Collection not signature Saramago

Slim volume has its pleasures even if it isn’t essential

While recently holidaying in torrid Mexico inertia brought me stumbling into an airport bookstore. Among the thrilling chin waxers and those sacred volumes recently translated into moving pictures I was startled to find two shelves near the entrance dedicated to José Saramago.

The Lives of Things a slim collection of short fiction is an interesting peek into the early work of this Nobel laureate. Originally published in 1978 as Objecto Quase in Portuguese it made its English language debut in North America this past April. It’s a display of Saramago in the “youth” of his mastery. Up until 1976 he had only published a few volumes of poetry a handful of novels and sundry journalism; only then already in his mid-50s did he decide to write for a living.

The Saramago we know must be read fluidly contiguously; the reader must dart from sentence to sentence between islets in a river to avoid being overwhelmed by a leafy mass of sensations fragments and elaborate winding tangents. His is a prose of impressions and must be read conversationally very much like the palaver of the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal (interestingly “palaver” originates from the Portuguese nautical slang “palavra” meaning “speech”). Saramago also worked as a mechanic and developed his literary tastes independent of any institution much like Hrabal’s autodidact trash compactor in Too Loud a Solitude .

With the exception of “The Chair” this collection’s dense serpentine opener these wonderful stories bear less of his signature narrative acrobatics. “The Chair” describes the simple act of a dictator tipping over in the titular piece of furniture but its exegesis fills 25 pages fluttering through a hallucinatory string of images and concepts populated with hyenas horse-riding insects Eve and Cain. The remaining stories suffer an absence of Saramago’s wonderful circumlocution though they still display all the musical magical tones and the simple beauty of his writing a chimera of presciently modern clarity and the antediluvian charm of folklore. A particularly startling string of images appears in “The Centaur” where the mythological beast struggles with his duality and wanders towards a coastal sanctuary through the dreamlike countryside of his birth.

Impossible dystopia — the speculative colliding with the absurd — is a common theme in Saramago’s work where the joy and the horror of human nature erupts as society either stratifies or crumbles. In both “Things” and “Embargo” inanimate objects betray their masters and man is quickly confused with the objects that inhabit his world; these two stories as well as “The Chair” are pointed political allegories mirroring the stifling terror of Salazar’s “New State” in 1930s to ’70s Portugal which Saramago lived through and struggled against. “Reflux” follows a weak-stomached monarch attempting to migrate all his country’s dead into a grand cemetery in the centre of the kingdom effectively erasing death from his view to little effect; the ritual of death our reverence for our mortality exemplified through our funereal customs defines us as humans.

The Lives of Things is a wonderful artifact and though it’s not essential Saramago reading it is like all his books intoxicating reading. Saramago himself stated that it was not until 1980 with his novel Risen from the Ground (to be published in English later this year) that he developed his signature voice. Moribund absurd flickering quickly between mirth and horror these stories are filled with the master scribe’s sibylline ruminations on mortality and language and a gentle blossoming beauty.