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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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