cover image The Lives of Things

The Lives of Things

Jos%C3%A9 Saramago, trans. from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero. Verso, $23.95 (160p) ISBN 978-1-84467-878-5

This collection (first published in 1978) from the late Portuguese Nobel Prize for Literature-winner Saramago (The Cave) presents some of the author's early work. Here, the literary lion experiments with shorter, more inventive forms, and the results are lucid and impressive, if occasionally uneven. Political allegory and its frequent bedfellows (the absurd and the Kafkaesque) are easily discernible here%E2%80%94in the excellent and unsettling "Things," we follow an anxiety-ridden civil servant living in a dystopian state in which objects begin behaving ominously. The story, wonderfully reminiscent of Gogol's "The Nose," opens with a nurse who must administer to a settee that has been overheating%E2%80%94"He prepare[s] the syringe, suck[s] in the contents of a large ampoule and briskly [sticks] the needle into the settee." In "Embargo," a shortage of petrol and the attendant "panic, the hours of waiting, [and] the endless queues of cars" causes a man's vehicle to ruthlessly immobilize him, like Gregor Samsa in the dawn of his metamorphoses vainly attempting to roll over. Though not every story is successful%E2%80%94"The Chair"'s exhausting fragmentation and heavy-handed politics may test some readers' patience%E2%80%94Saramago's considerable talent is clearly manifest. (Apr. 25)