The Stone Raftby José Saramago
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When the Iberian Peninsula breaks free of Europe and begins to drift across the North Atlantic, five people are drawn together on the newly formed island-first by surreal events and then by love. “A splendidly imagined epic voyage...a fabulous fable” (Kirkus Reviews). Translated by Giovanni Pontiero.
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When Joana Carda scratched the ground with the elm branch all the dogs of Cerbere began to bark, throwing the inhabitants into panic and terror, because from time immemorial it was believed that, when these canine creatures that had always been silent started to bark, the entire universe was nearing its end. No one remembers any longer the origin of this deep-rooted superstition, or firm conviction, in many cases these are simply alternative ways of expressing the same thing, but as so often happens, having heard the story and now passing it on with fresh distortions, French grandmothers used to amuse their grandchildren with the fable that in the times of the ancient Greek myths, here, in the district of Cerbere in the Eastern Pyrenees, a dog with three heads and the above-mentioned named of Cerberus had barked when summoned by its master, the ferryman Charon. We are equally unclear about the organic change this legendary howling canine must have undergone to acquire the historically proven muteness of its degenerate one-headed offspring. Nevertheless, and this is a point of doctrine known to almost everyone, especially to those of the older generation, the dog Cerberus, as written and pronounced in English, guarded with ferocity the gates of hell, so that no soul would dare try to escape, and then, perhaps as one final act of mercy on the part of the moribund gods, all the dogs fell silent for the rest of eternity, perhaps hoping that their silence might erase the memory of the infernal regions. But since the everlasting does not last forever, as the modern age has clearly shown us, it sufficed that a few days ago and hundreds of kilometers from Cerbere, somewhere in Portugal, in a place whose name we shall record anon, a woman named Joana Carda scratched the ground with an elm branch whereupon all the dogs came onto the streets howling, dogs, let me remind you, that had never barked before. Were someone to ask Joana Carda what had possessed her to scratch the ground with an elm branch, more the gesture of a moonstruck adolescent than that of a mature woman, if she had not thought of the possible consequences of an act that seemed meaningless, and these are the most dangerous acts of all, perhaps she might reply, I don't know what came over me, the branch was lying on the ground, I picked it up and drew a line. She had no idea that it might be a magic wand. It seemed rather big for a magic wand, and besides I've always heard it said that magic wands are made of shimmering gold and crystal and have a star on top. Did you know it was an elm branch. I know very little about trees, they told me afterwards that wych-elm is the same as wych-hazel, botanically known as ulmus, none of these having supernatural powers, even when they change their names, but in this case I'm sure that a matchstick would have produced the same effect, Why do you say that, What must be, must be, and there's no way around it, I've heard the old people say this a thousand times, Do you believe in fate, I believe in what has to be.
In Paris they had a good laugh at the appeal made by the maire, who appeared to be telephoning from a kennel at the hour when they were feeding the dogs, and it was only at the insistent pleading of a member of parliament born and bred in the commune, and thus familiar with local legends and tales, that two qualified veterinary surgeons of the Deuxieme Bureau were dispatched to the south, with the special mission of investigating this unusual phenomenon and presenting a report and a plan of action. Meanwhile, the desperate inhabitants, reduced to near-deafness, had crisscrossed the streets and squares of the agreeable resort town suddenly transformed into a hellhole, setting out dozens of poisoned meat pies, a method of supreme simplicity and one whose effectiveness has been confirmed by experience in every age and latitude. As it happened, only one dog died, but the lesson was not lost on the survivors, who soon disappeared, yelping, barking, and howling, into the surrounding fields, where, for no apparent reason, they fell silent within a few minutes. When the veterinary surgeons finally arrived, they were presented with the sad Medor, cold, swollen, so different from the contented animal who accompanied his mistress when she went shopping, and who, old dog that he was, liked nothing better than sleeping peacefully in the sun. But since justice has not yet entirely abandoned this world, God decided, poetically, that Medor should die from eating the meat pie cooked by his beloved mistress, who, let it be said, had meant the pie for a certain bitch of the neighborhood who never left her garden alone. The older of the veterinary surgeons, confronted by that sad corpse, suggested, Let's hold an autopsy, which was pointless, for any inhabitant of Cerbere could, if he or she so wished, testify to the cause of death. But the hidden intention of the Faculty, as it was referred to in the jargon of that secret service, was to proceed in secrecy to an examination of the vocal cords of an animal that, between the quietude of death, which was now definitive, and its lifelong silence, which had seemed eternal, had finally enjoyed a few hours of speech like any other dog. Their efforts were futile, Medor did not even have any vocal cords. The surgeons were amazed, but the maire, giving his official and judicious opinion, said, That's not surprising, for centuries the dogs of Cerbere have not barked, their vocal cords had wasted away. Then why the sudden change, I don't know, I'm not a veterinary surgeon, but our worries are over, the chiens have disappeared, from wherever they are they cannot be heard. Medor, dissected and badly stitched up again, was delivered to his weeping mistress, as a living reproach, which is what reproaches are even after they are dead. On the way to the airport, where they were about to catch a plane to Paris, the veterinary surgeons agreed that they would omit from their report the curious business about the missing vocal cords. And to all appearances definitive, for that same night there was Cerberus himself out prowling, an enormous dog as tall as a tree, three-headed but mute.
