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Authors: Jose Saramago

The Lives of Things

BOOK: The Lives of Things
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THE LIVES OF THINGS

Short Stories

José Saramago

Translated by

Giovanni Pontiero

London • New York

This English-language edition first published by Verso 2012

© Verso 2012

Translation and foreword © Giovanni Pontiero 2012

First published as
Objecto Quase

© Editora Duetto 1978

All rights reserved

The moral rights of the authors have been asserted

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

Verso

UK: 6 Meard Street, London W1F 0EG

US: 20 Jay Street, Suite 1010, Brooklyn, NY 11201

www.versobooks.com

Verso is the imprint of New Left Books

Epub ISBN-13: 978-1-84467-908-9

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Saramago, José.

[Objecto quase. English]

The lives of things : short stories / José Saramago ;

translated by Giovanni Pontiero.

p. cm.

ISBN 978-1-84467-878-5 (alk. paper)

I. Pontiero, Giovanni. II. Title.

PQ9281.A66O2513 2012

869.3
'
42- -dc23

2011047923

If man is shaped by his environment, his environment must be made human.

K. Marx and F. Engels

The Holy Family

Foreword

First published in 1978, this collection of six stories, originally entitled
Objecto Quase
, attests to the inventive powers of a remarkable novelist who is no less adept at mastering the techniques of shorter narrative forms. A master of suspense, he holds our attention with a subtle alternation of incisive statements and speculative digressions. Three of the stories, ‘The Chair’, ‘Embargo’ and ‘Things’, might be described as political allegories evoking the horror and repression which paralysed Portugal under the harsh regime of Salazar. The most powerful of these is ‘The Chair’, the symbol of the dictator’s dramatic departure from the political scene on 6 September 1968, when the deckchair in which he was sitting collapsed and the shock precipitated a brain haemorrhage. In these narratives Saramago deploys his incomparable skill in expanding a metaphor and weaving myriad associations around the same obsessive image. With humour and compassion, he denounces the abuse of power and pays tribute to human resilience and man’s will to survive in the face of injustice and institutionalised tyranny. Here the moods vary from bitter satire and outrageous parody to Kafkaesque hallucinations when fear engenders a sense of unreality and drives a bewildered society to the brink of despair. The prevailing atmosphere in these stories is that of claustrophobia and collective hysteria. Hence the triumphant note of celebration when the fetters of censorship and prohibition are finally broken and the human spirit can breathe freely once more.

The remaining three stories in the collection provide an interesting contrast in terms of theme and tonality. And although written in a more lyrical vein, they reveal the same essential process of illumination and enhancement. The extinction of ‘The Centaur’ is mourned with unbearable nostalgia and pathos as the author probes the disquieting duality of this mythical creature. ‘Revenge’ explores the awakening desires and perceptions of adolescence with the utmost delicacy, and ‘Reflux’ admirably illustrates the author’s instinctive sense of form and symmetry even while elaborating the most extravagant fantasies.

The one recurring theme in this collection is that of death. In these stories, however, death assumes many guises and is not necessarily physical. Nor need death imply finality. The long-awaited exit of a dictator or monarch in Saramago’s fictions nearly always heralds a new era of freedom whereby ordinary men and women can emerge from nightmare and rebuild their lives.

Giovanni Pontiero

Manchester, May 1994

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 down in bits? At least for the sake of poetic licence? At least for the sake of being able to use an expression referred to as style? Therefore accept that chairs come to bits, although preferably they should simply fall, topple, or come crashing down. The person who does end up in pieces is the poor wretch who was sitting in this chair and is seated there no longer, but falling, as is the case, and style will exploit the variety of words which never say the same thing, however much we might want them to. If they were to say the same thing, if they were to group together through affinity of structure and origin, then life would be much simpler, by means of successive reduction, down to onomatopoeia which is not simple either, and so on and so forth, probably to silence, to what we might term the general synonym or omnivalent. It is not even onomatopoeia, or cannot be formed from this articulated sound (since the human voice does not have pure, unarticulated sounds, except perhaps in singing, and even then one would have to listen up close) formed in the throat of the person who is toppling or falling although no star, both words with heraldic echoes, which now describe anything which is about to come to pieces, therefore it did not sound right to join the parallel ending to this verb, which would settle the choice and complete the circle. Thus proving that the world is not perfect.

