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The Observer (The Guardian), 2nd November 2008

15.05.14

Portuguese Parables

 

By Mary Fitzgerald

 

This novel is a collection of loosely linked stories set in an unnamed Portuguese village populated by, among others, the Devil; a malicious giant; a set of Siamese twins joined at the tips of their little fingers; and José the shepherd who, after a run-in with the Devil, is fated to a life of unrelenting pain. Their lives are blighted by poverty and hardship but while their stories are often brutal there are unforgettable moments of tenderness - José's love for his infant son, the marriage of the cook to one of the Siamese twins, and the (relative) domestic bliss into which the three of them settle. Peixoto's writing possesses a rare, rhythmic beauty revisiting notions that might, in the hands of a lesser writer, seem clichéd but here acquire a haunting resonance.

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The National (United Arab Emirates), 14th November 2008

15.05.14

Blank Gaze

 

By Hephzibah Anderson.

 

The backdrop to this affecting novel is an unnamed village in Alentejo, Portugal’s scorching, dirt-poor south. I can tell you this mainly because it says so on the accompanying press release. Paradoxically, though the book itself conveys an evocative sense of place, that place might be almost any impoverished, sun-baked village the world over.

Artfully translated by Richard Zenith, the location is specified mostly by the characters’ names – José, Rafael, old Gabriel. Yet in every other detail, the village and the hardscrabble dramas that unfold within its public and private spaces are universal and timeless. Many characters, the women especially, go unnamed. All love and hate, strive and suffer. Babies are born and the dead are mourned. Apprentices must be trained, livestock tended and vegetable patches watered. And, as in any village, there is gossip. José the shepherd learns this the hard way when he weds the woman who cleans the deserted rich people’s house just outside the village.

 

From that moment on, she becomes known as José’s wife, but her other name is not forgotten. A motherless teenager, she watched her beloved father die a painful death, the legacy of a lifetime spent stood over a brick kiln. All alone, she fell prey to a man known as “the giant”, and eventually had to have an abortion. So when neighbours ask after José’s wife, he hears the name they still silently use – “whore” – and is tortured by the images it conjures up.

 

Among those who remember José’s wife as a cheery small girl are the Siamese twins Moisés and Elias. Joined at the tip of their little finger, they share the same wrinkles and have an identical number of white hairs on their heads. When Moisés falls in love with “the cook”, they both move in with her. 

The second part of the novel tracks the lot of these characters’ offspring. Will they fare any better than their parents, or will the tug of dynastic fate prove irresistible? Throughout, the narrative flits between the third and first person, observing each character from without before showing us the world through his or her eyes.

 

The story’s universality is underscored by its more fantastical touches. In addition to the giant, there is the local cleric who is dubbed “the devil”, and who knows exactly how to needle his flock. An old man lives to be 150, a woman gives birth in her 70s, and an orphaned child survives solely on baby fat for three years. 

Meanwhile, up in the rich people’s house, a chest in the hallway contains a disembodied voice whose gnomic utterances provide a recurring image: what if the earth was inverted, so that the sky was really “a huge sea of fresh water and we, instead of walking under it, walk on top of it; perhaps we see everything upside down.”

 

Peixoto is a recipient of the José Saramago Prize, named after Portugal’s Nobel laureate. The influence of the elder José’s work echoes throughout Blank Gaze, particularly in its blend of realism and fantasy. Yet the novel also keys in to English-language literary trends. Its more whimsical aspects, for instance, chime with the work of Jonathan Safran Foer. 

One character who remains shadowy is “the man who writes in a room without windows”. Though he is never glimpsed, the sound of his pages being crumpled can sometimes be heard when babies forget to cry and mothers pause to gather their strength. He adds a note of mischief to a magical, majestic portrait of individuals who see the beauty of life even when its harshness makes it feel like their adversary.

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San Francisco Chronicle, 22nd August 2008

15.05.14

Peixoto transcend translation

 

By Tatyana Gershkovich.

