters as millions of people begin to migrate. Eventually, Sassa’s car is abandoned and the group travels by a wagon drawn by two horses (the original meaning of Deux Chevaux is “two horses.) The peninsula changes courses and drifts toward the United States and Canada. Cities and towns are abandoned and the governments of the world bicker endlessly, causing the author to comment that governments invariably function best when they aren’t needed at all. Eventually, the peninsula halts and thereby becomes “an island.”
But The Stone Raft has little to say about cataclysms, famine and riots. This novel is about three men, two women and a dog whose lives gradually become a model of harmony and self- sufficiency. Saramago does a masterful job of creating a warm and deeply human family that argues, laughs and sings on their journey. They also cook, share responsibilities and even become economically stable (they barter clothing in the villages); and they deal with moral issues, too. (After all, there are three men and two women! – an inequality that is bound to cause problems.)
Finally, we are left with a mystery within a mystery. What is their mission? Where did the dog (whose name is Constant) lead them? The starlings vanish, the dog, his duty accomplished, disappears and the group returns home. In the end, the travelers are left with an uncertain future. Both women are pregnant and their oldest member, Pedro Orse, dies when the group returns to his abandoned village. As for the meaning of the title, we can assume that the drifting countries of Spain and Portugal constitute “a stone raft,” which no longer belongs in Europe. The two countries figuratively and literally (as well as geographically and politically) are adrift.
However, there is another stone raft in the story. Shortly before the journey begins, the old man, Pedro Orce finds a strange stone formation that resembles a ship near Maria Guavaria’s farm. He wonders if it is frozen there, waiting for an occasion (and a crew) that will launch it again. It may be that the journey is not over.
The Stone Raft is the fourth book by Jose Saramago that I have reviewed for this column. His works are allegorical, and if a single theme is apparent in all of them, it is the author’s profound reverence for domestic life – the gentle rhythms of rural existence – birth, love and family. It is equally evident that Saramago views all governments with skepticism. In all of his works (especially Seeing), governments invariably represent a force that impedes rather than aids humanity.
In all fairness I feel prompted to note that Saramago’s unique writing style poses an additional problem for most American readers. He does not use conventional punctuation. Dialogue is not set off with quotation marks, but is a part of the narrative and periods only appear at the end of paragraphs with all sentences being separated by commas. As a result, both dialogue and text are rendered as a steady, unbroken narrative. However, once the process becomes familiar, the story moves forward in an unbroken flow. It well may be that the author’s “grammatical eccentricities” are a literary advantage rather than a hindrance.