About the same time, perhaps before Joana Carda had scratched the ground with the elm branch, perhaps after, a man was strolling along the beach, it was toward evening, when the noise of the waves, brief and restrained like an unprovoked sigh, can scarcely be heard, and that man, who will later say that his name is Joaquim Sassa, was walking above the tidemark that distinguishes the dry sands from the wet, and from time to time he bent down to pick up a shell, a crab's claw, a strand of green seaweed, we often while away the hours in this way, and this solitary passerby was doing likewise. Since he had neither pockets nor sack to hoard his findings, he put the lifeless remnants back in the water when his hands were full, let the sea have what belongs to the sea, let the earth remain with the earth. But every rule has its exceptions, and Joaquim Sassa picked up a stone he had seen ahead, beyond the reach of the tides, a stone as large and heavy as a discus and irregular in shape. If it had been like the others, light, with smooth outlines, like those stones that fit easily between the thumb and the index finger, then Joaquim Sassa would have skimmed it on the surface of the water, watching it bounce, childishly satisfied with his own ability, and finally sink, the impetus gone, a stone that appeared to have its destiny traced out, dried by the sun, dampened only by the rain, but now finally sinking into the dark depths to wait a million years, until this sea evaporates, or, receding, brings the stone back to land for another million years, allowing sufficient time for another Joaquim Sassa to come down to the beach and unwittingly perform the same gesture and movement, let no man say I will not do it, for no stone is secure and firm.
On the southern shores, at this tepid hour, there is someone having one last dip, swimming, playing with a ball, diving under the waves, or taking it easy on an air mattress, or feeling the first waft of the evening breeze on his skin, or shifting his position to receive one last caress from the sun that is about to settle momentarily on the sea, the longest moment of all, for we look at the sun and the sun allows itself to be watched. But here, on this northern shore where Joaquim Sassa is carrying a stone, so heavy that his arms are already tiring, the breeze is chilly, the sun is already halfway down, and there is not a sea gull in sight flying over the waters. Joaquim Sassa has thrown the stone, expecting it to fall a few paces away, not very far from where he's standing, each of us is obliged to know his own strength, there were not even any witnesses there to mock the efforts of the frustrated discus thrower, it was he who was prepared to laugh at himself, but things did not turn out as he expected, the stone, dark and heavy, went up into the air, came down and hit the surface of the water, the impact sent it back up in a great flight or leap, and down it came again, and then up, and finally it sank in the distance, unless the whiteness we have just seen some distance away is not just the froth of a breaking wave. How did that happen, Joaquim Sassa mused in bewilderment, how could I, weak as I am, have thrown such a heavy stone so far, way out on that sea that is already darkening, and there is no one here to say, Well done, Joaquim Sassa, I'm your witness for the Guinness Book of Records, such a feat cannot be ignored, what rotten luck, if I were to tell people what has happened, they would call me a liar. A towering wave came in from the open sea, foaming and gushing, the stone finally dropped into the water, this evokes the rivers of childhood, for anyone who had rivers in his childhood, this concentric undulation caused by stones thrown into the water. Joaquim Sassa ran up the shore, and the wave broke on the sand, dragging with it shells, crab's claws, green algae, but also other species, gulfweed, coralline, sea-tangle, and a small stone, light, of the type that can fit easily between the thumb and the index finger. How many years since it has seen the light of the sun.
