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Metro (uk edition), 2010


José Luís Peixoto: Family epic is born of tradition

Wednesday 10 Nov 2010 4:32 pm


Prize-winning Portuguese author José Luís Peixoto talks to Metro about how death and mourning inform his acclaimed work.


There can’t be many novelists who’ve earned the praise and encouragement of the Nobel laureate José Saramago and also pursue a sideline in heavy metal.

‘Is the heavy metal scene particularly strong in Portugal?’ I can’t help but ask prize-winning 36-year-old author José Luís Peixoto, who counts lyrics for Lisbon doom-metal band Moonspell among his many illustrious writing credits.

‘Actually, you’d be surprised,’ he says. ‘Moonspell are pretty well known internationally. I write lyrics for fado [traditional Portuguese songs of mourning], too. I find song lyrics, the circular way they repeat and echo each other, and the fact that the form is so old, pretty useful for writing fiction.’

Alas, perhaps, heavy metal doesn’t exert a particularly audible influence on Peixoto’s new book, The Piano Cemetery, a rolling, elegiac and undoubtedly musical novel, set among three generations of the same family, which culminates in the death of Francisco Lázaro, the Portuguese marathon runner who was the first athlete to die in an Olympic event after collapsing in Stockholm in 1912.

His death, which occurred because he’d coated his body in wax to prevent sunburn, has long been a fascination for Peixoto, partly because Peixoto himself was once a runner and partly because, like Peixoto’s father, Lázaro was a carpenter. ‘I was always aware of long-distance running as a metaphor for so many things in life,’ says Peixoto, who currently lives in Lisbon. ‘But I was also drawn to the fact that he was called Lazarus. It’s an amazing coincidence.’

Birth, death, renewal: all three themes are given a quasi-ritualistic significance in the work of Peixoto, arguably the most promising Portuguese novelist to have emerged in the past decade – he won the José Saramago prize when he was 26, and cites the late, great writer as an enormous influence. His previous novel, Blank Gaze, was a collection of linked fables about a rural Portuguese village, whose inhabitants included a libidinous giant, a pair of Siamese twins and the devil, all centred around a father and son, both called José.

A father and son are at the centre of The Piano Cemetery, too – one dead, the other alive – and both take turns to narrate a story about a family suffused with infidelities and domestic abuse (a major problem in Portugal; Peixoto points out one woman a week dies as a result of it) and whose secrets are spooned out carefully and unexpectedly in a hypnotic series of mazy, elliptical paragraphs.

‘Fathers and sons are very important to me,’ Peixoto agrees. ‘Filial relationships are hugely significant in a cultural sense – from most major religions to Freud. They make you ask what sort of things you inherit and what kind of person you are.’

What about his own father? ‘My father died when I was 19 and a year later I became a father myself. In fact, the first pages of The Piano Cemetery describe exactly what happened the day my father died: we were waiting for news of his death but my sister was also due to give birth and so we were waiting for news of life, too. My niece arrived an hour before my father died.’

Peixoto grew up in precisely the same sort of rural village depicted in Blank Gaze. ‘It wasn’t exactly where you’d expect rock music to reach,’ he grins. He describes himself as a ‘son of the revolution’, as he was born in 1974, the year the Carnation Revolution ended the authoritarian Estado Novo regime. ‘It was a year of major change: Portugal started to open itself to Europe and the world, and with that came all sorts of influences that changed us,’ he says.

And yet Peixoto’s fiction, with its lyrical patterning and rhythmic prose, harks back to a Portugal that seems to exist out of time – Blank Gaze is steeped in folklore, while The Piano Cemetery seems to look at its characters through a dream. Both are heavily shaped by grief and mourning.

‘Death and mourning are big parts of Portuguese culture,’ says Peixoto. ‘A great sense of loss comes with a history like ours: having once been a country that was so internationally powerful about five centuries ago and the powerlessness of knowing we’ll never regain that glory.’

On a more personal level, Peixoto is philosophical. ‘I believe reflecting on death is part of reflecting on life,’ he says. ‘People should be prepared for it. They shouldn’t be afraid.’


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