Books | Review: The Lives of Things by José Saramago
Arts & Culture, Book Reviews, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Monday, January 7, 2013 21:50 - 0 Comments
By Mark Sabine
2012 was a good year for José Saramago fans. The appearance of this volume, and of the extraordinary early novel Raised from the Ground, makes all of the late Portuguese novelist’s major works finally available in English translations of the highest quality. Saramago repeatedly claimed that all of his books are components of a single, overarching work. English-language readers can now evaluate this claim, by exploring in full each novel’s echoes and reinscriptions of the images, characters and preoccupations of its predecessors, and can judge how effectively this rhizomatic quality amplifies, refracts, and reinforces the author’s political and moral message.
First published in 1978, this collection of stories has particular significance as the test-bed for the characteristics that distinguish Saramago’s most acclaimed fiction. Readers of Blindness or The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis will recognize here Saramago’s penchant for introducing fantastical elements into everyday scenarios, and for transforming the personal dramas of unassuming characters into subtle, often teasingly imprecise, political allegories through a deft configuration of literary and historical allusions. And while these stories are slender and experimental works, they frequently match the assured handling of narrative form, and the imagetic and lexical élan of his greatest novels.
As intimated by the collection’s title – unrelated to the Portuguese original, and presumably chosen to recall Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s acclaimed film, The Lives of Others – this is a book about living under dictatorship, and about writing against it. The six stories all reveal Saramago’s debt to the literature of protest and resistance under Portugal’s ‘New State’ dictatorship , and his innovative response to the transformed conditions for radical writing and agitation following the 1974 April Revolution.
Far from indulging in polemic or simplistic didacticism, these are tales that address an audience well-trained in reading between the lines, and that solicit a self-conscious effort of linguistic and symbolic interpretation. Such interpretations inevitably reference political circumstances when the reader spots Saramago’s subtle allusions to contemporary events (notably, the petroleum crisis of 1973 in ‘Embargo’), and his bold reworking of a code of metaphoric encryption that Portugal’s socialist and ‘neo-realist’ authors and songwriters relied upon to sneak parables of resistance and solidarity past the dictatorship’s censors.
‘The Chair’ presents the most remarkable aspects of this invigoration of a tradition of politically-engaged writing. As the translator’s short but elegant introduction explains, it recounts the ignominious demise of Portugal’s dictator Salazar, after a rickety deckchair collapsed beneath him in 1968. In the digressive, sparely-punctuated prose that would become Saramago’s trademark, the narrative imagines the chair’s collapse in slow-motion, looping back on itself repeatedly to present the scene from different perspectives. In this sequence of narrative action-replays, Saramago romps through a broad repertoire of literary parody to mock the reactionary imperialism of Salazar’s regime, and to rededicate the triumphalist bombast of its propaganda to a description of the woodworms whose slow, steady excavation of the chair’s timbers precipitated the dictator’s fall.
This playfully surreal new context for the time-worn device of insects as cipher for workers and workers’ militancy creates the template for Saramago’s later novels, reappraising his country’s history. With recourse to metaphor, parody, and often fantastical conjecture, Saramago calls attention to the agency of the overlooked foot-soldiers of history (here, the ‘many generations [that] fed on this mahogany until the day of glory, noble race, brave nation’) while alerting his readers to the fabrication and distortion inevitable in the writer’s (or historian’s) attempts to speak on their behalf.
Other stories combine simpler narrative formats and taut plotlines in science-fiction horror stories of machines and utensils inexplicably turning on their owners. In ‘Embargo’, a businessman is hijacked by his car and driven to a lonely, wretched death, while in ‘Things’, a civil servant of an authoritarian state has his cushy life torn apart by the rebellion of everyday objects – from a door that scrams him, to whole apartment blocks that dematerialise, pitching residents to their deaths.
The result is a thoughtful study of the paranoid psychology of an embattled dictatorship, finding pathos in the peevish functionary’s increasingly desperate loyalty to the regime he serves, and grotesque absurdity in that regime’s ‘retaliatory’ bombardment of swathes of its capital city, to teach the insurgent utensils a lesson.
In the light of the volume’s epigraph quotation of Engels’s demand that ‘if man is shaped by his environment, his environment must be made human’, all six stories can be read as allegorizing the dehumanizing logic of corporatist dictatorship. Like Saramago’s later works, however, they also speak to the insidious forms of tyranny and megalomania persistent in more deregulated societies that prioritize individual prestige and ambition over a compassionate, negotiated coexistence.Yet while their sinuous prose often hums with violence and constrained anger, these stories are rarely preachy: each arrestingly peculiar dramatic scenario moves to an understated resolution, from which political or moral lessons emerge only through the reader’s detached reflection.
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