One could say that the chair about to topple is perfect. But times change, tastes and values change, what once seemed perfect is no longer judged to be so, for reasons beyond our control, yet which would not be reasons had times not changed. Or time. How much time need not concern us, nor need we describe or simply specify the style of furniture which would identify the chair as being one of many, especially since as a chair it naturally belongs to a simple sub-group or collateral branch, altogether different in size and function, from these sturdy patriarchs, known as tables, sideboards, wardrobes, display-cabinets for silver and crockery, or beds from which it is obviously much more difficult, if not impossible, to fall, for it is while getting out of bed that one is in danger of breaking a leg or while getting into bed that one can slip on the mat, when in fact the breaking of a leg was not precisely caused by slipping on the mat. Nor do we think it important to say from what kind of wood such a small item of furniture is made, its very name suggests it was destined to fall, unless the Latin verb
cetera
is some linguistic trap, if
cetera
is indeed Latin, as it sounds it ought to be. Any tree would have served with the exception of pine which has exhausted its properties in the making of warships and is now quite commonplace, or cherry which can easily warp, or the fig-tree which is prone to splintering, especially in hot weather or when one reaches out too far along the branch to pluck a fig; with the exception of these trees which are flawed, and others because of the many properties they possess, as in the case of ironwood which never decays yet has too much weight for the required volume. Another unsuitable wood is ebony, which is simply another name for ironwood, and we have already seen the problem of using synonyms or what are assumed to be synonyms. Not so much in this analysis of botanical matters which pays no attention to synonyms, yet scrupulously observes the two different names which different people have given to the same thing. You may be sure that the name ironwood was given or weighed up by whoever had to carry it on his back. There is no safer bet.

Were it made of ebony, we should probably have to classify the chair that is falling as being perfect, and by using verbs such as to classify or categorise, we will prevent it from falling, or only let it fall very much later, for example, a hundred years hence, when its fall would no longer be of any use to us. It is possible that another chair may topple in its place, in order to produce the same fall with a similar result, but that would mean telling a different story, not the story of what happened because it is happening, but the story of what might happen. Certainty is preferable by far, especially when you have been waiting for something far from certain.

However, we must acknowledge a degree of perfection in this singular chair which is still falling. It was not purpose-made for the body which has been sitting in it for many years but chosen instead for its design, so as to match rather than clash excessively with the other items of furniture nearby or at a distance, not made of pine, or cherry, or fig, for the reasons already stated, but of a wood commonly used for durable, high-quality furniture, for example, mahogany. This is a hypothesis which exempts us from any further verification, incidentally quite undeliberate, of the wood used to carve, mould, shape, glue, assemble, tighten up and allow to dry, this chair which is near to collapsing. So let us settle for mahogany and say no more. Except to mention how pleasant and comfortable the chair is to sit in, and if it has arms and is made entirely of mahogany, how pleasant to touch that solid and mysterious surface of smoothly polished wood, and if the arms are curved, the kind of shoulder, knee or hip-bone that curve possesses.

Mahogany, for example, unfortunately does not have the resistance of the aforementioned ebony or ironwood. The experience of men and carpenters has proved as much, and any one of us, if we can work up enough enthusiasm for these scientific matters, will be able to test this for ourselves by biting into each of these different woods and judging the difference. A normal canine tooth, however unfit to prove its strength in a circus ring, will leave a nice clear imprint on mahogany. But not on ebony.
Quod erat demonstrandum
. Whereupon we can assess the problems of rot.

There will be no police inquiry, although this might have been exactly the right moment, when the chair was tilting at a mere two degrees, since, if the whole truth be told, the sudden dislocation of the centre of gravity may be irremediable, especially when uncompensated by an instinctive reflex or force subject to that reflex; this might be the moment, I repeat, to give the order, a strict order to take everything back from this moment which cannot be postponed, not so much to the tree (or trees, for there is no guarantee that all the items of furniture come from the same planks of wood), but to the merchant, storekeeper, joiner, stevedore, shipping company responsible for shipping from remote parts the tree-trunk stripped of its branches and roots. As far back as might be necessary in order to discover where the rot first set in and what caused it. Sounds, as we know, are articulated in the throat, but they will not be capable of giving this order. They simply hesitate, as yet unaware that they are vacillating, between an exclamation and a cry, both primary. Therefore impunity is guaranteed on account of the victim’s silence, and the oversight of the investigators who will simply make a routine check, once the chair has stopped falling and its collapse, not as yet fatal, has been consummated, to see whether the leg or foot has been maliciously, not to say criminally, damaged. Anyone carrying out this check will feel humiliated, for it is nothing less than humiliating to be carrying a pistol under your arm and be holding a stump of worm-eaten wood that is crumbling beneath a fingernail that need not be all that thick for this purpose. And then push the chair with the broken leg aside without showing the slightest annoyance, and then drop the leg itself, now that it has served its purpose which is precisely that of being broken.

