on 28 July 2010
José Saramago begins his travels in his native land in an unusual fashion: he leaves the country. The opening paragraphs see him crossing the bridge from Spain into the far north-eastern corner of Portugal, savouring the experience of arrival. From here, he criss-crosses the country, leaving no corner unvisited until he passes along the Algarve months later.
It is an exhaustive itinerary, and apart from the interesting conceit at the start, not one which springs any formal suprises on the reader. Saramago's remit seems to have been to persuade the Portuguese to pay attention to a heritage that, at the time he wrote (late 1970s) was crumbling through neglect. Accordingly, the focus is firmly on the things visited and not - in contrast to much modern travel writing - on the traveller. The narrator - always referred to simply as "the traveller", never "I" - remains a rather shadowy figure, acquiring little in the way of character apart from a slight tendency to tetchiness and a nervousness of dogs.
In line with Saramago's apparent mission, the coverage of his native country's built and painted heritage is largely laudatory, which makes for a certain monotony of tone - I would have enjoyed having the traveller encounter something he really hated, for the sake of variety. Also problematic, in this translation, is the level of background knowledge assumed. Each chapter concludes with some notes expanding on allusions, but there are many others that remain unexplained and the process of choosing which to footnote and which to leave seems to have been random. So, for instance, Saramago can write of a particular town having witnessed the meeting of two historical characters "as we all learned at school"; he can allude, near Olivenza / Olivença, to a border dispute with Spain; and he can refer repeatedly to the Battle of Aljubarrota as a founding moment in Portuguese history; but in all these cases no is footnote provided to explain for Anglophones. (Aljubarrota, fought in 1385, saw João I defeat Castile to cement Portuguese independence: the following year the newly-secure state signed the Treaty of Windsor with England, making Portugal England's oldest ally).
So, for the non-Portuguese reader, a frustrating exercise: a future edition would serve Saramago better by including far more editorial apparatus. Even with that provided, however, I think that for the Anglophone this would probably remain a frustrating work: Saramago here is not concerned to show Portugal to the outsiders, to make it picturesque and appealing to the tourist, but to have a conversation with his own countrymen and women and persuade them to look not merely at the treasures of Italy or France, but closer to home, to their own country.
on 13 January 2010
As someone with a Portuguese heritage - I desperately wanted to like this book. The countless holidays I have spent there with friends and family has revealed a country rich in history, culture and tradition. A friendly and vibrant country, with great cuisine and wines - stunning vistas and varied regions, I thought having searched for so long for a travel book to do it justice - who better than a Portuguese Nobel prize winning author. Wrong! Saramago's words are as dry and dusty as the stones in the old churches that he visits an interminable amount of times - on his journey through a cold and dull country I barely recognise.
I was looking for smart observation and keen insight into the culture - amusing anecdotes, humouress encounters with the natives, no such luck! I would avoid this book if your looking for a literary companion to your travels in Portugal. Though there is certainly a dirth of decent travelogs on Portugal, I would wait until Mssrs Bryson or someone else happens down the Iberian Peninsula. Avoid.