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The Lives of Thingsby Jose Saramago
Originally published in Portuguese in 1978 (as Objecto Quase), The Lives of Things collects six short stories that are amongst the earliest of José Saramago's writings to have yet been translated into English. Released the year after Manual of Painting and Calligraphy (long out of print in English, but recently republished) and some four years before his epic Baltasar and Blimunda, The Lives of Things finds the Portuguese Nobel laureate experimenting with and developing the style that would later come to define his career. Saramago seldom wrote in the short story format, so in addition to glimpsing some of his earlier writing, this volume also makes for a curious entry in a body of work made up of predominantly full-length novels.
As with much of his fiction, the half dozen tales in The Lives of Things are richly imagined allegories, a few of which are informed by Saramago's characteristic political sensibilities. The collection's first story, "The Chair," is a thinly veiled reference to longtime Portuguese prime minister António de Oliveira Salazar (whose repressive and authoritarian regime informed much of Saramago's work), and the resulting brain hemorrhage he suffered after falling from a chair. "Embargo" (the inspiration for a 2010 Portuguese film of the same name) is a clever story about a man unable to depart from his automobile, despite his best intentions and futile attempts. "Things," the book's longest story, blends elements often associated with both Kafka and Orwell into a surreal tale of governmental fearmongering and excess. "Reflux" is a satire similar to Jacques Jouet's Mountain R (though predating it by a quarter century) in which the government undertakes an ambitious project notably lacking in sensibility. "The Centaur," earlier anthologized in Telling Tales (a 2004 collection edited by fellow Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer to raise funds for international HIV/AIDS research, education, and treatments), imagines the extinction of the mythical centaur, as the last of its kind is pursued and hunted down.
While The Lives of Things does not carry within it the import or brilliance of Saramago's later and more accomplished works, it does afford readers a unique look into his development as a writer. Already evident in these stories are Saramago's unrestrained imagination and expressive charm, as well as an incipient style that would distinguish his fiction and attract accolades aplenty. The Lives of Things leaves one wondering whether Saramago, always the engaging storyteller, could have excelled as greatly in the short story format as he did with their lengthier brethren had he invested himself as deeply in the medium. As an author whose output included journalism, poetry, drama, travel writing, essays, and diaries, the answer is a seemingly affirmative one, since Saramago, perhaps above all, tirelessly sought to capture and consider the many (often conflicting) aspects of what being human is all about.
*Rendered from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero, Saramago's longtime English translator until his death in 1996.
Synopses & Reviews
Combining bitter satire, outrageous parody and uncanny hallucinations, this collection of José Saramago’s earliest stories from the beginning of his writing career attests to the novelist’s imaginative power and incomparable skill in elaborating the most extravagant fantasies. Each tale is a wicked, surreal take on life under dictatorship: in ‘Embargo’ a man drives around a city that is slowly running out of petrol; ‘The Chair’ recounts what happens when dictator Salazar falls off his chair and dies; in the Kafkaesque ‘Things’ the life of a civil servant is threatened as objects start to go missing.
A surreal short story collection from the master of what-ifs
Combining bitter satire, outrageous parody and Kafkaesque hallucinations, Saramago’s collection of stories from the beginning of his writing career attest to the novelist’s imaginative power and incomparable skill in elaborating the most extravagant fantasies.
About the Author
The Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago was a novelist, playwright and journalist. His numerous books, including the bestselling All the Names, Blindness, and The Cave, have been translated into more than forty languages and have established him as one of the world's most influential writers. He died in June 2010.Giovanni Pontiero (1932–1996) was the ablest translator of twentieth century literature in Portuguese and one of its most ardent advocates. He was the principal translator into English of the works of José Saramago and was awarded the Teixeira-Gomes Prize for his translation of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ.
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