I enjoyed reading the Piano Cemetery, but I was disappointed in a few respects. First of all, I found the plot to be too complicated (I even got annoyed with it at page 200), especially when there’s non-linear narration between three generations. So this is the story of the Lázaro family, where grandfather, father and son Lázaro take turns to narrate events during their lifetime (not in chronological order) from the first person singular. The plots revolve around family members, therefore there are overlaps between their stories, which makes it confusing. The only points of reference are births and deaths; in the beginning, I thought that the uncle with one blind eye was another point of reference but it turned out that both father and son had an uncle blind in one eye (?). On top of the cyclical narration, father Lázaro – the marathon runner – remembers family events as he runs the Olympic marathon in 1912 in Stockholm kilometre by kilometre. I think that such plots urge the reader to collect evidence and aim at solving the puzzle at the end, which pushes my favourite aspect of reading to the background – taking part in the game of fiction, joining the characters to experience the thoughts, feelings and events. Moreover, some characters receive little attention in the plot (i.e. the runner’s wife – why was she all alone as she was giving birth?) some come out of nowhere (i.e. the gypsy) and some disappear (i.e. Maria).
The book started in a positive atmosphere, but the plot had its depressing bits after all, as the family went through scandals and tragedies. Even sad events were narrated with certain emotional neutrality though. That said, there were lots of romantic descriptions and metaphors, like, “The lightness that comes in through the bedroom window, that touches the folds in the curtains, is yellow and sweet – honey” (p. 188), I liked those, but found some of them too flowery. The narration often mirrored the inner world of the narrator, the marathon runner’s thoughts, for example, are fragmented, and his point of view is often broken mid-sentence to shift to his father or son. Maria’s husband, when he got angry with her for reading romance novels, choked on his words as he shouted at her, and so did the narration: “On the bed a heap of torn pages and torn jackets, titles – dreams of, passion wedding in, spring the heart’s flames, stronger, than triumph, of destiny in love, with the man, a certain girl and woman loving for the first, time and unkn, own irresistible flo, wers to, o late be, yond de, sire cru, el smi, le da, wni, ng o, f em, o t, i on, s” (p. 164).
Sisters Marta and Maria love reading romances, the passages describing their love of reading (e.g. pp. 188-189) reminded me of Janice Radway’s (1984) book, Reading the Romance, a study on romance reading among middle-class American women. It was such a feel-good book that after reading it, I wanted to run to the nearest bookshop to buy romances! Based on Radway’s interviews with readers, the book analyzes how women readers find pleasure and emotional stimulation in reading romances. Their housewives’ life is restricted to domestic chores, on top of that, they absorb all the stress their children and husbands unload unto them when they come home in the evening. Reading is their special time of the day, their guilty pleasure, and they identify with the heroines of romances, who have exciting adventures in far-away places and enjoy the romantic attention of rich and handsome men.
The novel had post-modern sections (p. 178 & 245) where a dead grandfather talks to his granddaughter about the readers of the book:
“Who are you talking to?”
“I’m talking to the people who are reading these words in a book.”
“What are they like, these people reading the book? Are they Grandma and Auntie?”
“But have you already read this book the people are reading?”
“No. It’s not finished yet. The story isn’t over yet.” (pp. 178-179)
Then the child reprimands her grandfather for treating her Grandma badly, for not showing her the affection she deserves. I understand that these conversations justify (or illustrate?) the intergenerational narration, but it left me feeling as if I’ve been served a cake that has all the ingredients in the kitchen thrown in, in an effort to make it interesting. Not all novels have to be post-modern.
So, about what the translator did. He (2009) explains in an article in In Other Words, the journal for literary translators in the UK, that he “re-carpeted” the novel. As he was translating the book, he noticed that many – too many – events are described on the hallway: “corredor” in Portuguese. The word corredor is used 70 times in the book, quite unusually. As it happens, corredor also means “runner” in Portuguese, referring to the father Lázaro. In order to keep this device, Daniel Hahn decided to add “runners” along hallways – so characters step on the runner as they leave a room or they can be heard padding along the runners. It’s a really interesting piece on literary translation, I wish it was more widely available.
Radway, Janice (1984) Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature, Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press.
Hahn, Daniel (2009) “Doing a Runner” In Other Words, no 34, pp. 60-62.