The Lives of Things
The Lives of Things, first published in 1978 as Objecto Quase (Quasi-Objects), brings back into print six short stories from José Saramago, grand old man of the European literary left and perhaps the foremost lusophone writer of the 20th century. The obituaries composed upon Saramago’s death in 2010 tended to dwell almost as much on the man’s politics as on his career as a novelist, and so perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise to see Giovanni Pontiero’s deft new translation handled by the progressive publishing house Verso. Despite this book’s slender profile—all six stories combined run to a mere 142 pages—its republication should not be seen as part of a tidying-up exercise of minor works that so often follows the death of a major author. Nor should Saramago’s forthright political views be allowed to obscure the merits of his writing on its own terms. Saramago’s canonical place in 20th-century literature is undoubtedly safe, but it is also more complex than it may appear at first blush: The Lives of Things illustrates why his influence has been so far-reaching, whilst also serving as an excellent entry point into his work.
Saramago’s work is usually critically situated somewhere in the magical realist tradition; but unless we ascribe this pigeonholing to a reflex on the part of anglophone critics confronted with something Latin and quirky, the categorisation is worth examining. What happens in these stories? “The Chair” recounts politician Antonio Salazar’s fall from a collapsing deckchair—which precipitates a brain haemorrhage and the end of his autocratic premiership—from the perspective of the titular collapsing seat. “The Centaur” is an elegy for the final days of Chiron. “Reflux” is an almost parodically Borgesian parable about a mythical king’s attempts to evade death by constructing an enormous central cemetery in which all his subjects must be buried. In each story, Saramago’s patented digressive and inquisitive style is on full display:
First of all, since everything must have a beginning, even if that beginning is the final point from which it cannot be separated, and to say cannot is not to say wishes not, or must not, it is simply impossible, for if such a separation were feasible, we all know that the entire universe would collapse, inasmuch as the the universe is a fragile construction incapable of withstanding permanent solutions—first of all, the four routes were opened up.
Whether you find this onrushing stream of tangential and infrequently punctuated prose invigorating or maddening will, in all likelihood, determine whether or not you get on with Saramago in toto. There are certainly some inclinations that would associate him with the more whimsical end of the magical realist spectrum. The inquisitive narrative voice unable to stand still for a second; the political parable that’s just allusive enough to evade critical contact with real-life struggles; the airy deployment of the “magical” that muffles the prose’s emotional heft. However, we’re not quite in the twee territory of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. There is a lot more going on in Saramago’s prose, attitudes that would restore the menace to “magical” and the grit to “realism”, and align his work with other, more slippery traditions of 20th-century European dreamtime.
It’s worth dwelling here on Saramago’s relationship with Fernando Pessoa, or more accurately, Ricardo Reis. Pessoa, who died in relative obscurity in his beloved Lisbon in 1935, can lay claim to being one of the greatest writers of the 20th century and amongst the greatest Portuguese writers of all time. Reis was one of the constellation of pseudonyms under which Pessoa wrote poetry and prose. Saramago’s 1986 novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis imagines, with typical sleight of hand, a world in which the heteronymous poet outlives his creator, drifting around Lisbon and reading equally fictitious novels drawn from Borges’s Ficciones. It’s a neat conceit, but Saramago is doing more than paying his dues to antecendents here; both writers are drawing from the same well. Pessoa’s utterly unarmoured, languid, and ruminative prose is profound but also makes for uneasy reading, as though one has stumbled across a stranger’s diary. Moreover, as the title of The Book of Disquiet indicates, the listless drift of Pessoa’s writing thinly veils an awkward sense that something isn’t quite right—that sleepy early evening Lisbon cloaks something unearthly that even the writer can’t entirely grasp.
The best of Saramago’s writing captures a similar dreamlike eeriness. His digressions, however tangential they may seem, always have a sting in the tail. If he does occasionally occupy a cosy space of magical realist whimsy in The Lives of Things, it’s only in order to stage hit-and-run raids into darker, weirder areas. “The Centaur”, for example, lingers because its central idea—that the last of the centaurs has lived on into our own era—is such a great one: that of a spectre haunting pre-Christian Europe returning to spook contemporary society.
However, the best story in The Lives of Things is “Embargo” (also turned into a film in 2010 by Antonio Ferreira). Here, against the backdrop of winter fuel shortages, the unnamed protagonist is slowly but inexorably trapped inside, and physically bound to, his car. The car, of its own accord, eventually drives the protagonist to his death. There are obvious echoes here of J.G. Ballard, not only in the automotive subject matter, but also in the eerie setting, the abandoned streets, and barely articulated sense of a late capitalist state on the brink of precipitous collapse (which, for spells of Saramago’s life, Portugal was). Even more than Ballard, however, “Embargo” calls to mind Anna Kavan, particularly her short stories “The Mercedes” and “High in the Mountains”, both of which deal with a frantic and fecund dreamlike embroiling of man and machine. There is, of course, a political allegory at work in “Embargo”, but it’s always lurking in the background.
Saramago’s best work hits home all the harder when his imaginative constructions tap into the genuinely uncanny, the way the most elliptical dreams recur with the greatest vividness in the daytime. The stories collected in The Lives of Things don’t demand a Freudian reading to hammer home their weird significance. As an introduction to Saramago’s unsettling perspective on contemporary Western society, the book’s return to print is timely and welcome.
Andrew Fleming  is reading for an DPhil in History at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.