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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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