Monday, April 2, 2012

Review: The Lives of Things

Read 3/24/12 - 3/28/12
4.5 Stars - Highly Recommended to fans of Jose Saramago's previous work / a great intro to Jose Saramago
Pgs: 142
Publisher: Verso Books
Release Date: April 25, 2012

Oh god, how I love reading Jose Saramago. Picking up a book by this man is like slipping into a pleasure-coma. I wish I could remain buried within his books forever. Just cover me with his words and never move me again. Deal?

Words cannot explain how excited I was when I heard that Verso Books picked up his short story collection The Lives of Things, which was first published in its original language back in 1978. This edition, translated by Giovanni Pontiero, drops on April 25th and I highly recommend finding a place for it on your bookshelves.

If you are at all familiar with him, you know that only Saramago can write a 25 page story about a falling chair. Yes, you heard me right... a story detailing the act of a chair falling. True to the stream of consciousness, mind wandering style that I have come to know and love, Saramago dissects every conceivable possibility as the chair begins to fall in slow motion, continuously freezing it in mid-fall, like those stop-action screen shots that are employed in films - where everyone is suddenly locked in a moment in time while one person is left free to roam the scene and snatch things out of the air. Listen to the opening of The Chair ... "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 to bits? .. therefore accept the fact that chairs come to bits, although preferably they should simply fall, topple, or come crashing down." How can you not fall in love with his circular thinking?!

The Chair, the first of 6 short stories, is by far my favorite. While I appreciate the story as it is, it's also incredibly allegorical (a writing technique that is very common in Saramago's novels). This particular story was influenced by the event that triggered the end of Salazar's terrifying reign in Portugal. Can you guess what ended his reign? That's right. His beach chair collapsed. The falling chair caused the brain hemorrhage that would bring about his death. That's the trick with translations and international fiction, isn't it, though? The fact that, for most of us, we are practically clueless as to what is (or has) taken place in other countries, and typically these allegorical spoofs and political satires tends to fly completely over our heads.

The Chair also contains what I believe to be one of the best lines within the book.. "Fall, old man, fall. See how your feet are higher than your head." If nothing else, The Lives of Things contains little pockets of humor hidden beneath the otherwise dark fictional stories contained within its covers.

Now, that isn't to say that the rest of the stories pale in comparison. Each tale brings something new to the table. Take Embargo, for example. It's the story of a man who just wants to get to work on a day when his town's gas stations are running out of gas. Filling up his car at the very first station, he happily heads out on his way but his car has other ideas. Reflux details a town that decides to dig up all of its dead and buried, moving them into one centralized cemetery, creating what essentially becomes a giant city of dead surrounded by four small cities of the living.  Things tells the tale of a town that is plagued by objects, utensils, machines, and installations (OUMI's for short) that suddenly stop working and then begin disappearing altogether. And The Centaur is a twisted fairy tale that introduces us to the ageless creature whose two halves are in constant turmoil with each other.

This collection is an excellent way to introduce yourself to Samarago. His unique writing style - run on sentences, paragraphs that go on and on for pages without a break, and lack of identifying marks when characters are speaking - can take some time getting used to. These stories will give the hesitant newbie an opportunity to dip their toes in the water and prepare you for taking the greater plunge into one of his full length novels.

Sadly, Jose Saramago passed away in 2010, so I am left at the mercy of our american publishers, anxiously awaiting their decisions to pick up his older literature and have them translated for my eager consumption. Just to put my worries to bed, I snagged this bibliography off of Wikipedia and breathed a sigh of relief when I saw how many novels were still out there, waiting patiently to be published.... I have issues. I know. I simply can't imagine a world without new Saramago stories to read, and thankfully, it will be quite a few more years before I have to start. (I've already read the ones in bold)

TitleYearEnglish titleYearISBN
Terra do Pecado1947Land of SinISBN 972-21-1145-0
Os Poemas Possíveis1966Possible Poems
Provavelmente Alegria1970Probably Joy
Deste Mundo e do Outro1971This World and the Other
A Bagagem do Viajante1973The Traveller's Baggage
As Opiniões que o DL teve1974Opinions that DL had
O Ano de 19931975The Year of 1993
Os Apontamentos1976The Notes
Manual de Pintura e Caligrafia1977Manual of Painting and Calligraphy1993ISBN 1-85754-043-3
Objecto Quase1978Quasi Object (The Lives of Things)2012ISBN 1-84467-878-4
Levantado do Chão1980Raised from the Ground2011
Viagem a Portugal1981Journey to Portugal2000ISBN 0-15-100587-7
Memorial do Convento1982Baltasar and Blimunda1987ISBN 0-15-110555-3
O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis1986The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis1991ISBN 0-15-199735-7
A Jangada de Pedra1986The Stone Raft1994ISBN 0-15-185198-0
História do Cerco de Lisboa1989The History of the Siege of Lisbon1996ISBN 0-15-100238-X
O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo1991The Gospel According to Jesus Christ1993ISBN 0-15-136700-0
Ensaio sobre a Cegueira1995Blindness1997ISBN 0-15-100251-7
Todos os Nomes1997All the Names1999ISBN 0-15-100421-8
O Conto da Ilha Desconhecida1997The Tale of the Unknown Island1999ISBN 0-15-100595-8
A Caverna2000The Cave2002ISBN 0-15-100414-5
A Maior Flor do Mundo2001Children's Picture Book
O Homem Duplicado2003The Double2004ISBN 0-15-101040-4
Ensaio sobre a Lucidez2004Seeing2006ISBN 0-15-101238-5
Don Giovanni ou o Dissoluto Absolvido2005Don Giovanni, or, Dissolute Acquitted
As Intermitências da Morte2005Death with Interruptions2008ISBN 1-84655-020-3
As Pequenas Memórias2006Small Memories2010ISBN 978-0-15-101508-5
A Viagem do Elefante2008The Elephant's Journey2010ISBN 978-972-21-2017-3
Caim2009Cain2011ISBN 978-6071103161
* Lifted from Wikipedia


  1. I absolutely agree with you about Saramago. A recent book not on your list is 'The Notebook' based on a blog he wrote between from 2008 to 09. It is probably his most overtly political writing so may not suite all his fans. The Independent did quite a nice review -

    Terry Wassall

  2. Oooo... I hadn't heard about this one. Now I'm excited and I only have to wait 2 days! (And I have to get through some more books on my TBR pile first, but still... YAY!)

  3. Sorry guys, the publisher pointed out to me today that the release date was kicked back to the 25th of the month!

  4. Fantastic review! I love that you brought in the political significance of "The Chair". I'm still a Saramago newbie... I'm wondering if this book might be a better read for me at this stage than Death with Interruptions (and don't you dare ask what page I'm on!!! LOL)