When José Saramago decided to write a book about Portugal, his only desire was that it be unlike all other books on the subject, and in this he has certainly succeeded. Recording the events and observations of a journey across the length and breadth of the country he loves dearly, Saramago brings Portugal to life as only a writer of his brilliance can. Forfeiting the usual sources such as tourist guides and road maps, he scours the country with the eyes and ears of an observer fascinated by the ancient myths and history of his people. Whether it be an inaccessible medieval fortress set on a cliff, a wayside chapel thick with cobwebs, or a grand mansion in the city, the extraordinary places of this land come alive. Always meticulously attentive to those elements of ancient Portugal that persist today, he examines the country in its current period of rapid transition and growth. Journey to Portugal is an ode to a country and its rich traditions.
This is not, in fact, a travelogue, any more than it is a personal narrative or a discussion about history or geology or making travel plans and decisions. No true journey is made up of one thing only, and in the sum of the parts it finds something entirely new altogether. It is that something altogether other that reached me when I read this over the span of two years. It is about interaction and observation, people and places and the distances between them, but not in any specifically cliched way. There is little sentimentality in this work, and little adventure of body unless you are someone to whom a late dinner or dark night still on the road seems filled with danger. I am such a soul and found myself nervous for the traveler's dining and sleeping arrangements as I also found myself rejoicing with him in the angels of a choir loft.
Saramago uses very specific language to describe what he sees and how he interprets it. It is not so specific as to be technical, nor is it so vague as to be merely 'beautiful' or 'rounded' or 'made of stone.' He knows what he sees and thinks about and he expects his readers to do the same. The difference between Gothic architecture and Manueline decoration do not exist merely to confound students. They exist because they describe the movement of art and culture through time, the changing desires and ethics and beliefs and influences, these all come together in one design and another and so one. It can be a barrier, if you are not familiar with the terms, as I was not (and, really, I cannot tell you the difference between the two periods I've named above, but that I know they exist and I know that they are different and I can tell you that they have different progenitors), but that barrier is easily overcome with patience and the recognition of the poetry in his descriptions.
It is not a fast read. I have tried to follow his route on a map and find that I will have to find a 1979 version in order to feel remotely successful. Although, to be honest, the most accurate map of a place is the place itself, and the only journey that I will ever take is the one that I set out on myself. It is not a chipper, uplifting feeling that lingers when the last page is turned. It is something more lasting and deeply felt: a sort of melancholy and joyfulness at the knowledge that the past exists, if you look for it, you will find something, even though it will likely not be what you thought you were looking for.