I had been on a bit of a discovery voyage of Portuguese literature, riding waves of Saramago, Camões, and Pessoa, when I happened across José Luís Piexoto’s first novel, The Implacable Order of Things, which suddenly and effectively sank it. It’s not that Piexoto, a poetical author of great skill and dexterity, is not a good writer; he is. This musing of one of his characters is one of the most beautiful ideas I’ve read in a long time:
“I think: perhaps the sky is a huge sea of fresh water and we, instead of walking under it, walk on top of it; perhaps we see everything upside down and earth is a kind of sky, so that when we die, when we die, we fall and sink into the sky.”
It’s not that I was unfamiliar with the fatalistic tendencies of my peeps, either; I am. Intimately. After all, the Portuguese invented fado, the saddest music on the whole planet. The space that Piexoto creates, however, is a whole ’nother sun-scorched ball of … well, dirt.
In Piexoto’s world, the sun itself is more than the beneficent stellar body that we know and love, it is an omnipresent, malicious torturer, drying up even the smallest hope in an oppressive blast furnace of despair. In this dying, grindingly poor village, even the devil seems trapped, forced to downscale his machinations to petty manipulations of the insecurities and jealousies of simple villagers. God himself has already caught the last ass out of town, abandoning the church and ecclesiastical duties to the devil who, to his credit, attends to all weddings and funerals with a huge grin, knowing all too well that no matter what people do, they are fated only to become more miserable as the days drag on.
Peixoto employs a bit of magical realism that gives the whole book the feel of fable or of some sort of black scripture. The story starts out with the devil hinting very strongly to a shepherd that his wife is having an affair with a giant (who in reality has been raping her since her father died). The shepherd tells him to let the giant know that if he sees him around, he is going to smash in his face. This leads, predictably, to the shepherd getting beaten to within an inch of his life. As soon as the shepherd is well enough to walk again, he is right back downtown looking for trouble, and the giant, once again, beats him within an inch of his life.
The miserable denizens of Peixoto’s world are lacking any sense of free will and often are dragged toward their unhappy fates by limbs that seem to be driven by nothing but a howling sense of entropy. The only character who takes matters into its own … well, teeth, in this case, is the shepherd’s faithful dog. When its master finally confronts the horror of his situation and hangs himself, the dog rounds up all the other dogs in the village and tears the giant limb from limb. Score one for the dog.
By the second half of the book, we have burned through the first generation and are on to watching their progeny wither in the brutal heat. When we get to the one-legged, one-armed carpenter who grasps at happiness by marrying a blind prostitute after getting her pregnant—only to lose them both in childbirth, saw off his own leg, and burn down his (now no-legged) self and his shop for good measure—I started to get the sense that this book had become no more than misery porn. How much worse could things get? Worse. Implacably worse. Worse until the world itself (mercifully for the reader, but without a shred of pity for anyone else) finally grinds to a halt. Score one for the devil.