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José Luís Peixoto: Cemitério de Pianos (The Piano Cemetery)

Peixoto’s second novel to be translated into English is very different from the first, not least because we know what is going to happening to the two main characters very early on. The unnamed narrator tells us, in the first sentence of the book, that he is going to die and he soon does. However, that does not stop him from continuing his narration. Dead narrators are often a bit awkward. There are two famous example in cinema – American Beauty and Sunset Boulevard – and they seem to work but, in books, excluding tales narrated by the undead, such as ghosts, zombies and vampires, and schmaltzy tales like Lovely Bones, there are not many books that use this technique. Orhan Pamuk uses it (a bit) in My Name is Red and Flann O’Brien uses it in The Third Policeman. Navdeep Singh Dhillon has a few more examples. But it remains an awkward and not well used technique. It is not helped in this book by the dead narrator popping up as a ghost near the end, meeting his three-year old granddaughter (who was born after his death) and having her speak to him (as he points out more than once) like an adult, berating him for his behaviour. The second narrator is his son, Francisco Lázaro. Peixoto tells us, in the foreword, that the character of Francisco Lázaro is only loosely based on the historical Francisco Lázaro but also tells us that the historical Francisco Lázaro ran in the marathon for Portugal in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm and collapsed and died at the thirty kilometre mark. Thus we have one dead and one doomed narrator.

There are three main themes to this novel. The first, of course, is the piano cemetery. The narrator’s father had been a carpenter but had died on the day of the narrator’s birth (we later learn that he too died in a marathon). His mother told him he was always intended to be a carpenter but, meanwhile, his uncle rented the carpenter’s shop. However, he was not a very good carpenter and the narrator was a better one than him by the time he was fourteen. Moreover, the uncle spent more time in the tavern than in the carpenter’s shop. One day, while working with his uncle, an Italian arrived and said he had been told that this was the place to get pianos mended. The narrator knew nothing about it but the uncle took it in. This event had two major influences on the narrator. He learns that the locked room at the back of the carpenter’s shop, blocked by piles of wood, contains a large number of pianos in various states of disrepair. He also learns that his father and grandfather were primarily piano repairers but had only taken up carpentry as there was not enough piano repairing work. The narrator enthusiastically embraces this new aspect of his profession. The piano cemetery becomes a special room. It is where he (as a ghost) meets his granddaughter, where his daughter Maria hides away with her romance novels and where other family events take place.

The narrator is the one who goes to the Italian’s digs to tell him that the piano is repaired and later goes to collect the payment (the Italian has absconded). But he does meet a beautiful girl, apparently the daughter of the landlady (we later learn that she is, in fact, the god-daughter of the landlady) and he soon starts courting her. As the story is told both from the present (i.e. around the period of his death) as well as in the past, we have already met his wife and are wondering if this beautiful girl is the harassed wife. Of course, it is. And that brings us to the second theme. Both the narrator’s wife and two of his daughters, Maria and Marta, suffer from abusive and heartless husbands. Naturally, we do not learn much about the narrator’s behaviour from his own narration but we do from Francisco’s narration and his granddaughter does criticise him for his behaviour towards his wife, her grandmother.

Francisco’s narration is given while he is running the marathon which he will not complete. We learn of his past but also follow his recent life (his wife is pregnant). In particular, we learn that the narrator was not a particularly good husband or father. Francisco tells the story of his older brother Simâo. One day Simâo came home to find his brother playing with a piece of wire. He tries to pull it off him but Francisco resists. The wire springs out and hits Simâo in the eye, destroying his eye. As a result, for some reason, the father turns against Simâo. He had been working as an apprentice with him but this is cancelled (Francisco will take his place) and becomes a stonemason’s apprentice. With his father picking on him the whole time, he eventually leaves the family home and has little contact with them. Francisco turns to marathon running as an escape.

It is not a bad tale but Peixoto gives us an abundance of post-modern techniques which can be annoying. For example, in Francisco’s narration, we get a bit of the past and then, stopping in mid-sentence, he moves on to the present and again stops in mid-sentence he moves back. This makes for disjointed reading and while it is clearly intended to show how Francisco feels during his run, it ends up just being difficult to follow. While the children are named, neither the narrator or his wife are, and sometimes it is not clear who is referred to, particularly as he has a habit of jumping backwards and forwards in time, without explanation. As I said as regards Nenhum Olhar (UK: Blank Gaze; US: The Implacable Order of Things), he has been likened to Saramago but he is not of the same stature or ability.

Publishing history

First published 2006 by Bertrand Editora
First English translation 2010 by Bloomsbury