Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The Lives of Things

The chair started to fall, to come crashing down, to topple, but not, strictly speaking, to come to bits. Strictly speaking, to come to bits means bits fall off. Now no one speaks of the chair having bits, and it had bits, such as arms on each side, then you would refer to the arms of the chair falling off rather than coming to bits. But now that I remember, it has to be said that heavy rain comes down in buckets, so why should chairs not be able to come down in bits? At least for the sake of poetic licence? At least for the sake of being able to use an expression referred to as style? Therefore accept that chairs come to bits, although preferably they should simply fall, topple, or come crashing down. The person who does end up in pieces is the poor wretch who was sitting in this chair and is seated there no longer, but falling, as is the case, and style will exploit the variety of words which never say the same thing, however much we might want them to. If they were to say the same thing, if they were to group together through affinity of structure and origin, then life would be much simpler, by means of successive reduction, down to onomatopoeia which is not simple either, and so on and so forth, probably to silence, to what we might term the general synonym or omnivalent. It is not even onomatopoeia, or cannot be formed from this articulated sound (since the human voice does not have pure, unarticulated sounds, except perhaps in singing, and even then one would have to listen up close) formed in the throat of the person who is toppling or falling although no star, both words with heraldic echoes, which now describe anything which is about to come to pieces, therefore it did not sound right to join the parallel ending to this verb, which would settle the choice and complete the circle. Thus proving that the world is not perfect.
(Translated by Giovanni Pontiero) (1)

When José Saramago passed away in 2012 I had already read all his novels. To the pain of losing my greatest literary hero I had to add the sense of unhappiness of never knowing the joy of opening a new novel again. At the time I consoled myself with the fact that there were still many of his books left for me to read. His sixteen novels published in life didn’t even constitute half his entire oeuvre; there were the plays, the poems, the diaries, the newspaper writings. I had enough to keep myself busy for many years (I no longer believe that), and with these thoughts I went about living and reading.

One of the first books I read after his death was The Lives of Things (1978), his only collection of short-stories (not his only short-stories; the ones he wrote in the ‘40s and ‘50s he never collected again, possibly for aesthetic reasons). The title in Portuguese is Objecto Quase, Almost Objects. In describing the contents of the book himself, Saramago wrote with some detached irony: “The dictator fell from a chair, the Arabs stopped selling oil, the dead man is the living man’s best friend, things are never what they seem, when you see a centaur believe in your eyes, if a frog mocks you, cross the river. Everything is objects. Almost.” In a nutshell, this describes what happens in each of the book’s six stories. He considered this book a minor work, perhaps he was right.

The best story is “The Chair,” which starts, as you can see from the excerpt above, with a chair falling apart. The story is nothing more than a lengthy description, expanded to the point of absurdity, of the collapse of a chair dictator Salazar was sitting on, a fall that caused him an irreparable brain injury and loss of mental faculties and terminated, in 1968, his reign. Unless the reader is familiar with this historical event, he won’t see any point to or humour in the story, and that’s a pity because this is Saramago at his most hilarious. This story must have been a cathartic experience for the author and the readers at the time, to be able to finally laugh at the old tyrant with impunity. And the author doesn’t mince words, he doesn’t hide the sadistic satisfaction he gets from imagining a simple but historic event that announced the fall of an entire regime, from ridiculing his dead enemy, from showing “this new champion of Portuguese gymnastics give a somersault” (somersault in Portuguese is salto mortal, which literally means lethal jump). Saramago can barely contain himself as he gleefully describes the dictator’s head bumping against the table, opening a severe wound. The story is almost a work of poor taste, sometimes it seems to be nothing but an exercise in sadism and resentment against an enemy dead and buried a long time ago. But perhaps some wounds need to be kept alive, in order never to forget. “What is this? Are we going to show mercy to the beaten enemy? Is death an excuse, a pardon, a sponge, bleach to wash out crimes?” Saramago describes the dictator as a normal and frail old man, giving him a humanity which he nevertheless asks if he ever possessed, for “of this old man there are many and several reasons, and they’re old, to doubt his humanity.”

Of everything I have read by Saramago, this is the earliest text to showcase his famous style, even if at a rudimentary stage (I believe he wrote it simultaneously with Raised from the Ground): the long sentences abound, there’s an omniscient narrator digressing away from the main plot to discuss minutia, there’s the change of tones from sentence to sentence, sometimes academic, sometimes folksy, there’s the use of archaic vocabulary. I would be lying if I said this story didn’t provide me great pleasures.

The next stories, some more interesting than the others, are concise demonstrations of Saramago’s imaginative power. The style may be different, it may even be mundane in comparison to his great novels, but the mind behind them is the same one that wrote All The Names. The humour, the irony, the gentleness of the voice, the astute observations are all present, mostly.

In “Embargo,” during an oil crisis, a man becomes his car’s prisoner. For unexplainable reasons, the car takes control and keeps the doors locked, the driver is unable to get out. Resigned to his loss of freedom, he’s forced to drive around from gas station to gas station to fill up the tank. He spends all day and night inside the car, starving, urinating in his own pants, terrified. Then, after the gas stations close, the car stops and releases the driver. One can read this as a curious work of fantasy or as a frightening allegory about how man has become a slave to oil.

“Reflux” is the story of a king who orders the construction of a gigantic central cemetery with the intention of eliminating the presence of death from quotidian life. A megalomaniac and insane task that becomes a bureaucratic nightmare for the citizens. In “Things,” the government of a nameless country declares wars on things – buildings, doors, post boxes, etc. – because they start showing strange and suspicious behaviour, beginning even to attack people. Like “Embargo,” it’s an allegory about consumerism and how objects have become more important and valuable than people.

In “Centaur” the reader can read of final days of the last member of this mythical species. The book ends with “Revenge,” a bizarre story about a boy who meets a frog in the middle of a river. I didn’t like these last two stories very much, and I still can’t see the point behind them.

For fans of José Saramago The Lives of Things doesn’t have a lot to offer, but the slimness of the book makes it a good entry point. Anyone who reads “The Chair” and likes it will like his novels.

1 The next quotes have been translated by me. Don’t consider them illustrative of Saramago’s talent. Giovanni Pontiero obviously did a better job translating the book.

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