The Piano Cemetery

The Piano Cemetery, by José Luís Peixoto, translated by Daniel Hahn, Bloomsbury RRP£16.99, 278 pages

This lyrical family saga has two narrators, each of whom finds himself compelled to “draw the map of his life,/ ... mark the spot/Where the body of his happiness was first discovered”, in the words of Auden’s poem “Detective Story”. One of them is Francisco Lázaro, a Portuguese athlete running the marathon at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, whose every gruelling step is accompanied by stream-of-consciousness recollections of the joys and miseries of his boyhood as a poor carpenter’s son in Lisbon.

His reminiscences alternate with those of his father (first name never revealed), who, we learn in a Sunset Boulevard-style twist in the novel’s opening pages, is telling his story from beyond the grave. In a series of vignettes that jump across the decades and back again, old Lázaro charts his progress from passionate lover to cold bully. Although both father and son are, in different ways, far from home, the place seems to hold a magnetic pull for their thoughts.

Most of the key events in the Lázaros’ lives seem to have had an even more specific locus: the “piano cemetery”, a dusty storeroom in the family workshop full of the shells and innards of dilapidated pianos. It is in here, on an old piano husk, that Francisco is conceived and here that he himself loses his virginity; in here that one of his sisters has a tryst with another sister’s husband, and in here, old Lázaro tells us, that he receives a lecture from his granddaughter Íris about his cruelty and egotism – although since she is two years old at the time we may assume that the old man is not the most reliable of narrators.

Nevertheless, the element of magical realism here is downplayed compared with that in Blank Gaze (2000), the novel that established the young José Luís Peixoto as Portugal’s most internationally acclaimed novelist since José Saramago. Those who have read that episodic account of the lives of the indigent residents of a small, unnamed Portuguese village will recognise many of the stylistic tics on display in this book, notably excessive repetition in scenes of high emotion, and will be prepared for a sometimes difficult read.

Yet they will also be familiar with the richness of Peixoto’s descriptive passages – the synaesthetic metaphors (“all the seasons of the year were the colour of my solitude”), and the sometimes weirdly bathetic similes (“There were months that were lost, like lids on ballpoint pens”) that one thinks of first as silly, then brilliant, then both at the same time.

But Peixoto’s triumph is in the way he makes us feel, in fewer than 300 pages, that we have spent decades with this family, as though we have been reading a remarkably effective condensed version of Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga or Mahfouz’s The Cairo Trilogy, or listened to 30 years’ worth of The Archers in a couple of hours. Emotional investment in this family is inevitable, which is why most readers will eventually pause to wonder if they can make it through to the final pages, as a note at the beginning of the book makes it clear what the ending will be: Francisco Lázaro was a real person, who died at the age of 21 after completing 29km of the marathon at the 1912 Olympics. Although most of the details about his life and family in this book are entirely invented, we know what his fate will be; and the ending does indeed prove to be almost unbearably moving.

The book’s structure, in which an example of old Lázaro’s bullying can be followed by a scene emphasising his tenderness as a younger man, reinforces the impression that his descent into unhappiness is as much a matter of inevitability as Francisco’s death. So although at first if this novel recalls an English poem it is probably Larkin’s one about what your mum and dad do to you, in the end we forgive old Lázaro and come back to Auden’s poem, in which, where the death of happiness is concerned, “time is always guilty”.

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