Sep 6 2012

The Lives of Things by José Saramago

Michael Thomsen

web exclusive


José Saramago's work is often thought of as allegorical or subversively political. The Portuguese novelist, playwright, and poet had an instinct for stories that belittled political sentimentality, framing the grandiosity of dreams within the vulnerability of the dreamer. From Baltasar and Blimunda's tragic lovers drowning in a swamp of political corruption to absurd militarization in response to a mysterious epidemic in Blindness, Saramago's work reveals the parallel fragility of authority and idealism. The Lives of Things is a collection of six early short stories from the Nobel Prize winner, a poetic encapsulation of Saramago's extraordinary talent as a skeptical inquirer who always seemed aware, even as a young man, that behind one pierced veil there was always another.

The centerpiece of the collection is "Things," about a civil servant in a city where all the inanimate objects are beginning to disappear. Over the course of a few days, the disappearances go from jugs and wristwatches to roads and entire buildings. The government responds with an authoritarian parade of new regulations, advising citizens to stay indoors, even though, with their walls missing, "homes no longer guaranteed safety, not in the literal sense of the word, but in that other sense which we must never forget: privacy."

As political leaders state and reinstate models of order built on things that just don't exist anymore, the task of authority shifts to obsessing over displays of power that are meant only to preserve the position of the authoritative few. The resonance with our own time is almost too much. When the scale of the crisis threatens to erase the entire city, the government demands everyone evacuate so it can move forward with a plan to bomb what remains. The government is transformed into a paranoid authority figure, and the docile civil servant begins to romanticize aggression.

"How he would have loved to feel in his wrists, yes, even in his wounded hand, the vibrations of a weapon firing," Saramago writes, "to feel his whole body tremble, not with fear this time, but with anger and blissful revenge."

In "The Chair," Saramago fixes the junction between order and violent precarity in the death of António de Oliveira Salazar, the autocratic Prime Minister who ruled Portugal for four decades, and insisted his portrait be hung alongside a crucifix in every school room in the country. Salazar's life finally came to an end when he sat on a chair with a bad leg. When the chair collapsed, he slammed his head into the ground, causing a brain hemorrhage, the complications of which finally killed him two years later.

Saramago shifts to a metaphysical inspection of this concrete premise, poeticizing its implications on both a microscopic and cosmological scale. He traces the life of the chair's wood back to its literal roots, recounting the thumbnail history of the particular beetle that caused the rot in the bad leg. Later, he travels outward into space, finding metaphoric connection between the damaged part of Salazar's brain and a thin layer of the earth's atmosphere, "the disconcerting similarity between what we define as the microcosm and what we shall refer to as the macrocosm, between the three millimetres of cortex which allows us to think and the few kilometres of atmosphere which permit us to breathe."

These inquisitions capture the spirit of Saramago's career, always circling a question that seems to have no center. Salazar may well have been the perfect vessel for Saramago, a one-time populist who imposed himself on a country that increasingly yearned to be free of this imposition. In Salazar's death, Saramago reveals a world where everything is alive in its own way, though it may be indifferent to, or ignorant of, the orders of magnitude that surround it. By doing so, Saramago tears down the distinction between the living creature and the inanimate object. That everything is a byproduct of a process, and that no one can name just what that process is, makes the certainty of political organization a bizarre delusion.

The Lives of Things shows Saramago's sense of language in full bloom, with winding sentences that interrupt themselves again and again, subdividing a simple statement with qualifiers and tangents that make any notion of "truth" seem like a trick of perspective. "Were it made of ebony," Saramago writes, "we should probably have to classify the chair that is falling as being perfect, and by using verbs such as to classify or categorize, 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." Saramago follows these meandering formalities with sentences that are so dry and direct they act as punchlines. "He is about to fall backwards. There he goes."

Saramago's stories have a renewed vibrancy in the current climate of doomsday scenarios, broken balance sheets and government debt. They remind us that when the law fails, a good metaphor can take its place. And so we have vampire squids, hooded sweatshirts worn in solidarity, tents propped up on sticks because the police say they can't be placed on the ground. The contest is now over whose metaphor will win, and who will oversee the inevitable translation of metaphor back into law. In this conflict we begin to make objects of our own lives, the stability of which masks a hypnotic flux of higher and lower matter. It is not reason we desire from this hidden entropy, but the enlivening affirmation of movement, like Salazar's chair, from which "all we want is the time of its falling."

Michael Thomsen is author of Levitate the Primate. His work has appeared in Slate, n+1, The Believer, The Daily Beast, The New Inquiry, and Billboard.

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