An unnamed village in the Alentejo region, southern Portugal. Its inhabitants are rural, and poor – some are desperate, some more or less resigned, but all are poor.
Among them are the old twins joined at a little finger, identical, with identical gaits and postures, and (though they don't know this) an identical number of white hairs on their heads; and Old Gabriel, who is 120 when the story begins and then proceeds to age several decades further. And then there's the cook who falls in love, and starts making exquisite little figures out of her food. The feuding cousins, and the local priest – more frequently known as "the devil" – who torments them. A master carpenter and the blind prostitute who becomes his bride. There's a voice speaking from inside the old trunk in the big house. And there's a man in a windowless room, writing.
In presenting these characters and the vignettes that constitute their lives, novelist José Luís Peixoto pulls off a impressive and unusual feat; he creates characters who are archetypes, and yet simultaneously ones who are drawn in sufficient detail to demand (and earn) the sympathy of his readers.
The characters are general – many, the women especially, are denied even a name – but the descriptions of their stories and their sufferings are sometimes dreadfully particular. Just look closely at the lips of that tiny stillborn child... Life may seem a shared, common, endlessly repeated experience, but death is a particular, personal and lonely one.
Peixoto does give us weddings as well as funerals, though; there are moments of joyful news, new homes, happy births, unions and reunions, moments showing the unthinking tenderness of lovers, of parents and children. And there are pauses, of something like peace; peace that is hot and dry and grimly poor, but peaceful, at least – and then, out of this seeming stillness, burst other moments that are stark and startlingly brutal. The author gives us agonised death in childbirth, as well as fires, beatings and terrible suicides.
It's these images of grief that are the most vivid – it's death, but given to us as a vivid, lived experience, thanks to some intensely beautiful writing packed with startling and memorable images. (A giant's hand on display in church, anyone?)
Sadness and death, and the awful inevitabilities in each character's story, resonate throughout Richard Zenith's well-pitched translation. But the trust required by the author to follow his fragmented and claustrophobic tale is amply repaid; his bold, incantatory prose is consistently beautiful – apparently simple but also incredibly rich and resonant.
Voices are echoed in other voices, and the dialogue pulses along within it all, undifferentiated. The storytelling role passes between an external narrator and first-person characters and back again; the narrator's own wise words are picked up later and repeated by the characters, as though these portentous lines, these profound thoughts, are out there, abstracted from their lives, just humming in the air, like great discovered truths...
That even these weighty lines are moving and thought-provoking, rather than (as well might have been) tiresomely over-zealous or pretentious, is further testament to the author's considerable skills.
Bloomsbury £15.99 (256pp) £14.39 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
Daniel Hahn is a writer and the translator of 'The Book of Chameleons', by José Eduardo Agualusa, which won this year's 'Independent' Foreign Fiction PrizeReuse content