My rating: 3 stars
I have a complicated reading relationship with the Portuguese author José Luís Peixoto. I loved the first book I read by him – Livro – and mildly enjoyed the second one – Cemitério de Pianos (The Piano Cemetery in the English translation). And what about Uma Casa na Escuridão? This is one of the most absurd books I’ve ever read. The story being told isn’t plausible and doesn’t aim to be. The plot is a tool to express feelings: love, jealousy, fear, suffering and solitude. Being this a strange and complicated book, I struggled to finish it. Nevertheless, it had an impact on me.
The story is narrated in the first person by a nameless writer. He lives with his mother, who is quite debilitated, in a house full of cats. During a sleepless night, he imagines a woman who inspires him to write a book. She becomes so real that he falls in love with her. The more he writes about her and his feelings, the more he loves her. He even feels jealousy when his editor, who is imprisoned, reads the first pages of the book he is working on.
When the editor dies in prison and the narrator goes to the funeral, accompanied by a childhood friend named ‘príncipe de calicatri’, he sees on one of the many gravestones the picture of a woman who looks exactly like the one he has imagined, which deeply unsettles him. The story starts getting darker and stranger. Disturbing events take place and various forms of love develop into pain.
There is no real sense of time and place in Uma Casa na Escuridão (which can be translated as ‘A House in Darkness’). From the narrator’s house, he can see a mountain, nearby there is a city, but we get no more information about a location. There are slaves, but there is also a modern machine used to do the inspection of visitors at the prison’s entrance. Music has just been invented. Invading soldiers use armours and swords, but there are cars on the roads. There is a dreamlike quality to the story, which becomes more of a nightmare.
Characters are not named in a traditional way. The only characters who have names that sound real are two slaves. While one of them still lives at the narrator’s house, the other was murdered some years earlier by the narrator’s father moments before his own death. This is one of the events that we get more details about throughout the novel. The narrator mentions many times the complexity of his parents’ relationship, which caused his mother to feel a great deal of sadness.
The strangeness of the plot, which almost made me not want to finish the book, is counterbalanced by a poetic and powerful prose. Sometimes I could even physically feel the pain of the narrator, and the actions of the characters are presented in a very detailed way. José Luís Peixoto uses the repetition of the same words in different sentences, both in the same and in a different position, achieving a poetic tone. I also loved the metaphors used to describe the weather conditions, connecting them to emotions.
The feelings that result from the bizarre events of the plot are the main allure of this book, which I feel can have many interpretations depending on who is reading it. In fact, the narrator and his translator muse on how books and characters gain a new meaning every time a new person gets immersed in a story.
Despite the strangeness of the events that the characters are exposed to, I ended up caring for them as they see their world collapse. That and the writing style were the reasons for me to rate it with three stars instead of two. If the plot had been more realistic, I wouldn’t have had doubts about whether to continue reading or not. After finishing the book, I read the poetry collection (A Casa, a Escuridão) that José Luís Peixoto wrote based on this story and I enjoyed it far more. One poem even brought tears to my eyes. However, I expected more than a focus on feelings from a novel.