I bought The Stone Raft when I was about halfway through Blindness (review), since it had been obvious from about the second page of that book that I was going to have to read more of Saramago. I was not disappointed.
Like Blindness, Raft opens with a mysterious event that demolishes a fundamental pillar of life—in this case, the Iberian peninsula suddenly splitting off from the rest of Europe and drifting west into the Atlantic—and then follows the main characters as they and everyone else try to cope with their strange new existence. Here, the story focuses on five people who had other unexplained experiences when the split occurred, and may or may not have caused it. Early on, the authorities apprehend several of them and put them through a gauntlet of tests, trying to understand what happened and whether it can be stopped (or perhaps, in the spirit of bureaucracy, trying to figure out who can be blamed), but soon the question of why and how the split happened gives way to more practical concerns, with the peninsula bearing down on the Azores and ultimately heading toward North America.
While Blindness had an unrelenting urgency to it, Raft is more of a meandering tale. The five main characters (and the strange, silent dog who travels with them) eventually take to a nomadic life in a horse-drawn wagon, selling clothes to make money, as they make their way across the peninsula toward what remains of the Pyrenees so they can see what the split actually looks like. On a technical level, it uses the same run-on style and unmarked dialogue as Blindness that, while sometimes difficult to follow, help sustain the surreality of the story. It isn’t as compelling as the other book simply because it lacks the fight for survival that fueled the other book and its tight focus on the moment-by-moment detail of that struggle, but it’s more playful, drawing back from the main characters periodically to follow how the Portuguese and Spanish politicians are handling the situation and how other world leaders are responding (the U.S., naturally, is secretly excited at the potential for a large mid-Atlantic military base), and even having the narrator stick his head into the story from time to time to comment on how the writing is going.
And it shares many of the same strengths and themes as Blindness as well—the surprising suddenness of love, the value of companionship, the resiliency of the human spirit in the face of an inexplicable and often hostile universe. At one point the group sits in the shade of a tree while eating lunch, arguing over whether they will be able to make enough money and why they’re doing what they’re doing:
Maria Guavaira had been listening in silence and now she began speaking like someone beginning another conversation, perhaps she had not fully grasped what the others had said, People are reborn each day, but they can decide whether to go on living the previous day or to make a fresh start.
In Saramago’s tales, eventually everyone learns how to make a fresh start.