Imagine a world where objects, utensils, machines, or installations (OUMIs) take on lives of their own, independent of their owners. A world where skin grafted to the palms of our hands identifies us as a particular category, A-Z, that grants us absolute power over others (those below us) or renders us perfectly subservient (to those above us). Now imagine a world—perhaps a different world, or maybe the same as before—where cars in effect solder themselves to their drivers, demanding more gas. And then another (or again, perhaps the same), where chairs fall in stop-motion triggering irreparable brain damage in those who sit in them, where the two parts of a centaur’s body (human and horse) are constantly in dispute with one another. Sometimes subtly horrifying and always appropriately absurd and comedic when the situation demands it, José Saramago drops us in to those worlds in The Lives of Things. Or that one world, depending on how you look at it . . . because the settings Saramago creates are not that far of a departure from the world we live in.
At times it is difficult to wade through the nonchalant, matter-of-fact, thickly piled on descriptions the Nobel Prize-winning author utilizes. His prose is richly colorful, descriptive and frequently verges on shocking without being excessive. It is easy to fall into the trap of reading the same paragraph over and over again, luxuriating in the gorgeous, strange yet precise word choice but without being stuck. Giovanni Pontiero does a laudable job translating Saramago’s discourse from Portuguese to English without sacrificing any of the sly humor or the lush detailed description.
The stream-of-consciousness nature of the prose truly lends itself to the six short stories catalogued in this slim book, immensely complementing the twisting storylines. In some cases, the details constrain the reader, forcing them to look at the story in a very specific way. Saramago makes it very easy to overlook the bigger picture in favor of fixating how tiny actions—a man sitting down in a chair that breaks over the course of 25 pages, freezing midair, within the simply titled “The Chair”—contribute to a larger whole. The descriptions are so matter-of-fact, detached to the point of even sounding callous, that if the narrator’s voice was not so strongly developed and persuasive, it would be difficult to take the his side when he states, “Fall, old man, fall. See how your feet are higher than your head.” But the voice is convincing, and although it is never explicitly described why this “old man” deserves to “fall” the reader gets the sense that this tragedy is deserved.
In other stories, the strangeness of the depictions force the reader to reconstruct their idea of society in favor of the one Saramago presents. Take this excerpt from the story “Things” for example:
There was a time when the manufacturing process had reached such a degree of perfection and faults became so rare that the Government (G) decided there was little point in depriving members of the public (especially those in categories A, B and C) of their civil right and pleasure to lodge complaints: a wise decision which could only benefit the manufacturing industry. So factories were instructed to lower their standards. This decision, however, could not be blamed for the poor quality of the goods which had been flooding the market for the last two months. As someone employed in the Department of Special Requisitions (DSR), he was in a good position to know that the Government had revoked these instructions more than a month ago and imposed new standards to ensure maximum quality. Without receiving any results.
It’s easy to read any of these short stories the first time through, double-take at the end and think, Is that what all those descriptions, all piled up, really were describing? Is that even possible?. And the easy answer is yes. Because, looking at the highly detailed (sometimes neurotic) descriptions, the paragraphs that go on for pages, the dialogue that is separated only with a simple dash, and the circular logic that truly defines these short stories, it is easy to forget that Saramago’s work was largely influenced by the atrocities of his times. As Pontiero details in his foreword to the book, three of the stories—“The Chair”, “Embargo”, and “Things”—are “political allegories evoking the horror and repression which paralyzed Portugal under the harsh regime of Salazar.” And yet, with or without the political context, the book is the kind of read that ensnares you, drawing you into its world and forcing you to see things a particular way—Saramago’s way—while you compulsively turn the pages. Realizing that the worlds that Saramago creates are not huge departures from the world he lived in adds a new dimension of power to the prose, which could easily stand out on its own.
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