Starting this book, especially after reading the back cover blurb, you’d think this a dystopia story — a 1984-esque warning against materialism. You’re immediately introduced to The Center, the shadowy bureaucracy / super mall that rules the novel’s world. Police and security are everywhere. Oppression of common folk confined to shantytowns, vegetables grown in malevolent greenhouses.
But it’s not, not really. It’s a story about family (and pottery). An old man, his daughter, her husband, and their dog. Cipriano Algor, a 60ish potter whose father was a potter and whose grandfather was a potter and whose great-grandfather was probably a potter, suddenly finds his pottery business in great danger. People don’t buy handmade pottery anymore. They can buy plastic at the store and it’s cheaper and less likely to break. Cipriano hatches innovative pottery plans with his daughter Marta to reinvigorate the business while his son-in-law, Marcal, works as a security guard at The Center, a gigantic mall that has everything you could possibly want to buy or experience but is decidedly sinister to both Cipriano and the reader.
This is the plot for 250 of the novel’s 300 pages. The dangers of small business pottery. The love of family. The philosophical musings of Saramago’s working man protagonist as well as the very active presence of Saramago himself, in the form of an omniscient narrator who occasionally deems to speak directly to the reader. There’s meditations on class and love and the relationship between humans and dogs. It’s sentimental without being cloying and if the tone ever starts getting a little syrupy, you don’t even notice because by that point you’ve already become so attached to this small family.
This paragraph is dedicated to a dog. His name is Found (I bet this sounds like a better dog name in Saramago’s native portuguese) and he is the best written dog I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading about. The novel will swap to Found’s point of view as he ponders the incomprehensible workings of human activity. Or such serious dog-level concerns as: who to comfort first if two of the family are both sad and need a dog’s love? As Found becomes confused by his masters’ actions while showing them nothing but absolute love, you come to the conclusion that the absolute worst case scenario that could happen in this story is for Found to be separated from his family.
Saramago has a unique, streaming form or prose. Paragraph breaks barely exist and periods are rare. Phrases are strung along like locomotives, commas acting as railway couplings between them as they snake between hills. There are no quotation marks or pauses for dialogue; a capital letter signals that a different character is talking and the reader has to intuit who. Sometimes you lose track. It’s a perfect, dreamy style for this story and these characters who are continuously dreaming and pondering their lives whilst living in a nameless world steeped in metaphor.
Some people spend their entire lives reading but never get beyond reading the words on the page, they don’t understand that the words are merely stepping stones placed across a fast-flowing river, and the reason they’re there is that we can reach the farther shore, it’s the other side that matters, Unless, Unless what, Unless those rivers don’t have just two shores but many, unless each reader is his or her own shore, and that shore is the only shore worth reaching.