This information is being provided, first because it is true and the truth is always worthwhile, and, second, to assist those who enjoy deciphering crisscross patterns of words and events. (13)
Hey, that’s me!
Dolce Bellezza, a fan of a later Saramago novel, also took a crack at Baltasar and Blimunda recently. If I am characterizing her post correctly, she found herself crushed under the weight of Saramago’s details. The novel was much like the enormous stone, “the mother of all stone,” that lies in the portico of the church at the Mafra Palace:
To complete this description, once it has been carved and polished in Mafra, it will be only fractionally smaller, thirty-two by fourteen by three in the same order of dimensions, and one day, when measurements will no longer be taken in spans but in meters, others will describe the stone as being seven meters long, three meters wide, and sixty-four centimeters deep. Take careful note. (223)
There is that narratorial slippage again. The narrator actually transforms into a modern tour guide:
Now let us pass to the next room, for we still have some way to go.
But the reader of Baltasar and Blimunda returns to the 18th century, where Saramago, along with the title character Baltasar, four hundred oxen, and “hordes of men,” spends an entire chapter moving the stone from the quarry to the construction site. It is a dazzling showoff chapter in a novel that is not characterized by Saramago holding back. Every stage of the movement of the stone is presented, along with lists of equipment and names. Some minor characters have to be developed in order to crush at least one of them.
One of the workers improvises a story each night, a sort of fragmented fairy tale. It does not have a satisfying ending:
José Pequeno protested: One’s never heard such a tale narrated bit by bit. Manuel Milho reminded him: Each day is a little bit of history, and no one can narrate everything. (239)
Saramago gives it a shot, though. I have no idea how much of the information about the stone and its transport is true and how much or what Saramago invented. I would guess that, as I found with Sebald, the scene is lightly researched, that most of the historical detail can be found in one or two books. It is easy enough to imagine Saramago, on a tour of Mafra, perhaps even as a child, being told about the giant stone and thinking “Now that could make a good story.”
A number of other chapters are similar, and just as good. For example, the description of the logistics of a royal wedding, really an exchange of princesses between Portugal and Spain, which requires an enormous chain of carriages, horses, and servants. The movement of the princess, of one person, is as difficult, is as great a folly, as the movement of a 31 metric ton stone.
“One day, the errors on which history is based will finally be clarified,” the narrator says in that chapter, a bit cryptically (277). Saramago’s project is perhaps not so different than Sebald’s. New, purposeful, fictional errors are set against old, accidental, factual errors.