The Lives of Things By José Saramago Verso, £12.99Published for the first time in English, this collection of stories by the late Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago (1922-2010) brings together his early experiments in the short-story form.
The Lives of Things, translated by Giovanni Pontiero, combines political allegory, fantasy and biting satire to explore the brutal repression of the Portuguese people under the Salazar regime and to highlight the horrors of institutionalised tyranny.
Many of the stories centre on the propulsion of paranoia and fear by using the nightmarish animation of everyday objects. In The Chair Saramago describes, with forensic exactitude, the chair that collapsed under Salazar, causing him to die from a brain haemorrhage and so precipitating the end of his regime. Embargo focuses on the profound consequences of the survival of the system at the expense of the individual, as a car takes over the life of its driver. In Things a terrified civil servant watches as his city disappears piece by piece: first the door of his apartment, then its walls and finally whole streets.
Other stories are less Kafkaesque, more mystical and lyrical. In The Centaur the rational and the instinctive worlds are woven together in one beautiful creature, the extinction of which is painfully mourned. Revenge illuminates the awakening of adolescent sexuality, at one and the same time tender and disquieting, and Reflux is a fantasy in symmetry, as a king meticulously plans how to cleanse his kingdom of death.
For the uninitiated – which I was – Saramago’s stories are not, at first, a comfortable read. He offers language as a kind of architectural maze, expanding and reducing metaphors with a rigorous precision, tagging one tangent on after another and ultimately questioning the constructs of language. In his Nobel lecture he describes his writing process as “digging down, underneath, towards the roots”. But it is this very digging – Saramago’s insistent pursuit – that unearths in his narratives not only images of bitter-sweet beauty but also a wickedly mischievous sense of humour.
The stories in The Lives of Things are parables in human compassion and civic responsibility, celebrating the triumph of the human spirit. We are richer for them.
I Am an Executioner: Love Stories
By Rajesh Parameswaran
A Bengal tiger attacks its keeper and escapes to go on a killing spree. A woman cooks dinner, ignoring her husband’s corpse on the living-room floor. At a tourist resort on a planet in the Andromeda galaxy, a detective doggedly investigates a suspicious death, despite the fact that he’s having trouble with his rebellious teenage daughter.
In this debut short-story collection love comes in many flavours, all of them bitter. Fleeting moments of tenderness explode, more often than not, into catastrophe.
Parameswaran is a fearless writer, happy to experiment with unreliable narrators and even more unreliable narratives. The author of Elephants in Captivity (Part One) is an elephant; the human “translator” adds so many footnotes, however, that on several pages the narrative disappears altogether. Here are lustful executioners, pompous civil servants, insecure film-makers.
Born in India but resident in the US since childhood, Parameswaran takes the stereotropes of Indian culture and makes of them, in these nine exuberant pieces, what a jazz master makes of a simple melody. Small wonder that The Strange Career of Doctor Raju Gopalarajan, in which an unemployed salesman sets himself up as a general practitioner (“women’s difficulties and all other matters,” says the sign taped to his window), was one of three stories for which McSweeney’s magazine won the National Magazine Award for Fiction.
The word “dazzling” is more often used than deserved in criticism, but this is truly a dazzling – not to mention riotously funny and savagely memorable – book.
By Josh Ritter
New Island Books, €13.99
West Virginia farm boy Henry Bright survives his stint in the first World War but returns home with a voice in his head. It is the same voice, he realises, that saved him from certain death during the closing months of the war, and so, over time, Bright comes to regard it as his guardian angel.
This angel’s advice, however, is as unreliable as it is imperative, and so, in quick succession, Bright marries his first cousin Rachel, has several run-ins with her unstable father (himself a veteran of conflict) and deadbeat brothers, buries his wife, and aims to raise his son. Through all of Bright’s travails – most of which he shoulders with resignation – his angel is there, equal parts help and hindrance.
Bright’s Passage is this singer-songwriter’s debut novel, published in his native US last summer. It arrives in Ireland already garlanded with praise, yet there’s something missing in the book that is to be found in Ritter’s songwriting, and that something is a sense of ease.
Ritter is justifiably lauded for his ability to create narrative songs that thrum with life, but operating outside of this familiar area he all too often snags himself, and the book, by giving it a wordiness that his songs don’t have (and don’t need). Lack of structure, also, is a problem – some parts of the story barely hang by a thread – as is the uncomfortable but unavoidable feeling that not even Ritter believes in the more supernatural aspects of his writing.
The book is energised, however, by the author’s use of simile (trees in a windstorm “bow to one another like ballroom dancers”) and the occasional briskness of the dialogue.
It’s debatable whether this book would have been published if Ritter hadn’t had some leverage from his career as a musician. As debut novels go, it’s less than halfway there, so not good enough to recommend wholeheartedly.