“The Stone Raft” by José Saramago: man as a fabulator animal

The Historical Novel

Despite being a work full of fabulous moments – in the strict sense of the word –, “The Stone Raft” was also based on true events, that can be framed in a very specific political, ideological and social context: the accession of Spain and Portugal, in 1986, to the EEC. Like other Portuguese writers used to do – Eça de Queirós or Almeida Garrett –, Saramago shows a critical view regarding the social, economic and cultural development of Portugal in the 80s. His concern for the position of the Iberian Peninsula in Europe and the identity of the Iberian peoples is evident. But in spite of being a fictional narrative whose action happens in a specific historical past, Saramago does not acknowledge his novel within the label of “historical novel”. He believed that by writing about the past we are observing events with the lenses of the present, that is, we are recreating events and transforming them into fiction. As if that were not enough, we still have language that, as a mediator, is the very transformer of all realities narrated.

Influenced by thinkers such as Foucault and Derrida, Saramago defended that history itself is fiction and that is fair to somehow compare the figure of the historian to that of the fictionist. The justification that Saramago gave for such mistrust in this label is that “novel” and “memory” are two indissociable entities. This means that the memory of an author is always the subjective basis in the construction of a novel, necessarily dissecting the historical facts. As Nietzsche would already foresee, it would be the same as saying that any meaning is the perspective of the one who thinks.

The power of words

We often find the narrator in “The Stone Raft” discussing language itself. The “language game” (Wittgenstein) is constant and the reader perceives that Saramago tries to give “language” the role of mediator between the field of history and the field of the fabulous. This leads us to think of “The Stone Raft” as a meta-text, a text where the means according to which language operates in the world and in the text are questioned, with all the consequences that this can bring to the perception that men have of reality. The truth is that there are several passages and elements of the text that reflect the existence of this link between the fabulous and historical, where the fabulous offers us a perspective of History, not as it happened, but as we would like it to happen. For such an exploit, Saramago goes through the subversion of the linguistic sign. By enlarging the boundaries of the linguistic sign, Saramago created new possibilities of worlds, even though they are exclusively linguistic worlds, but not for that reason less true in their concepts.

Instead of dealing with the issue of Portugal’s accession to the EEC and theorizing it as we all hope historical issues are dealt with, Saramago proposes the inverse hypothesis of what has happened in 1986: the separation of the Iberian Peninsula from the rest of Europe. Berrini calls this process the “principle of subversion”. At this point we can establish a connection with the epigraph – “Every future is fabulous” – as the author will be printing in the form of a book one of the possibilities of History. A possibility that, without this book, it could only have happened if many millions of years ago and, accidentally, something had changed the course of natural phenomena, in a chain of causes and effects that would have interfered in the continental drift and make the Iberian Peninsula broken off the European continent.

All linguistic agreements are the result of the passage of centuries and the displacement of man in history. Consensus was established during this organic, social, intellectual, ethical, moral and cultural journey. But the split or crack that separates the Iberian Peninsula from Europe symbolizes, before everything else, a break of the linguistic contract, that is, the contract of the indissociability between ‘meaning’ and ‘signifier’. Roland Barthes told us about the “liberating theory of the signifier” and that it “must help to liberate the text – all texts – of the theologies of transcendental meaning”. Saramago believed it was necessary to liberate texts from concepts predefined by normativity too. If we take into account the bifacial character of the linguistic sign and that ‘meaning’ and ‘signifier’ have always been considered indissociable, this split is worthy of causing such panic and end the “world” as it we know it. What Saramago did was to give the ‘signifier’ – or ‘the stone raft’ – the freedom to pursue a new possibility, an alternative future.

Thus, the birth of the text in “The Stone Raft” relates to this moment of creation of a new world, where birth occurs in the first word on the production of speech. The book, like the Iberian Peninsula, turned into a stone raft, a ‘signifier’ that carries new meanings, that has the strength to defy the logic of a world the reader is familiar with, while living up to the observation of Umberto Eco: «I think to tell a story we have to begin by building a world».

History, Fiction and Deconstruction

In the light of the theory of deconstruction, we can better understand Saramago’s suspicion about the “historical novel”, because the History resulting from the narration of past facts can largely be considered fiction. Hence the question of modernity: did the past happen just like in History books? Or is it all related to a “will to power”? Historical achievements never exist in itself. This means that the world is nothing else but a fable created by this “will to power”, i.e. a fable created by those who came out victorious. Foucault, historian and philosopher of thought, drew up the so-called ‘genealogical theory’ that addresses the relationship of discursive systems and non-discursive practices of social power. At this point, Foucault does not avoid an apologia to genealogical theories originating in Nietzsche, where he stated that “every speech is a clear attempt to exercise social power”. Thus, Foucault’s genealogical studies call our attention to the relationship between knowledge and power, that is, all knowledge is designed to connect to a system of social control. On the other hand, human sensibility feels a voluntary need for fictions, while involuntarily bends to these instruments of social control. Because we all need formulas and signs to bring order to what can be a very complex and chaotic world.

Conclusion

In “The Stone Raft” it is possible to observe a constant dialectic between a physical reality, that exists in the map and in history books, and something that belongs to a fabulous world, which we can call it a “transfiguration of the real”. This dialectic is possible via language games, intermediated by characters who have the role of pontiffs between the fabulous world and the real world. These mediators are specific beings among Saramago’s narrative, made of words, but that is why we can say that, ultimately, language is the mediator of all relations. So, words are the building material of reality as we know it, therefore, only language can transform it, i.e. only through language could have ever occurred the separation of the Iberian Peninsula from the rest of Europe.

Saramago became the architect of a new world, where he subverted the laws of geophysics and all rational laws. After reading “The Stone Raft” we realize that everything within the reach of our telescopic lenses, everything that man has named and classified to this day can be shaken by the opening a crack. It took special characters and unusual events to subvert the laws of logic and physics, to deconstruct and extend the borders of an imaginary world, through a text. And if it wasn’t for the imagination of Saramago, the Iberian Peninsula would never have broken off the Pyrenees and travelled towards a new possibility, a place where myth and fantasy still dwell. And these are the aspects that contribute to the fact that this is neither an historical novel, not merely fiction, but a fable. Definitely, it is an invitation to give wings to the fabulator animal that exists within us, and if ‘the limits of my language mean the limits of my world’, let’s give the world a new possibility by giving new possibilities to language.

Portuguese version:

“A Jangada de Pedra” de José Saramago: o Homem como animal fabulador

Spanish version:

“La Balsa de Piedra” de José Saramago: el Hombre como animal fabulador

Sources:

Saramago (1986, in English.1994), The Stone Raft

Foucault (1966), The Order of Things

Derrida (1972), Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences

Berrini (1998), Read Saramago: the Novel

Barthes (1985), The Semiologic Adventure

Arrojo (1992), The Sign deconstructed — implications to translation, Reading and teaching.

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