 

Translation gets a bad rap. At one point or another, every reader has soured on a book in translation after some pompous polyglot declares, "Ah, but you should read the original!" No doubt, much can be lost. But a book's journey around the world also offers an occasion to re-examine and refine its most remarkable attributes, attributes that might have been obscured by an initial choice of words, or - in the case of José Luís Peixoto's splendidly demanding novel - a title.

 

Published originally in Portuguese as "Blank Gaze" (2001), the book is set in an unnamed town in the arid, sun-bleached Alentejo region of Portugal. It's an austere name for an austere place. Peixoto - in Richard Zenith's translation - weaves together stories of the town's inhabitants, some told from their own perspectives and others related by an unknown and detached observer. A shepherd learns of his wife's infidelity and confronts her lover. Conjoined twin brothers marry the town cook and lose each other. A deformed child is born to a blind prostitute and a crippled carpenter, confronting them with the grotesque consequences of their love. The brutality of nature permeates each tale. "The sun shows us our own desperateness," says Old Gabriel, the town's 120-year-old wise man. "For those with understanding, this sun is the hand that caresses us and crushes us."

 

Dialogue is nearly absent from the novel. Peixoto's characters speak in streams of consciousness and only to themselves. They have a deeply rooted distrust of language, perhaps because they can neither read nor write. But what a marvelous chance for the author to display his own linguistic virtuosity! The images Peixoto evokes in helping his characters communicate without words are singular and unforgettable. The cook tells her husband, Moisés, that she's sick of eating the same old thing by preparing "a platter with shapely, wide-open potato legs and an open, steaming vagina made of collard greens which, by a trick of her culinary art, slowly contracted ... until it became a collard-green vagina that was irrevocably closed and dried up."

 

The cook adheres faithfully to the principle "Show, don't tell," but elsewhere, Peixoto occasionally falters. The author is too blunt in conveying his notion that a look succeeds where language fails. The shepherd José realizes he has always been a stranger to his wife, but he is granted one moment of communion with her when they exchange glances: "Wife, I don't know what we were, but I know this day that you are mine. ... Your gaze and your silence are my own." The eye as window to the soul is a well-worn notion, one made less bearable by the allusion to it in the original title. "Blank Gaze" reveals a blemish instead of pointing to the bountiful originality in Peixoto's work.

 

The work will make its American debut under a loftier title: "The Implacable Order of Things." But what the title loses in austerity it gains in purpose, illuminating the novel's deeper theme of co-existence between order and chaos, and revealing the author's immense artistic ambition.

In telling the history of the village, Peixoto examines the forces that govern our lives and creates a hierarchy among them. First, he peels away the least important, the man-made institutions of government and religion. The wealthy landowners who used to oversee the village move away; the villagers forget the names of the saints and lose their religion. The bonds of love and marriage remain a little longer, but they, too, disintegrate after lovers grasp the insurmountable psychic distance between each other.

 

Nature appears to prevail as the governing force, and Peixoto's brilliance and power as an artist are precisely in his desire to mimic nature's ability to create and destroy simultaneously. From the first words of his novel, as the silhouettes of his characters begin to come alive, Peixoto is already in the process of destroying their world. He inverts the landscape - "perhaps we see everything upside down and the earth is a kind of sky" - and then proceeds to let his universe collapse in on itself.

 

This challenging novel is a testament to the artistic ambitious of its author, whose bold experiments with form and arresting imagery have earned the 33-year-old a José Saramago literary award. José Luís Peixoto's work is now available in 12 languages, and it is well worth knowing - even in translation.

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Le Figaro, 2008

15.05.14

LE LIVRE CHAMBOULÉ DES JOURS ET DES HEURES

 

 

Par Astrid de Larminat

 

Voilà un roman qu'on ne peut pas lire les pieds sur terre. Et dans un premier temps, il faut bien l'avouer, cette expérience déstabilisante est presque déplaisante. Si l'on n'avait su que José Luis Peixoto, 34 ans, avait déjà fait la preuve qu'il était un grand écrivain, peut-être aurait-on déclaré forfait au bout de cent pages. On se serait privé d'un rare bonheur, cette sorte d'extase que l'on ressent lorsqu'on touche à une vérité existentielle inaccessible à la raison seule.

