Sunday, June 2, 2013

Book Review: "The Lives of Things" by José Saramago

The Lives of Things (1978) 

José Saramago (1922-2010)

translated by Giovanni Pontiero (1994)

146 pages

For anyone who has not yet read any of José Saramago’s fiction, this collection of six short stories in the slim volume The Lives of Things provides a wonderful introduction to his sensibility and style. Four of the stories share the same world as several of the novels for which Saramago is well-known,  Blindness, Seeing and Death with Interruptions, in which the actions and behaviors of governments, and our reaction to these policies as citizens, are held up to examination with often disturbing results. The last two stories in the collection recall the wonder and imagination of The Cave, and other aspects of again Death with Interruptions, taking place in a region situated somewhere between our daily lives and our dreams.

The opening story, The Chair, describes the critical role a simple, everyday piece of furniture reportedly played in ridding Portugal of the dictator Antóio de Oliveira Salazar in 1968. Salazar is not mentioned by name in the story; instead Saramago has created an extended history for the fateful chair, elaborating on the often minor elements that led to its decisive moment of “fame.” The opening paragraph of the story displays Saramago’s style well:
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 if 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 license? Therefore accept that chairs come to bits, although preferably they should simply fall, topple, or come crashing down.
This circuitous route to his goal, and direct appeal to the reader’s understanding characterize much of Saramago’s writing. It can at first seem like he is wasting words on meaningless distinctions, until, as the story continues to develop, it becomes clear that it is precisely the distinctions that are most important; and by directing his thoughts at the reader, he subtly succeeds in getting our agreement by taking us through his logic path, one step at a time.

The next several stories in the book satirize the absurd and not-well-thought-out policies that governments can develop, and that we as citizens often collude in supporting, if only through inaction and inattention. Not so directly linked to a particular dictator as the first story, they nevertheless comment on the potential hazards of overly powerful ruling class.

In Embargo, restrictions have been placed on the sale of gasoline, and a man looking to top off his tank as he drives to work finds concern about this new policy in an unexpected place. Reflux carries an obsession by an absolute ruler to its unnatural extreme, demonstrating how a policy can seem odd but achievable at the beginning, only to become perverted by a literal interpretation of and compulsive fixation on the details of its implementation, so that it eventually collapses under the weight of its own structure. And in Things, the government has put in place policies to carefully control the availability of material goods, basing distribution on a clearly defined class system; the arrangement works smoothly until one day an initially unnoticed rebellion begins to grow, from an unexpected quarter.

In these stories, as in his novels that touch on similar issues, Saramago allows the absurdity of the system to expose itself as he develops it to its natural end. Even his characters, for the most part, take their society and its goals as perfectly normal, making it all the more jarring for them when their world begins to breakdown under the weight of the heavy-handed policy.

Stepping away from the political and social commentary of the first four stories in the collection, the final two stories share a different tone and feel. The Centaur imagines the fate of the last of those mythological creatures, spared from death by the gods when his fellows are slaughtered in their war against the Lapithae; the same focus on the details that Saramago brings to the stories on political commentary serves here again, with a description of the life of this last man-horse so vivid that it cannot help but stir the reader’s empathy.

The final story, Revenge, is only a few pages long, and seems almost like a piece of a larger narrative, or maybe the back-story of a painting; in it Saramago nonetheless contains a singular image of nature that for many readers will linger long after the book is closed.

Other reviews / information:

Other works I have read by Saramago:

  • Blindness: The population of a city goes suddenly blind, and the authorities struggle to respond.  (I read this book before I began doing these reviews.)
  • Seeing: What happens when no one bothers to vote in an election.  A story set four years after <u>Blindness</u>, as the authorities again struggle to deal with what they see as a political calamity.  I reviewed it here.
  • Death with Interruptions: Death takes a holiday; after the initial celebrations the people, and the government gradually realize the full impact of this change. I reviewed it here.
  • The Cave:  When a potters clay pots and jugs are no longer wanted by a population the prefers plastic, he tries his hand at making small figurines instead, with unexpected results. (I read this book before I began doing these reviews.)
 You can find quotes from some of these works here.  

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your feedback.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION