- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
A good travel book will bring to life its far-flung locale; a great one will transport you to the place and illuminate its soul. Portuguese author José Saramago accomplishes the latter in his sensuously detailed Journey to Portugal, which vividly recounts a trip he took across Portugal in 1979, 19 years before he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. In the book's short introduction he says he embarked on his odyssey wanting "to write a book on Portugal that [would be] capable of offering a fresh way of looking, a new way of feeling." Comprised of novelistic passages, travel logs, photographs, and guidebook entries, Journey to Portugal brilliantly achieves this goal.
Like Thoreau's The Maine Woods, Journey to Portugal starts in the corporeal world and evolves into an internal journey as well. Calling himself "the traveller," Saramago treks across the country with little itinerary, stopping where he is intrigued, moving on when he feels restless. In each location he evokes the textures of landscape, architecture, and people, listening to the stories they tell. Families invite him in for meals. Others share their grief. At one cemetery, the gravedigger relates the anecdote of a soldier who was hanged when his best friend borrowed his uniform and killed a girl. Saramago delicately captures the agony simmering beneath the skin of the culture.
From the beginning, Saramago infuses his book with a deep understanding of Portuguese and European history. Each gravesite, bottle of proffered brandy, and slice of bread whet his hunger for the past, spurring him on to the next day's adventure. Not surprisingly, as with Henry Miller's The Colossus of Marousi, Saramago learns more about his country from its people, as opposed to the monuments. In isolated villages, he glimpses the Portugal of yore, willfully ignoring the modern era.
But while Journey to Portugal offers much in the way of description and history, it is Saramago's own internal transformation that gives this book its authenticity and heft. Like W. G. Sebald, Saramago recognizes that the human soul is a prism through which history refracts in colorful, if illusory ways. Still, he perseveres. At one monument, he achieves communion: "Beneath its stones the traveller retires from the world. He slips back into a five-thousand-year-old history, when men used the strength of arms to raise this enormously heavy slab of stone…. The traveller sits down on the sandy floor, holding a tender sprig sprung beside the flagstone between his fingers, and drops his head to listen to his own heartbeat." By the end of this elegant, important book, the heart of Portugal beats in us, too. (John Freeman)