 

Rien d'éthéré ni d'abscons pourtant dans ce récit où s'enchaînent des tableaux de famille : des matinées de soleil dans la cuisine, les visages autour de la table, le sourire des enfants, le fameux cimetière de pianos, sorte de « casse » où l'on puise des pièces pour réparer d'autres pianos. Décors immuables : seuls l'apparition d'un réfrigérateur et d'une TSF marque le temps qui passe.

 

Car c'est de cela qu'il s'agit : du temps qui passe et en même temps ne passe pas. Pour rendre sensible ce paradoxe, Peixoto retrace l'histoire d'une famille sur trois générations. Le grand-père, sa femme, leurs petits-enfants, leurs quatre enfants. L'aïeul relate une partie de l'histoire, allant et venant entre futur et passé : il commence par le récit de sa propre mort, poursuit avec des scènes qui se tiennent trois ans plus tard, quand son fils cadet s'apprête à courir le marathon aux Jeux olympiques de Stockholm. Les va-et-vient s'accélèrent : il évoque sa rencontre, solaire, avec la jolie demoiselle qui est devenue sa femme ; puis le mariage de sa fille aînée, la naissance de cette même fille ; le soir où il a frappé sa femme en rentrant de la taverne…

Les passages, d'une page ou deux, se succèdent, mêlant les temps comme ils sont mêlés en chacun de nous, à rebours de toute chronologie. Soulignant aussi, en accolant des scènes que plusieurs années séparent, l'inconstance des êtres, qui s'aiment à la folie un jour, puis se trompent ou se maltraitent, sans cesser pourtant de s'aimer…

 

Deuxième narrateur du roman, son fils - à moins que ce ne soit son père : les deux se ressemblent étrangement. Fransisco Lazaro va tomber mort d'épuisement au 30e kilomètre du marathon. En courant, il se souvient de son enfance, par fragments, hachés comme sa respiration, s'interrompant au milieu d'une phrase, la reprenant plus loin. Il se remémore un après-midi radieux en famille ; le jour où il éborgne son frère en jouant ; le trousseau de sa grande sœur avec sa soupière en faïence, puis le jour où le mari de sa sœur casse la soupière en faïence dans un accès de rage… Il se rappelle surtout sa jeune femme qui attend leur premier enfant, leur rencontre paisible ; et la pianiste qu'il a connue au même moment, un amour brûlant.

 

En marge de cette histoire chahutée, le cimetière des pianos demeure, « à côté du temps » : c'est là que les jeunes amours trouvent refuge ; c'est là qu'une petite fille parle à son grand-père, celui qui raconte ladite histoire…

 

C'est aussi le lieu emblématique de ce qui se joue entre pères et fils : « Je regardais les pianos morts et songeais aux pièces qui ressuscitaient dans d'autres pianos, et je croyais que toute la vie pouvait être reconstruite de cette façon. Mes fils grandissaient et devenaient des garçons comme je l'avais été il y avait si peu de temps. Le temps passait. Et j'étais certain qu'une part de moi comme les pièces des pianos morts continuaient d'agir en eux. » Un roman de chair et de lumière qui lève un coin de voile sur les mystérieux versets du chapitre 17 de l'Évangile de Jean placés en épigraphe.

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Up - Tap Portugal, Novembro 2008

06.04.14

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Os meus livros, Março 2008

06.04.14

 

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Guia da Noite, 2008

18.03.14

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Expresso, 16 fevereiro 2008

18.03.14

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Expresso, 16 fevereiro 2008

18.03.14

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Publico (México), 5 Dezembro 2008

18.03.14

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