By Jennifer Levasseur
Some of my favorite books are the unsettling ones, novels that swivel on their axes and topple my comfortable understandings. Give me the nightmare any day over the sweetened fairytale.
José Luís Peixoto follows a long line of Portuguese modernist, experimental writers who thwart expectation to create new worlds and new modes of expression. He, like José Saramago and António Lobo Antunes, throws readers a life ring, but we must take hold and climb back aboard.
The Piano Cemetery, Peixoto’s 2006 novel (translated into English in 2010), is an unsettling, thrilling and devastating family saga set in Lisbon told through three intertwined first-person narratives that move through time: a grandfather, his son and grandson, a line of carpenters who also repair pianos. The piano cemetery, home of the work they’d each rather do than build chairs or stools, becomes a place of alternate existence, of dreams become flesh.
“You could barely see the grime on the walls, and the weight of the low ceiling was made much more real because there were pianos of all sorts rising up, in heavy tiers, almost touching the ceiling. Stored against the walls were upright pianos, one on top of another—in the arrangement in which my father, or his father before him, had stacked them.”
The voices that make up The Piano Cemetery slip in and out of each other. With only paragraph breaks to note the switches, the narrators take turns unpacking their stories, interrupting as one of the others takes a breath mid-scene. The structure speaks to the fluidity of the self within a family, the melding of identities and the ways in which our families help create us. One of the characters, faced with her daughter’s scolding, embodies that state: “My wife, feeling herself a girl and a mother and a grandmother, took a breath...”
The patriarch of the middle generation, based on Portuguese Olympic marathon runner Francisco Lázaro who died while competing in the games in Sweden, tells his stories through the miles of running, in a cohesive stream of consciousness that follows an internal logic. His father narrates from the grave as he watches his family mourn and move on. The runner’s son, born on the day on his death, feels his way into family’s legacy through its female members and by working at the side of his half-blind uncle.
The reader learns the flow and structure of the novel like learning to breath anew: at first it’s uncomfortable and takes much concentration; later, after some practice, it’s obvious and natural, so much so that you wonder how it could ever have been confusing.
The Piano Cemetery—at turns romantic, tender, shocking, painful and illuminating—offers no balm for the problems of family. Instead, it embraces the pleasures and pains so tightly that we feel almost comfortable viewing the passionate sex, the wife struck against a wall, the sister eating herself to death, the child bloodied from an upended cabinet of delights.