José Saramago’s works are often fantastic and surreal. His readers, and his characters, are forced to confront the basis for the existence of humanity; that is, what it is to be human in ever-changing modern civilizations. His characters struggle to find meaning at precisely the moment of greatest change in their respective social settings. His protagonists must not only justify their interpersonal relationships but also renew and redevelop their individuality, often outside previously understood religious, economic, and political structures. Saramago’s use of fantasy settings and situations form, many have argued, a new style of writing that combines the regional Magical Realism (the use of fantastic deeds and settings as commonplace) of Latin America with the global outlook of Europe.
Saramago’s style, especially in the novels published after 1986, forms a uniquely individual experiment in writing. His novels often display lengthy sentences—lengthy even for Hispanic literature, which is known for its verbosity. His baroque descriptions of the most minor settings and events often continue for pages and pages. He does not use colons, semicolons, hyphens, or quotation marks in his writing, a style that can confuse the reader as he or she attempts to determine who is speaking (including the narrator). Quotations are difficult to distinguish from the narrative; in marking a quotation, Saramago uses a limited number of commas and capitalizes the first word of a new speaker. Although this style can be frustrating, it forces the reader to pay close attention to who is speaking at any given moment. Oftentimes, Saramago eliminates the use of proper nouns and instead refers to characters with vague descriptive terms, such as “the doctor’s wife.” This inexactness of terminology reflects one of the author’s major themes: the recurring mystery of human impermanence.
The Stone Raft
The Stone Raft addresses Portugal’s national identity and its political, cultural, and social destiny. In an almost magical turn of events, a postcolonial Iberian society must confront its open-ended future. The Stone Raft is an ethnographic tale that explores modern strategies for survival within a previously isolated population. It is not by coincidence that the work was published the same year that Portugal joined the European Union. Portugal had been Europe’s last surviving colonial empire, a nation that had only recently begun its voyage of self-acceptance as one of Europe’s most enterprising and progressive member-nations.
Like all of Saramago’s fictional works, the novel evolves like a present-day fable. The story begins with an event that marks the end of a fundamental concept of accepted reality. In this case, the entire Iberian Peninsula breaks from the European continent and starts drifting in the Atlantic, first toward the Azores and then toward some unknown destination (and destiny) between Europe and the United States. The story follows five characters who represent the entire population of the strange “stone raft.”
Unlike many of his later works, Saramago chooses to use specific names for his characters in The Stone Raft. Perhaps representative of the evolution of the populace, one of the characters, a dog, has a name that changes throughout the Atlantic adventure. The dog starts as Pilot, later becomes Faithful, and ultimately is named Constant. The newly formed group of pilgrims, united by their search for answers, roam seemingly without purpose from Lisbon to Galicia. As with other Saramago novels, the focus of The Stone Raft is on how humans survive in unknown circumstances.
The pilgrims are ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Saramago does not conduct a useless search for cause and blame; instead, he focuses on what occurs with human renewal and adaptation: love and companionship, the ability...
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- Critical Essays