It isn't really possible to review the volumes separately, so this applies to /The Baroque Cycle/ as a whole. And what a whole it is! -- a brilliant,...moreIt isn't really possible to review the volumes separately, so this applies to /The Baroque Cycle/ as a whole. And what a whole it is! -- a brilliant, erudite, and definitely baroque assemblage of literary clockwork. The first "book" of the first volume starts a bit scattered (and took me two tries a few months apart to get through), but by the third volume, all those scattered parts have resolved into intricate gears which were all working together all along. Which isn't to say that there aren't ornamental touches and elaborate set-pieces -- what baroque work would be complete without them? -- but those aspects are all entertaining in their own right.
This is the kind of novel where you can flip it open to almost any part and read something fascinating. The fact that all the parts work together as a whole is important, but that final whole itself is almost beside the point. While plot is interesting keeps things moving along, it provides no reason to rush, and instead encourages lingering in the texture of the world and characters the novel creates. At times the book seems to split almost into three: the novel of ideas and historical politics tracking Daniel, the historical spy novel tracking Eliza, and the swashbuckling adventure novel tracking Jack. In the hands of a lesser author this technique would be chancy, but Stephenson keeps us caring about all three characters and their troubles and drops interconnections between the three at just the right points to prevent it from all drifting too far apart.(less)
My appreciation of Saramago's novels continues to increase as I read the ones I had not yet read and re-read the ones I have. I first read All the Nam...moreMy appreciation of Saramago's novels continues to increase as I read the ones I had not yet read and re-read the ones I have. I first read All the Names several years ago, and enjoyed it then, but understood much more of it this time around. The lonely protagonist in the context of Saramago's other lonely protagonists, the veiled references only explained in other of his novels, the parallels and diversions in theme and content... The first time around, I don't think I had much of a sense of what All the Names was "about" beyond the beauty of the language and imagery. This time I feel much more strongly that there is a message there, which hovers just on the edge of understanding. We live our lives alone; no matter how close we may be to other people, they never participate in the dialog which makes up ourselves. And yet we do live, every one of us, no matter how we die. Our brief lives hang suspended between the "twin voids" preceding birth and following death, but at birth our names are entered in the great list of all the names of all the people who have ever lived, and nothing can erase them.
Update: I was thinking about All the Names yet again last night (frequently the hallmark of a great book, IMHO), and an in-hindsight-obvious interpretation struck me: this book is about Saramago becoming a novelist. The protagonist is the only character named, and his name is "José," like Saramago. The protagonist is in his early 50s, the same age Saramago was when he began seriously writing novels. The protagonist begins the novel with the hobby of collecting clippings on the public lives of public figures, an allegory for Saramago's work as a journalist. Then a seemingly random series of events results in the protagonist deciding -- beyond his power to decide otherwise -- to probe into the private life of a private person, a person not famous, a woman found by chance and distinct from everyone else only in that all our lives are distinct. When she dies, he enters into into the great archive of the dead "to rescue her from the dead world, just her name, not her, a clerk can only do so much." A novelist can rescue from the dead world much more than just a name, but can still only do so much.(less)
Saramago's novels are never straightforward. In The Stone Raft, the Iberian peninsula separates from the mainland of Europe and floats into the sea. W...moreSaramago's novels are never straightforward. In The Stone Raft, the Iberian peninsula separates from the mainland of Europe and floats into the sea. Why? What causes it? What does it mean? The text contains no answers. The event itself is magical and inexplicable, the meat of the novel resting entirely in how people respond to it. With enough detail to make the impossible feel real, Saramago describes in macrocosm how the media, the populations of the peninsula and mainland, and the governments of the world respond. In microcosm, he also follows the lives of five ordinary people drawn together by the separation of the peninsula and other, smaller-scale magical events.
The novel is good -- it is Saramago afterall -- but I'm not sure yet what meaning to pull from it. The characters have the arc of their lives utterly altered by the events of the novel, but those events are catalysts, seeding their choices, not forcing them. The attention to detail, the realism the dialog, all of these things virtues in themselves, in total also make it more difficult to read a message behind the realism. Some of the satire is obvious, and Saramogo's keen psychology stands on its own, but all the same, I feel here like I'm missing something. Perhaps I'll find it when I visit this novel again.(less)