The Piano Cemetery, By José Luís Peixoto

A decidedly off-key family saga

Reviewed,James Urquhart
Wednesday 08 December 2010 01:00

As a young man, Senhor Lázaro learned from his half-blind uncle some of the carpentry skills handed down in the family business in Lisbon's Benfica district. The Lázaros crafted doors and windows for their bread-and-butter because there wasn't enough money in repairing pianos. Lázaro's father "had whirligigs of music inside him" when he even thought of pianos. The remains of this passion lie through an old door just inside the workshop. The "piano cemetery" of Peixoto's novel is stacked with broken instruments whose parts are recycled to repair customers' pianos. It offers a hideaway for opportune seductions for Lázaro and, much later, his self-regarding son-in-law.

But Lázaro is dead, which gives an unengaging passivity to his recollections. He sifts through significant incidents from his youth and the lives of his children: Marta and Maria (who, like their mother, endure casual hostility from their husbands); Simao, who flees the family when his father hits his mother; and the youngest child, Francisco. There are grandchildren, too. Iris is the most distinct, for injuring herself, and for holding a surreal exchange in the piano cemetery with her dead grandfather.

At heart, this is a story of fathers who are quick to fury and who blush with their fists; of wives and mothers who dance awkwardly around the emotional inarticulacy and instinctive violence of their men; of the fierce domestic heat that curdles relationships. It's a story of sex and treachery, of ambition and frustration, of a mostly thwarted desire to please. Unfortunately, this potentially affecting story is obscured within the confusion of the novel's postmodern architecture, which corrupts any narrative grace into a mosaic of truncated snippets of material. Peixoto refuses to name several characters beyond "wife" or "mother", and swoops between generations and narrators in what seems a deliberate obfuscation. Despite Daniel Hahn's agile translation, this adds considerable labour to the text.

After the hallucinatory prose of Blank Gaze, Peixoto's arresting debut, The Piano Cemetery feels closer to the looping rhythms of close-knit, intimate Portuguese life found in the writing of the late Nobel laureate, José Saramago. Peixoto has an acute ear for cadence, a sharp eye for the luminous image and a good nose for the pungent. But here, his fracturing and resetting of the bones of the story make for structural weakness.

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