Review – José Saramago’s Journey to Portugal


I’m reading this book for two reasons. Firstly, Saramago died recently at the ripe old age of 87. This made me want to read another of his books. I have a love/hate relationship with his novels. Full of great ideas, I find them very dense and hard going at times, although he needed lessons from nobody in terms of either style or originality. I can read well enough in Portuguese to plough through an average book if I make the effort, but even in English translation Saramago proves a big enough challenge.

So, this time I decided to read some non-fiction from the 1998 Nobel Prize winner. Journey to Portugal is his only travel book and the other reason why I’m reading it is because I’m just about to set off on another short journey there. I can hardly believe it’s almost 12 years since I was last in Oporto. That experience was recounted at the start of my own travel book, The Iberian Horseshoe – A Journey.

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I’ll be frank with you. I’ve only read about a quarter of Journey to Portugal as I write this review and I don’t know if I’ll read much more for now. The original Viagem a Portugal first appeared back in 1990. It  is divided into six sections as Saramago covers his native country from north to south by car, apparently alone. The book’s subheading is A Pursuit of Portuguese History and Culture and it includes interesting accounts and anecdotes about history and legends, which is all well and good. My main problem with this book however is the amount of time the author (who refers to himself in the third person “the traveller” throughout) spends visiting and describing churches and other religious buildings. This is somewhat ironic given Saramago’s well known atheistic stance. It would appear he was there for the architecture, which is fair enough. But perhaps a more apt title would’ve been A Guide to the Churches of Portugal or something like that. Granted, this is a work of literature without a doubt, rather than a tourist guide, but the focus on churches is already getting tiresome and the book could do with a wider cultural focus.

I would like to read more passes along the lines of the following, which gives an insight into Saramago’s unique way of thinking and his wonderful mastery of prose: “The magpie, as we all know, has the reputation of a thief. Investigating its nest is to uncover a hoard of glittery things, glass, fragments of crockery, anything to reflect the sunshine. So far, nothing new. Now the traveller has had the occasion to observe how often these birds had intercepted the course of his journey, flaunting their merry widow’s garb as if on purpose. An instance occurred on the main road to Rendufe. On seeing the car approach, the magpie is dazzled at the prospect of carrying the shiny jalopy offering itself in its path off to its nest. It launches itself into flight, propelled by greed, but in drawing near begins to register the disproportion between its diminutive claws and the noisily gigantic cockchafer now beneath. Insulted and tearful it glides into the nearest tree to conceal its disappointment. The traveller is as sure as can be of his intuition and refuses to abandon hope that one day there will be birds of prey large enough to seize a car and its occupants, and swing them through the skies to keep company with the pieces of coloured glass. He’s all the more convinced now that toy cars have been discovered in a normal-sized magpie’s nest.”*

Marvellous stuff, I hope you’ll agree. As a translator myself, I always have at the back of my mind that I’m reading a translation although I don’t want the translator to draw unwanted attention to this fact. Naturally, I like to give other translators credit for their work and this translation by Amanda Hopkinson and Nick Caistor seems excellent. Saramago himself pointed out that he could only write in Portuguese and that he relied on translators to bring his writing and ideas to the wider world. It’s a pity the average reader doesn’t really appreciate this when they pick up a Cervantes, Tolstoy, Stieg Larsson or whatever.

Read or download Steve Porter’s The Iberian Horseshoe – A Journey here: http://pocket.badosa.com/ebooks/n250/?m=pda

 *P.114 Journey to Portugal – José Saramago.

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