Writing is extremely difficult, it is an enormous responsibility, you need only think of the exhausting work involved in setting out events in chronological order, first this one, then that, or, if more conducive to the desired effect, today's event before yesterday's episode, and other no less risky acrobatics, presenting the past as if it were something new, or the present as a continuous process with neither beginning nor end, but, however hard writers might try, there is one feat they cannot achieve, and that is to put into writing, in the same tense, two events that have occurred simultaneously. Some believe the difficulty can be solved by dividing the page into two columns, side by side, but this proposal is too simple, because the one will have been written first and the other afterwards, nor may we forget that the reader will have to read this one first and then the other one, or vice versa. The people who come off best are the opera singers, each with his or her own part to sing, three, four, five, six in all among the tenors, basses, sopranos, and baritones, all singing different words, the cynic mocking, for example, the ingenue pleading, the gallant lover slow in coming to her aid, what interests the operagoer is the music, but the reader is not like this, he wants everything explained, syllable by syllable, one after the other, as they are shown here. That is why, having first spoken of Joaquim Sassa, only now will we mention Pedro Orce, when in fact Joaquim Sassa threw the stone into the sea and Pedro Orce rose from his chair at the very same instant, although according to the clocks there was an hour's difference, because the latter happened to be in Spain and the former in Portugal.
It is common knowledge that every effect has its cause, and this is a universal truth, but it is impossible to avoid certain errors of judgment, or of simple identification, for we might think that this effect comes from that cause, when after all it was some other cause, beyond any understanding we possess or any knowledge we think we possess. For example, there appeared to be proof that if the dogs of Cerbere barked it was because Joana Carda scratched the ground with an elm branch, and yet only a very credulous child, if any child has survived from the golden decades of credulity, or an innocent one, if the holy name of innocence can thus be taken in vain, only a child capable of believing that by closing its hands it has trapped the sunlight inside would believe that dogs could bark that had never barked before, for reasons as much historical as physiological. In these tens and tens of thousands of hamlets, villages, towns, and cities, there are many people who would swear that they were the cause or causes of the barking of the dogs and of all that was to follow, because they slammed a door, or split a fingernail, or picked a fruit, or drew back the curtain, or lit a cigarette, or died, or, not the same people, were born, these hypotheses about death and birth would be more difficult to credit, bearing in mind that we are the ones who would have to propose them, for no child comes out of its mother's womb speaking, just as no one speaks any more once he has entered the womb of the earth. And there is no point in adding that any one of us has reasons enough for judging himself the cause of all effects, the reasons we have just mentioned as well as those that are our exclusive contribution to the functioning of the world, and I should dearly like to know what it will be like when people and the effects they alone cause will exist no more, best not to think of such an enormity, for it is enough to make one dizzy, but it will be quite sufficient for some tiny animals, some insects, to survive for there still to be worlds, the world of the ant and the cicada, for example, they will not draw back curtains, they will not look at themselves in the mirror, and what does it matter, after all, the only great truth is that the world cannot die.
Pedro Orce would say, if he so dared, that what caused the earth to tremble were his feet hitting the floor when he rose from the chair, great presumption on his part, if not ours, since we are frivolously expressing doubt, if every person leaves at least one sign in the world, this could be that of Pedro Orce, which is why he declares, I put my feet on the ground and the earth shook. It was an extraordinary trembling, so much so that no one appeared to have felt it, and even now, after two minutes, as the wave on the beach began to recede and Joaquim Sassa said to himself, If I were to tell anyone they would call me a liar, the earth still vibrates just as the chord continues to vibrate although it can no longer be heard, Pedro Orce can feel it in the soles of his feet, he continues to feel it as he leaves the pharmacy and steps out into the street, and no one there notices a thing, it's like watching a star and saying, What lovely light, what a beautiful star, without knowing that it went out in mid-sentence, and your children and grandchildren will repeat the same words, poor things, they speak of what is dead and say that it is alive, this deception is not confined to the science of astronomy. Here precisely the opposite happens, everyone would swear that the earth is firm and only Pedro Orce would say that it is trembling, just as well he kept his mouth shut and did not run away in terror, besides the walls are not swaying, the lamps hanging from the ceiling are as straight as a plumb line, and the little caged birds, who are usually the first to sound the alarm, doze peacefully on their perches, each with its head tucked under one wing, the needle of the seismograph has traced and continues to trace a straight horizontal line on the millimetric graph paper.
