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José Saramago: A jangada de pedra (The Stone Raft)

A few strange events occur in Spain and Portugal. Joana Carda finds an elm branch and draws a line on the ground with it. Immediately all the dogs in the neighbourhood, who are normally very quiet, start barking and will not stop. Finally, experts are called in and pies containing poison are left out. When one dog dies, the others get the message. On a beach Joaquim Sassa picks up a large, very heavy stone shaped like a discus, yet somehow manages to throw it a great distance, skimming it along the sea. Pedro Orce puts his feet down when getting up off his chair and feels the ground tremble beneath him. José Anaiço is out walking, when he is suddenly followed by a flock of starlings. Wherever he goes they follow him. Finally, Maria Guavaira is unravelling the wool off an old sock, to collect the wool. But the sock keeps on unravelling and still it is there. Are these events connected?

More importantly, cracks suddenly appear in the Pyrenees, on the Franco-Spain border. The authorities are concerned but can find no natural cause for it. Seismologists have, unlike Pedro Orce, noticed no unusual tremors. There are no volcanoes and no other evidence of anything unusual. However, a river on the frontier suddenly disappears. They try filling the crack with concrete and this seems to be going well, till suddenly the concrete disappears and a new crack appears. Slowly but surely the Iberian peninsula pulls away from the rest of Europe. During the course of the book, the gap will get wider, the rate of increase in the gap will change and the stone raft, as Saramago calls it in his title, will even change direction. While Saramago does show, to a certain extent, the effect that this has on the populations of both the Iberian peninsula and the rest of Europe, as well as on the politicians, both Spanish and Portuguese and those of other nationalities, particularly the United States, that is not his main focus. We briefly see the reaction of other Europeans (We are all Iberians, they cry out in their demonstrations) and, of course, he does not, as always, fail to mock all the politicians, who clearly do not have a clue as to what is going on and how to deal with it. There is, of course, panic within the two affected countries and people flee their homes, abandon vehicles and panic-buy. But this is seen more as background than as a key part of the novel.

Saramago is most concerned with the five people – ordinary people, all of them – who experienced the strange phenomena. They gradually get together, seeking one another out, though, as no-one knows about Maria Guavaira, their means of meeting her are quite fanciful. Then, as a group, they travel around the two countries, seeking out examples of what is happening – watching Gibraltar separate from the mainland and drift away, visiting the place where Joana Carda drew her line (and seeing what happens when she does it again), going to what is now the end of the island (both ends, in fact) and seeing their respective home towns and villages. Saramago is concerned with the relationship between the five (and a dog they adopt on the way), how they cope with the situation, both psychologically but also practically, as regards food, money and travel and, of course, what relation they have, if any, with the separation of the Iberian peninsula from the rest of Europe. It is, of course, a very clever story and expertly told by Saramago, with the inevitable unpredictabilities, but shows the warmth that a group of strangers, brought together by strange circumstances, can feel for one another.

Publishing history

First published 1986 by Caminho, Lisbon
First English translation 1994 by Harvill