For many non-Portuguese readers, Portuguese literature IS José Saramago, Fernando Pessoa and Luís de Camões. It’s not easy to find information on Portuguese authors or English translations of their books. I was quite happy when I found The Piano Cemetery, by José Luís Peixoto.
At the heart of the novel is the true story of athlete Francisco Lázaro, who carried the the Portuguese flag in the country’s first-ever appearance in the Olympic Games, the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. Unfortunately, Lázaro, an amateur athlete and carpenter, became the first person to die during a modern Olympic event, when he collapsed at the 30 kilometer mark.
The Piano Cemetery tells the fictionalized story of the Lázaro family, carpenters who would rather be piano makers. The piano cemetery is a back room at their workshop that is full of broken and discarded pianos that the family occasionally uses to make repairs. The room is also where many important events in the history of the family take place.
Narrated by three generations of Lázaro men, the Piano Cemetery is a beautifully-written dreamlike journey through the history of the family. Full of the contradictions that make up life- birth and death, new love and love lost, joy and pain- the book is a wonderful, melancholic read. The novel also captures the uniquely Portuguese concept of saudade, a feeling of loss or incompleteness or longing for something that is being missed. While loss is a major theme of the novel, it leaves you with a feeling of hope for the future of the family.
José Luís Peixoto is one of Portugal’s most acclaimed writers and a winner of the José Saramago Literary Prize. I wasn’t surprised to learn that he also writes poetry; the cadence and use of repetition in the Piano Cemetery is quite poetic in places. Peixoto is also a fan of the Portuguese goth metal band Moonspell and has collaborated with them in a book based on their album, the Antidote.
Peixoto’s books have been translated into 26 languages, but for me, he is a new discovery. I enjoyed the Piano Cemetery and will be picking up more of his books. If you’d like to read the Piano Cemetery, you can purchase the book from Amazon here.