The next morning, a man was crossing an uncultivated plain, part scrubland, part swampy pasture, he was making his way along paths and tracks between the trees, poplars and ash, as elevated as the names by which they are known, and clumps of tamarisks, with their African scent, this man could not have chosen greater solitude or a loftier sky, and overhead, making the most incredible din, a flock of starlings followed him, so many of them that they formed a huge dark cloud, like the prelude to a storm. Whenever he paused the starlings began to fly in a circle or swooped noisily to roost in a tree, disappearing amid the branches until all the leaves were shaking and the crown echoed with harsh, strident sounds, giving the impression that some ferocious battle was being fought inside. Jose Anaico started walking again, for that was his name, and the starlings took sudden flight, all at once, vruuuuuuuuuu. If we did not know this man, and started guessing, we might decide that he was a bird-catcher by trade or, like the snake, had the power to charm and entice, when, in fact, Jose Anaico is as puzzled as we are about the reason for this winged festivity. What can these creatures desire of me, do not wonder at this archaic phrasing, for there are days when one does not feel like using commonplace words.
The man was traveling from east to west, for this was the route he favored, but, forced out of his way by a great reservoir, he now turned south around the bend, hugging the water's edge. By late morning the temperature will soar, but meanwhile there is a fresh, clean breeze, what a pity one cannot store it in one's pocket and keep it there until it is needed once the heat builds up. Jose Anaico was turning these thoughts over in his mind as he walked, vague and involuntary as if they did not belong to him, when he suddenly became aware that the starlings had stayed behind, were fluttering over where the road curves to skirt the reservoir, their behavior was quite extraordinary, but when all is said and done, whoever goes, goes, whoever remains, remains, good-bye little birds. Jose Anaico had now circled the lake, an awkward journey that took nearly half an hour, amid thistles and nettles, and he picked up his original route, proceeding as he had begun, east to west like the sun, when suddenly, vruuuu, the starlings reappeared, where had they been hiding. Well, here's something for which there is no explanation. If a flock of starlings accompanies a man on his morning stroll, like a dog faithful to his master, and waits for him the time it takes to go around a reservoir, and then follows him as before, one doesn't ask him to explain or investigate their motives, birds don't have reasons, just instincts, often vague and involuntary as if they were not part of us, we spoke about instincts, but also about reasons and motives. So let us not ask Jose Anaico who he is and what he does for a living, where he comes from and where he is going, whatever we find out about him, we shall only find out from him, and this description, this sketchy information will also have to serve for Joana Carda and her elm branch, for Joaquim Sassa and the stone he threw into the sea, for Pedro Orce and the chair he got up from, life does not begin when people are born, if it were so, each day would be a day gained, life begins much later, and how often too late, not to mention those lives that have no sooner begun than they are over, which has led one poet to exclaim, Ah, who will write the history of what might have been.
And now this woman called Maria Guavaira, such a strange name, who climbed up into the attic of the house and found an old sock, of the real old-fashioned kind that were used to keep money as safely as in any bank vault, symbolic hoardings, gratuitous savings, and upon finding the sock empty she set about unraveling the stitches to amuse herself, having nothing else with which to occupy her hands. An hour passed and another and yet another, and the long strand of blue wool is still unwinding, yet the sock does not appear to get any smaller, the four enigmas already mentioned were not enough, which shows us that at least on this occasion the contents can be greater than the container. The sound of the waves does not reach this silent house, the shadow of passing birds does not darken the window, there must be dogs but they do not bark, the earth, if it trembled, trembles no more. At the feet of the woman unraveling the thread is the mountain that goes on growing. Maria Guavaira is not called Ariadne, with this thread we shall not emerge from the labyrinth, perhaps it will help us to succeed at last in losing ourselves. Where is the end of this thread.
Meet the Author
JOSÉ SARAMAGO (1922–2010) was the author of many novels, among them Blindness, All the Names, Baltasar and Blimunda, and The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. In 1998 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
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This book took me on a journey into the lives of five people that I will never forget. The book, while honestly somewhat difficult to read, was very hard to put down. This book also made me take a good look at my own self, recognizing the special things in myself. A deffinate 'Must Read' for everyone.
This book tells us of magic inside (apparently) ordinary people. They are both members of a physical world which is being now questioned and jeopardized, and of a mystical one, full of mythological images and ilusions. It makes sense, even the odd parts.