[Review] The Lives of Things - Jose Saramago

Title of Book: The Lives of Things
Author: Jose Saramago
Publisher: Verso
Publication Year: 2012
Translator: Giovanni Pontiero
Language: English
Format: Hardback
Pages: 145

A surreal short story collection from the master of what-ifs.
The Lives of Things collects Jose Saramago’s early experiments with the short story form, attesting to the young novelist’s imaginative power and incomparable skill in elaborating the most extravagant fantasies. Combining bitter satire, outrageous parody and Kafkaesque hallucinations, these stories explore the horror and repression that paralyzed Portugal under the Salazar regime and pay tribute to human resilience in the face of injustice and institutionalized tyranny.
Beautifully written and deeply unsettling, The Lives of Things illuminates the development of Saramago's prose and records the genesis of themes that resound throughout his novels.


The Lives of Things is a collection of short stories written by the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Jose Saramago. It consists of six short stories namely The Chair, Embargo, Reflux, Things, The Centaur, and Revenge. The Chair is an allusion to an event in which Portugal’s dictator António Salazar fell from a chair which then caused a brain hemorrhage. It focuses weirdly on the chair and even the termites that might live in it and cause the chair to rot and collapse. The allegorical narrative is difficult to understand, especially for the readers who are not aware of Portugal’s history or Salazar’s reign. I couldn’t connect to the story at all.

Embargo is tale about a man who is being driven by his car. The car has its own will and refuses to go where the man steers it to. Every time there’s a gas station nearby, the car will drive itself there even though the tank is full. The story is set during the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s. Since the story happens when there’s a gas crisis, so there’s line in every gas station. Embargo takes a dark turn when the car refuses to let go of the man.

While Reflux is about a king who is trying to cheat death. He doesn’t want to be reminded of death. He builds a centralized cemetery in the city. As years go by, the cemetery become bigger and people start to build their life around it. In the end, the king realized that even he can’t cheat death.

Things is the titular story of this collection. In this story, the government has strict policies to control the availability and distribution of material goods. The main character is a civil servant. His life is being torn apart when the objects around him start rebelling against human. First, they got out of control then they disappear. It is a weird story. But somehow it ends in a hopeful note.

In Centaur, we are introduced to the life of the last centaur left. It is written like a fable. We follow the creature as he wanders through the woods to avoid humanity. Since he is the last centaur alive and he has been isolating himself from the outside world, his life is lonely. I can’t help but empathize with the centaur. In the story, the centaur is described as if it’s two different entities, which are the man and the horse. It’s another one in this collection that has a sad and dark ending.   

The last short story is Revenge. It’s the one that I read first since it is the shortest in this collection. I was trying to get the feel of Saramago’s writing. Revenge is more of a vignette. It is quite gore and graphic but weirdly mesmerizing. Reading Revenge feels like seeing a painting.

Overall, Saramago’s writing style is something that I need to get used to at first. His writing contains many long, breathless sentences in which commas take the place of periods. There’s a part where a whole paragraph is two pages long. His sentences are overwhelmingly descriptive. He likes using allegories. As far as what I read in this collection, all of his characters don’t have names. They usually called by an archetype, for example the king, the civil servant, the man, and the horse. If you’ve read Saramago’s other books and like it, then you’ll probably like this short stories collection too. But I think this collection can be a good introduction to his works if you want to try.


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