Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 26, 2014

The Piano Cemetery (2006) by José Luís Peixoto, translated by Daniel Hahn

7804060I loved reading The Piano Cemetery, but I’m not going to pretend for one moment that I understand what it was about.  And I don’t feel the least little bit embarrassed about that, because Ursula Le Guin was baffled tooSome reviewers were overtly hostile to the difficulty of reading this book, while others found it frustrating.  Perhaps I was more tolerant because it was not until quite late in the book that I became confused, and by then I was so intrigued, it didn’t matter…

The story has two narrators, and I must be circumspect in this review because part of what I enjoyed was hope that the second narrator Francisco Lazaro would transcend his ostensible heritage.  The book is a very loose fictionalisation of the story of the Olympic athlete who died at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics in the marathon when he reached the 30 kilometre mark.  Named for his father, the Francisco of the novel wants to make his name his own.  Naming is significant in this novel.

The Piano Cemetery isn’t the first book to use the same name for father and son.  Such naming was, after all, very common indeed in Britain and Europe for centuries.  And the naming’s not the source of the confusion because the voices in the novel are entirely distinct: Francisco the Father narrates his story in ordinary paragraphs in a coherent way, despite not being in chronological order.  Oh yes, I nearly forgot, and despite being dead…

It was Sunday because it was sunny, because I had decided I wasn’t going to work, because not many cars could be heard in the city, because the world seemed infinite, because my daughters had dressed with ribbons they tied round their waists and because I had slept until I was woken by the church bells calling the people to mass. My wife was smiling and the morning bore the lightness of her smile.  My wife was younger on Sunday mornings when she smiled.  Our children were still small.  Francisco was not yet born.  Marta was already helping her mother.

Francisco the younger narrates his story in fractured fragments of different lengths,  as he runs the race of his life. His narrative is punctuated by captions denoting how many kilometres he has run:

…Shouting, he asked my mother, ‘What went through your head, spending money on this rubbish?’ My mother didn’t reply.  My father said, ‘What a swindle, what rubbish.’ My mother continued not to reply.  My father grabbed her by the arm, shook her and shouted’ ‘Aren’t you listening?’ My mother looked at him, her eyes serious.  In a single movement my father took the plate and smashed it on the floor. Shouting, he said, ‘Don’t you look at me like that, you hear me?’ It was that Sunday that my father stopped being ashamed of Marta’s boyfriend.  When Marta took him to the door

Kilometre six

to say goodbye, my father’s shouting could be heard from the kitchen and Marta was crying with shame. (p. 96)

And although some of some of these fragments are no more than breathless scraps of sentences, somewhat like the fragments in Gilgamesh or Sappho, it’s  always possible to fill the lacunae with something that makes sense.


No, what makes The Piano Cemetery confusing is that there is ambiguity about the identity and the chronology of these characters.  For a start, some significant characters are never named at all.  Neither Francisco names his wife, referring to her always as ‘my wife’, and the husbands of Maria and Marta are never named either.  There are two uncles blinded in one eye who also are not named.  With one exception, the characters who are complicit in betrayals are those who have no name, as if they are not worthy of naming.  These betrayals mostly take place in the ‘piano cemetery’, the place which defines the identity of this family and its heritage.  It’s a warehouse behind the carpentry shop, where ruined pianos wait for resurrection.  (Making love on a piano doesn’t sound too comfortable to me, but that’s what they do!)

But more significantly, the identity of the marathon runner is ambiguous.  Francisco the elder marries, and his new wife cleans up the house that has been neglected since his mother died.  She finds some medals which are subsequently revealed to belong to Francisco’s the Elder’s father, i.e. apparently to the Francisco Lazaro who died in 1912 at the Stockholm Olympics.  I read from this point on thinking that Francisco the Younger was aiming to resurrect his grandfather’s ambition and claim the name and the race as his own.  Towards the end of the novel, this interpretation became fuzzier.  The grossly fat aunt who showed Francisco the elder the photo of his father (which is reproduced in the book) seems to be a replica of Marta and she tells him about a sister who dies in dubious circumstances whose photo is exactly the same as a sister of Marta and Maria who’s never been mentioned before.

There is doubling of characters all over the place in The Piano Cemetery, suggesting a timelessness in the affairs of this family.  The era is obscure: clearly the generations that do the storytelling are not of 1912: a vague sense of the 1940s is conveyed by the radio around which they gather to listen to the race broadcast; the phone which announces the cycle of rebirth; the van which is used to ferry Marta about because she’s too grossly fat to fit into the car – and by the absence of television.  Unravelling all this seems not to be very important in this novel because its circularity seems to be the very point of it all.

There were some exciting postmodern flourishes.  Iris, who is three, trots into the piano cemetery by herself, and starts a conversation with her grandfather.  By this time in the novel I was used to his narrative voice and had forgotten that he was dead.

… She sits down on the lid of a piano without legs, on the dust.  She is so small.  She lifts her face, looks at me and says:
‘Who are you talking to?’
‘I’m talking to the people who are reading these words in a book.’
‘Maybe my mum will read the book, won’t she?’
‘What are they called, these people who are reading the book?’
‘They have many names.  Each of them has a different name.’
‘Maybe there’s one of them called Iris, isn’t there?’
‘Maybe.’ (p.178)

She goes on to ask him about the other people reading the book, but ‘Only they know where they are’ he says.  And he explains that he knows this because he’s been one of those people reading the book even though it’s not finished yet.   And then she turns on him, castigating him for the way he has lived his life and for not telling the truth in this book:

‘So how come you’ve already been one of those people?  Have you already lived the life these people are living?’
‘No one can live someone else’s life.’
‘That’s not true.  You didn’t just live your life.  Have you seen Grandma? You wore her down.  You made her old before all the other women her age.  Say what you like – the light clouded your eyes, you didn’t see, there was some force that carried your movements, you couldn’t feel – say what you like, but the truth will still exist – the truth.’
‘You’re not even three yet, you can’t talk like that. No three-year-old talks like that.’
‘I can’t? I can’t? You’re sure of that? You’re dead.  You should be the last person to talk about what I can and can’t say.’ (p. 179)

Lisbon, says Peixoto, is careful imperfection.  Perhaps not unlike the always slightly warped paving that decorates the city’s streets, this novel is deliberately constructed to be as treacherous as the glassy, reflective stones.  I’m sorry I have to take it back to the library…

Author: José Luís Peixoto
Title: The Piano Cemetery
Translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn
Publisher:  Bloomsbury 2010 (first published 2006)
ISBN: 9780747599654
Source: Kingston Library


  1. I’d not heard of this book but you make it sound very intriguing. (A quick check, however, reveals that I have read one of this author’s books before – The Blank Gaze)


    • Hello Grant:) The amazing thing is that I stumbled on it at my local suburban library. How did they stumble on it? Someone there must follow Stu from Winston’s Dad, eh? He reviewed The Blank Gaze a little while ago… what did you think of it?


  2. I read his opther book translated into english a few years ago blank gaze and loved it ,I have had this out from library once a couple of years ago ,wish i had read it after your review


    • They say on the blurb that he’s the next Saramago…. would you agree with that?


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