José Luís Peixoto: Nenhum Olhar (UK: Blank Gaze; US: The Implacable Order of Things)
Peixoto has been hailed as the new Saramago. He isn’t. What Saramago does and does very well is to take some illogical proposition – the Iberian peninsula detaching itself from the European mainland and drifting off or everyone going blind – and treat this as an entirely logical proposition. Peixoto, however, introduces fantastical elements into a standard realist framework, something like magic realism, only more so. In this book, for example, set in a poor Portuguese village, we start off with the devil who is both a normal character and the devil, and we then have houses and fields that talk, a trunk with a voice coming from it, two Siamese twins who are joined merely by the little finger but remain conjoined for all their seventy years of life and a cook who gives birth at age seventy. The trouble with this approach is that it tends to border on the whimsical – North Americans would say cute. Cute/whimsical is fine for lolcats and The Hobbit but only really works in more serious literature when it is outrageously camp, ironic (particularly in a postmodern ironic manner) or when it is really dark. Peixoto comes close to being whimsical but – just – avoids it as death, often fairly unpleasant death, is generally round the corner. By the end of the book, whimsical is gone and gloom and doom prevail, with the last words being the title, i.e. blank gaze in English but no gaze in Portuguese.
But we do start with the devil in a small bar in the village. He is smooth, well-dressed and sharp. José, the shepherd, enters the bar and the devil plies him with drink. Then the devil commits his mischief. José worked for the rich Dr Mateus. His wife was the daughter of a widower who died when the daughter was sixteen. After her death, the giant came and abused and raped her consistently. Finally, she became pregnant and had an abortion, which did not go down well in the village and led to people calling her whore or abortion. But when José saw her, he fell in love with her, wooed her and married her soon after. (Interestingly enough, there seems to be little communication between the two, either before or after the marriage. Also worth noting is that José’s wife, like most of the women in the book, is never given a name, except José’s wife.) The wedding was officiated by the devil. So when José goes to the bar, the devil taunts him with the giant and says that his wife is still sleeping with the giant. José tells the devil that if he sees the giant to warn the giant. On his way home, José meets the giant and the giant beats José unconscious. This will happen again after further taunting, despite a warning from wise old Gabriel (very old – by the end of the book he is one hundred and fifty years old) not to go into town. José realises his wife is innocent in this matter but wonders whether their son is his and still cannot accept what has happened and is still happening.
At the wedding, there are only four witnesses. There are two women – a mad woman who happened to be walking by and the cook. The cook refuses to act as a witness for José’s wife-to-be as she considers her a whore. The other two witnesses are the Siamese twins, Elias and Moisés. As said, they were joined only by the little finger. When it was suggested that they be separated, as babies, their father asked which one would get the finger. On being told that the plan was that neither would get it, he rejected it, leaving them joined for the rest of their lives. Both have remained single, naturally, till, at José’s wedding, Moisés saw and fell in love with the cook and she reciprocated. They soon marry and all three move into her house, allowing the twins to rent out their house, giving them some money for the increasingly exotic foods the cook prepares, often in exotic shapes, starting with a vagina and ending with a scale model of the village. She also gets pregnant and has a baby, weighing ten kilos.
There is a second part to the book, where we follow José’s son, also a victim of the devil’s mischief, and the daughter of Moisés and the cook (who is still alive) and where we learn much more of the poverty in the village and the general suffering, which makes this book less whimsical and more serious. In this section, Peixoto switches to the first person, which is mildly annoying, as each character is speaking in the first person and it is not always immediately clear who is speaking. But, as mentioned above, this part is much darker than the first, as grief and misery prevail. Does it work? For me, not really. I can see that he is trying to show the misery of the village, using a non-realistic technique, but somehow the whole thing does not gel.
First published 2000 by Temas e Debates
First English translation 2008 by Bloomsbury