cover image Journey to Portugal: In Pursuit of Portugal's History and Culture

Journey to Portugal: In Pursuit of Portugal's History and Culture

Jose Saramago. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), $30 (464pp) ISBN 978-0-15-100587-1

In 1979, 19 years before he won the Nobel Prize for literature, Portuguese novelist Saramago (Blindness) journeyed across his homeland, hoping ""to write a book on Portugal that [would be] capable of offering a fresh way of looking, a new way of feeling"" about the country's history and culture. Out of that personal quest comes this monumental work, a literary hybrid that intermingles an intimate portrait of a nation with aspects of a novel, travel log and guide book. From the outset, a deep sense of Portuguese and European history pervades Saramago's descriptions, which evince a longing for the past whose fragments lie in every crevice, niche and portico. For example, upon seeing ""traces of ancient anti-Spanish rancor in the form of obscene graffiti scored into good 15th-century stone"" in Miranda do Douro, he recalls a 17th-century siege that took place in the small town. Later on in his trip, standing in the ruins of a church, he muses, ""[T]he day before yesterday the Romans were here; yesterday it was the turn of the monks of Sao Cucufate; today it's the traveler."" Saramago's absolute attachment to his homeland filters through every paragraph, impelling him to create a new vision of the country: a vision that aims to meld Portugal's past to its present and future. The reader may find the author's use of the third person when speaking of himself rather tedious, and some drawn-out sections waffle in personal, almost mystical, reflections. But it is difficult to resist being enchanted by the witty, at times sarcastic reveries of a man in search of his land, its history and himself. 6 maps, b&w photos. (Mar.) Forecast: Saramago's name will attract some readers to a book that, without it, will appeal to only a limited niche market.