Journey to Portugal offers the pleasures of an engaging travel book coupled with the deeper enjoyment of sharing an excursion with a world-class storyteller. Written several years prior to his acclaimed 1995 novel Blindness, Saramago’s Journey to Portugal is only now appearing in an English translation. But make no mistake: this is a major work of nonfiction that should further enhance his reputation among a readership that has grown exponentially since his 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature. Annotated with maps, dozens of evocative black and white photographs, and an extensive index, it’s sure to become an indispensable Baedeker for visitors to the author’s homeland. At over 450 pages, the book’s scope is vast, from the bucolic Old World landscape of sheep farmers and coastal fishermen to the cosmopolitan “Gates of Lisbon.” Serious tourists, armchair travelers and fans of Saramago’s extraordinary fiction will all find something of value here.
The mix of history and modern-day descriptive detail was born of a six-month cross-country automobile trip undertaken during 1979-80. Saramago playfully adopts the third-person guise of “the traveler” throughout Journey to Portugal. It grants the author a kind of wry detachment and imbues his voice with novelistic shadings of irony and self-deprecation. (It’s a strategy that Norman Mailer perfected years ago in The Armies of the Night, which was filtered through a mischievous third-person braggart named “Mailer.”) Here’s Saramago taking obvious delight in exploiting the technique:
The traveler pauses when the highway reaches Bertiandos; he peers through the metal grilles of its gate like a poor beggar, and his observations are repaid by the felicity of its Baroque architecture taken together with the sixteenth-century tower, which brings him to ask himself what kind of curse has befallen contemporary architecture, bereft of any kind of harmony in combining styles, witness the constant clashes between what went before and what has been constructed alongside.
Saramago’s traveler can be ill-tempered at times (“To see carriages used for pomp and ceremony annoys him”) and curmudgeonly. When an amorous young couple in the town of Viana do Castelo misdirects him in his search for the ruins of an old chapel, the traveler is outraged toward “these two ignorant lovers with little future ahead of them if they didn’t learn more about love than its earthly manifestation.” He is something of a loner and a teetotaling aesthete. Cordial villagers invariably offer him a glass of indigenous port wine or locally brewed spirits. “Alas,” Saramago informs us, “the traveler is not a drinker.” Instead, his attention is drawn to the stonework of the ancient castles, churches and monasteries—some of them intact from the late Roman era—that seem to be fixtures of many Portuguese villages and towns.
While the past evoked in Journey to Portugal is sometimes exalted at the expense of the present, Saramago isn’t a reactionary holdout for a lost or mythical Golden Age. On the contrary, once we discover the traveler’s penchant for “embellishing every tale with fresh insights,” we come to recognize how culture is nourished and renewed from generation to generation. Rather than mourning the past, Saramago grieves for the modern world and its inattention to the legacies and lessons of history. The traveler confesses to being perplexed by human nature and “the difficulty men have in comprehending good things and the ease with which they repeat the bad.” On visiting Lisbon’s Archaeological Museum, he views a collar once worn by a black slave and still inscribed, “This negro belongs to Agostinho Lafet� do Carvalhal do Obidos.” Saramago writes:
The traveler is truly grateful to whoever picked it up and did not destroy the evidence of such a horrendous crime. Since he has never refrained from speaking his mind, however outlandish his views may have seemed, he will now make another judgment: that the collar of Agostinho de Lafet�’s negro slave should be placed in a room all of its own, so that there will be nothing to distract visitors from it, and no-one could say they had not seen it.
In Blindness, the author imagined a plague of sightlessness afflicting our eyes and casting us into a “strange dimension, without direction or reference points, with neither north nor south, below or above.” The novel was an allegory for our perpetual lot on earth, whether by existential fiat or willful ignorance. In Journey to Portugal, Saramago restores our vision by affirming the achievements of history and culture, while at the same time demanding that our sight lines convey a moral imperative. His principled worldview makes Journey to Portugal an inspiring guidebook.
– Bob Wake