The Lives of Things – Jose Saramago

He never dreamed like other men. Nor did he ever dream as a horse might dream. During their hours of wakefulness, there were few moments of peace or simple conciliation. But the horse’s dream, along with that of the man, constituted the centaur’s dream.

I’m coming to the end, hoping that there is an mountain of unpublished or untranslated material yet to be unearthed. Saramago is sadly no more and so I always put his works to the bottom of my pile of books to read, the reward at the end, putting off the moment when I will have nothing fresh to read.
The Lives of Things is a collection of six short stories, that while not strictly in the style of Saramago in his later years (There are a good number of full stops to start with), still contain that unmistakable view of the world and the inquisitive expansive imagination, that is quintessentially his.

It is perhaps testament to Saramago’s sardonic eye that in the first of the collection, an observation into how such a simple act can reverberate across an entire nation is in fact a detailed description of someone falling off a chair, including a focused biology lesson on exactly what caused the expiration of the chairs occupant. For all the meaning of the first story I have to honestly say it didn’t captivate me as he so often does.

Embargo for me veers into the realm of blindness, that seems right, but after writing it I’m at a loss to explain why. During a petrol embargo a man’s car takes on a life of it’s own, dragging him from petrol station to petrol station. Reflux is a biting look at what can happen when someone with power puts a whim into action, and the folly that results, which for me recalled Death at Intervals.

Things was a uneasy read, that in some respects most closely resembled normal life, yet in retrospect was something between horror and science fiction. I had to re-read the ending three times before I though I understood it, then that made me think about it even more.

For me, the highlight of the collection was the Centaur. I love the Greek myths and for Saramago to evoke so poignantly the journey of the last of the horsemen was a particularly enjoyable treat at the end of the collection. Excepting The Revenge, an incredibly short yet somehow dark few pages that end the collection as if an example of the shadowy things that happen as night falls.

So all I have left is The Cave, I am going to read it, just for my fix. I’m toying vaguely, and very vaguely with the idea of buying one of his novels in Portuguese and translating it, just to keep him alive, we shall see, if not then I shall re-read my collection of his novels, so in my head Saramago will live still.

The boy went back inside. He fllled a mug and drank, allowing the water to trickle down the corners of his mouth, then down his neck on to the hairs on his chest which seemed darker. As he drank, he stared outside at those two red stains on the straw. Then he stepped wearily out of the house, crossed the olive-grove once more beneath the scorching sun.


Mornings in Mexico – D.H. Lawrence

He mocks at you and gibes at you and imitates you. Sometimes he is even more like you than you are yourself. It’s funny, and you laugh just a bit on the wrong side of your face. It’s the other dimension.

A collection of essays, mostly from 1924, Mornings in Mexico is D.H. Lawrence’s keen observations of the Zapotec Indians in Mexico, and the native Indians of the American Southwest. Lawrence does well to get inside the head of the Zapotec Indians, although my impression from his text was that he was intrigued by their beliefs and ways while at the same time mocking them, or perhaps it is just the whimsical prose of his essays. He prefers the continual regeneration of everything from nothing in an endless cycle over long term evolution, but perhaps because it appears more quaint and is so utterly different to what he was brought up with.

I preferred the Mexican essays over the American Indian ones, purely out of personal interest over anything else. Lawrence takes a very wry look at the dog in Corasmin and the Parrots, while the walk to Huayapa is a Sunday distraction. The last one is a very clever look at Market day, sharply observed, not just on the surface, but also the role it plays within the life of the town and it’s surrounding area.

Moving to the native American Indians, Lawrence gives lengthly accounts of some of their sacred dances, again seemingly somewhere between painstaking detail and gently patronising.

While Lawrence piercingly observes the Indians, from the features to the smallest of actions I found the short, sharp sentences caused me to stutter through the essays, which diverge from cosmic beliefs and the Indian’s view of their place in the world, to a walk to the next town for something to do. After a while I got used to the style, but couldn’t say I took to it, I am intrigued to try something else by Lawrence to see if I could spend longer than a morning with him.

But the morning is perfect; in a moment we are clear out of the town. Most towns in Mexico, saving the capital, end in themselves, at once. As if  they had been lowered from heaven in a napkin, and deposited, rather foreign, upon the wild plain.

The Violent Land – Jorge Amado

The forest lay sleeping its never interrupted sleep. Over it passed the days and the nights. The summer sun shone above it, the winter rains fell upon it. Its trees were centuries old, an unending green overrunning the mountain, invading the plain, lost in the infinite. It was like a sea that had never been explored, locked in its own mystery. It was like a virgin, it was lovely, radiant, young, despite those century-old trunks.

At the height of the Cacao boom in Brazil, two families battle for the pristine jungle of Sequeiro Grande, the rough, striving Colonel Horacio and the calm, steeled Sinho Badaro. Both surrounded by lackeys, hired assassins, lawyers, reporters and their families, they square off before being drawn inexorably towards each other over the last piece of their cacao empire.

A lyrical yet visceral look at human life on the frontier, as the colonels drive deeper into the virgin territory, replacing the ancient tangle of the jungle with the ordered rows of cacao trees. Where no man’s life is too expensive, and all too often is sold cheaply, especially as the booming industry pulls in the low and the desperate from miles around in search of their own little grove, but who end up indentured to those who have carved out the land before. The colonels themselves struggle to tame the land, progressing through their determination to bend the life of the jungle to their will. Horacio, oblivious to his wife’s listlessness at being transported from high society to the backwaters, a listlessness that dwindles slightly when the intellectual Virgilio arrives to help her husband out. Meanwhile Sinho is the calm at the centre of the Badaro storm, his hot headed brother Juca happy to kill anyone who stands in their way, while his daughter Don’ Ana, proves herself as tough as any man.
While both families make a show on pushing through the correct legal channels, Sinho and Horacio face each other down, pulling every trick they can to outwit the other and lay their hands on the jungle. Those that come thinking to get a piece of the cacao gold rush realise the harsh brutality, and even those who think of swooping in to make a quick fortune and escape, realise that their boots sink deeper than they planned.

It was Cacao that ran through Amado’s veins, and I can imagine this book pouring from him like a torrent in his beautiful, evocative prose. He ranks up with Saramago as one of my favourite authors, perhaps it is something about the Portuguese language, or more likely, the deft hand of the translator, here Samuel Putnam. While I didn’t travel to Ilheos while I was in Brazil, I did go to Bahia, and reading Amado never fails to send me back to the north east, even conjuring images of places I never been, down to the smells and sights on the street, an enveloping pleasure that whispers to me seductively, urging me to go, long after the book has finished.

His anguish increasing, he threw on his clothes as quickly as possible. He must let the rain fall upon him, upon his burning head, he must bathe his hands, foul with blood, his hands and his blood-stained heart. He forgot to exercise his customary caution as he went out through the garden and onto the railway tracks. Removing his hat, he let the rain trickle down his face, as though these were the tears he himself was unable to shed.