It happened somewhere, if you will permit me this tautology. It happened somewhere that an insect of the order Coleoptera, belonging to the genus Hylotrupes, Anobium or some other genus (no entomologist has succeeded in establishing its identity) introduced itself into some part or other of the chair, from whence it then travelled, gnawing, devouring and evacuating, opening galleries along the softest veins to the ideal spot for a fracture, who knows how many years later, but ever cautious, bearing in mind the short life of the coleoptera, and how many generations must have fed on this mahogany until the day of glory, noble race, brave nation. Let us reflect on this painstaking labour, this other pyramid of Cheops, if this is how hieroglyphics are spelt, which the coleoptera built without anything showing on the outside, while opening tunnels inside which were eventually to lead into a burial chamber. There is no reason why the Pharaohs should be deposited inside mountains of stone, in some dark, mysterious place, with ramifications which first open on to abysses and perditions, where they will leave their bones and their flesh until it is devoured, however much imprudent and sceptical archaeologists may laugh at curses, the so-called Egyptologists in the former case, the experts in Lusitanian or Portuguese culture in the latter. When we come to consider the differences between the place where the pyramid is built and this other where the Pharaoh has been or is about to be installed, let us recall the wise and prudent words of our forefathers: a place for everything, and everything in its place. Therefore we need not be surprised if this pyramid called chair sometimes not only refuses its ultimate destiny, but for the duration of its fall becomes a kind of farewell, forever looking back to the beginning, not so much because of the sorrow of absence once far away, but as a perfect and convincing manifestation of what a farewell means for, as everyone knows, farewells are always much too fleeting to be truly worthy of the name. There is neither the time nor opportunity when making farewells for that sorrow ten times distilled until it becomes pure essence, nothing but confusion and panic, the tear that welled up and had no time to appear, the expression that was intended to convey deep sadness or that melancholy of another age, only to end up with a grimace or leer which is even worse. Falling like this, the chair undoubtedly falls, but all we want is the time of its falling, and as we watch this fall which nothing can stop and which none of us is likely to stop, for it is already inevitable, we can turn it back like the river Guadiana, not in fear but in bliss, which is a heavenly way of rejoicing, and once more undoubtedly deserved. With the assistance of St Teresa of Avila and the dictionary, we must try to understand that this bliss is that supernatural happiness which produces grace in the souls of the just. As we watch the chair fall, we cannot help receiving this grace, for as we stand there watching, we do nothing and will continue to do nothing to stop it from falling. Thus proving the existence of the soul because we could not possibly experience any such reaction without a soul. So let the chair go back to an upright position and recommence its fall while we get back to what we were saying.

Behold Anobium, whose name has been chosen for whatever trace of nobility it might contain, an avenger from beyond the prairie, mounted on his horse White-face, and taking his time to arrive so that all the credits can be screened and we are left in no doubt, just in case some of us missed seeing the posters in the cinema foyer about the team who made the film. Behold Anobium, now in close-up, with his coleopteral face, eaten away in its turn by the wind and the hot sun, which, as we all know, burn out the open galleries in the leg of the chair that has just broken and, thanks to which, the aforesaid chair is beginning to fall for the third time. This Anobium, as has already been stated in a form more appropriate for the banalities of genetics and reproduction, had predecessors in this act of revenge: they were called Fred, Tom Mix and Buck Jones, but these are names immortalised in the epic history of the Far West and they should not allow us to forget the anonymous coleoptera who had the much less glorious, not to say ridiculous task, of perishing while crossing the desert, or of slowly crawling through a swamp where they slipped and fell into the mire giving off the most awful stench, to hoots of laughter and catcalls from the stalls and gallery. Not one of them had settled his final account when the train gave three whistles, holsters were greased inside so that pistols could be drawn at once, with the index finger on the trigger and the thumb poised to pull back the hammer. Not one of them received the prize waiting on Mary’s lips, nor was White Flash there to come from behind and push the shy cowboy into the girl’s expectant arms. All pyramids have stones underneath, and the same is true of monuments. The conquering Anobium is the last in this line of anonymous heroes who preceded him, at any rate no less fortunate, for they lived, worked and died, everything in its own good time, and this Anobium, as we know, completes the cycle, and, like the male bee, he will die in the act of impregnation. The beginning of death.

Marvellous music which no one had heard for months or years, incessant, uninterrupted by day and by night, at the glorious, dazzling hour of sunrise and at this no less amazing moment when we bid the light farewell until morning, this continuous gnawing, as persistent as the endless repetition of the same note, harping on, eating away at one fibre after another and everyone entering and leaving, distractedly, absorbed in their own affairs, unaware that at the appointed hour Anobium will appear, pistol at the ready, marking out the enemy or target, taking aim which means hitting dead centre, at least that is what it means from now on, for someone had to be the first. Marvellous music, composed and played by generations of coleoptera for their pleasure and our profit, as was the destiny of the Bach family, both before and after Johann Sebastian. Music unheard, and if heard, what could it do for the person seated in this chair who will fall with it and, in fear or surprise, emit this articulated sound which may not even be a cry or shriek, much less a word. Music that will fall silent, that has fallen silent this very instant: Buck Jones sees his rival fall inexorably to the ground, beneath the harsh glare of the Texas sun, he puts his pistols away in their holsters and removes his wide-brimmed Stetson to wipe his forehead, and also because Mary, in a white dress, is running towards him, now that any danger has passed.

BOOK: The Lives of Things
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