I saw the world end

Journey to Portugal

Jose Saramago <em>Harvill Press, 463pp, £20</em>

ISBN 1860467040

The spectacle of the world has always been treated by Jose Saramago with humour and, at times, intense sadness. His latest work is, as its title suggests, a voyage of discovery, by car, of the land to which he is bound by birth and culture (he currently lives in Tenerife). The Nobel laureate turns his arch eye from the imagined events of fiction to the observed landscape and people of contemporary Portugal.

It is hard to imagine Saramago changing his voice to accommodate this shift. There is, in fact, no need, because the real and the imagined are part of the same spectacle. On his journey, he will encounter things as strange and unaccountable as anything the imagination can create.

The traveller - Saramago uses the third person with characteristic anonymity - follows the same protocol in all the towns and villages he visits: he looks and passes by, passes by and looks, travelling "in order to be somewhere and feel himself part of it". Sometimes he will admire the vault of a church, the tomb of a knight, the grave of the unjustly hanged, the arches of an aqueduct, the azulejos that decorate a wall, the metallic ringing of ships in harbour, the insupportable heat of the Alentejo, the enduring presence of a river, the vanity of a king or a magnificent repast. The landscape through which he passes sets in motion a sequence of thoughts and opinions that play off each other like voices in a fugue before reaching a poignant conclusion.

A sense of time past, for this reader at least, is the defining characteristic of Portugal. To look at the country with a traveller's eyes is simultaneously to experience past, present and a reluctant future. Saramago writes of "an 18th century that ran until the middle of the 19th, a 20th century that only now seemed on the brink of noticing that there weren't another hundred years left to it". Time pulls Portugal on, but Portugal drags its heels.

In this sense, Saramago is a characteristically Portuguese writer. The individuals the traveller meets on his journey appear and disappear, pass on into the landscape in which they are shortly to pass away, no different from those who have passed by before, no different from the traveller himself.

And yet, there remains delight and pleasure in the most domestic things: the traveller loves the hospitality of the inns and houses where he stays, the excellence of a roasted goat, suckler pig or grilled fish. He stops in Peniche, a small port on the Atlantic coast north of Lisbon. He had hoped to take a boat trip out to the Berlenga islands, but the boat is not running. Disappointed, he sits down at a restaurant and has some groper. The fish is so good that his plate seems to contain the islands, the deep blue waters, the caves, the fort. Some English tourists come into this town that is a perfect haze of smoke, sea salt and fresh grilled fish. They order . . . steak. Why? Because, as the traveller says, "the Saxons are still barbarians". He has a point. When he goes down to the Algarve, he finds it is "a place where civilisation comes to enjoy its barbarism", a beautiful comment which equates the decadence of western European tourists with that of bloated Romans in the last days of the empire.

Journey's end is Finisterra do Sul, the south-western tip. It is also, as the traveller writes, "the world's end". To stand on the cliff here is to be on the brink of the old and to look out to the new. For an enchanted period Portugal sailed fearlessly into the new. Since that time it has been stuck on the periphery of Europe, one of the oldest and most defined pieces of the Continental jigsaw. Its location on the precipice of Europe gives it a sense of restless longing - for the old, the new, the past, the future, no one really knows. At the end of the book, the traveller writes that "the end of one journey is simply the start of another", time to move on until the traveller himself comes to an end and the journey can be taken on by someone else.

None but a Portuguese could have written this book; none but Saramago could produce travel writing like this. It is a wholly appropriate tribute to that astonishing juncture where the sea ends and the land begins.

Henry Sheen is working on a collection of stories set in Lisbon