The Implacable Order of Things, José Luis Peixoto (Richard Zenith trans.). Nan A. Talese. 224pp, $22.95
Reading José Luis Peixoto’s first novel, The Implacable Order of Things, we are presented with a world not likely to last long, absent a messiah, populated by orphans—a biblical myth that doesn’t imbue tragedy with meaning. The book narrates the spiritual and physical disintegration of two generations of human beings in an unnamed rural village. Our principal martyr is José, a shepherd who pays a visit to the devil. At the local watering hole, Judas’s general store, among the patrons’ “languishing, indecipherable syllables,” the devil suggests that José’s wife is cheating on him.
In this case, the devil tells the truth: his cuckolder is “the giant,” a goliath who roams the hillsides and eventually strikes José down with the mercilessness of God himself. Before, during, and after his wounds, José’s jealousy consumes him; but like most emotions in this novel, these feelings remain bottled up. In the night while his wife sleeps, Jose’s thoughts are a cascade of dismal reckonings. As he puts it, among the shadows:
We all have a gate and a garden to cross into, alone, at night, beneath and above and amid fear. You’re dead and, inside death, you know you’re dead. We both know. All that you imagine in the word hope has lost its meaning. There is no hope, for we’re too small, we amount to very little.
Other characters include Siamese twins, connected at the little finger, who meet a cook whom one of them marries. Later a blind prostitute, from a long line of blind prostitutes, marries a one-armed and one-legged carpenter. The devil presides over their ceremony; in Peixoto’s world, Satan seems to preside over every human union. There are the ever-present but always-absent rich landowners who are masters of a house that contains a closed trunk that speaks in epigrams, “as if it were reading an epic poem from a book, saying: perhaps people are, perhaps they exist, with no explanation for it.” And of course there is the lonely writer, always writing but who never appears; such are the habits of Creators.
These are the figures, rather than characters, this sun-baked land is equipped with. Their streams of consciousness flood the page, briefly exposing their internal lives. Taken together, they produce a picture of a world where
We are granted our heart’s desire only for it to be definitively taken away, since our dream of it perishes. The sun shows us our own desperateness. For those who understand, this sun is the hand that caresses us and crushes us.
That the book’s philosophy is so heavily engraved on its surface will no doubt trouble, perplex, and disturb some readers (it did this one). But these ruminations never come off as anything but honest; they are their figures’ way of confronting an existence that provides no answers, in which no lasting joys are found. It is a world that might as well be inscribed with a stick in the sand—rubbed raw, scraped clean. What’s left are life’s simple and terrifying facts: loss, death. Or two other words, often repeated in the text: silence, darkness.
The book is split into two, like the Siamese twins contained within it. The plot of the first part reassembles itself in the second as José’s son (also named José) reverses the trajectory of his father’s humiliation and sleeps with the wife of his cousin Salomão. Later, a carpenter finds himself, like the twins, trying to find salvation in the things that life presents—marriage, children, labor—and are thoroughly punished for it. The characters, as before, are parallel lines: never touching and headed in the same direction. Lives don’t change, tragedies repeat, and children inevitably carry the sins of their forbears. The result is an enclosed world that, like the universe, swirls the same ingredients endlessly.
These repetitions extend to the book’s prose, which imitates the parallel phrasing of biblical poetry. But whereas the redundancies of Psalms build a stirring momentum,
God, my God, for You I search
My throat thirsts for You,
my flesh yearns for You
in land waste and parched, with no water
So, in this sanctum I beheld You,
seeing Your strength and Your glory,
The Implacable Order of Things knowingly bludgeons the reader with its circularity:
My mother repeated the words she repeated and repeated, she repeated her gazing and her breathing, her gazing and her breathing, the avid breathing between her words, her gazing, she repeated, she repeated her own self until she was many, all the same place, in a repeated time.
These bleak repetitions drive right to the spiraling heart of book: its depiction of people who can only describe the world in the world’s terms and follow the world’s prescribed path. They cannot bring anything new to bear that doesn’t already exist in the universe. All language, in the end, is circular: words defining words.
Like death metal, the book stays in one mode and pounds away. (How giddy was I to learn that Peixoto has written lyrics for the Goth rockers Moonspell!) Darkness, Peixoto seems to say, is the true nature of the world; reality will vanish the moment we cease experiencing it. That said, he says it again.
But it would be wrong to dismiss this book as a nihilistic parable; it is more correctly a story whose relentless focus on mortality necessarily blurs everything else in life. Perhaps this is why the book rewards a second reading; adding a sense of predestination helps allay some of the hunger for characters and development. The Implacable Order of Things is a very particular type of book: a book of lamentations. It conjures poetry out of a subject we resolutely avoid: our short life on Earth and essential helplessness in the face of time.
Just as there is a blind spot in the center of our vision, the book attempts to describe the blind spot at the heart of experience. Peixoto lingers around that absence, but of course we cannot see it because to see it is to not see at all. The Implacable Order of Things speaks of things beyond our comprehension, and so it must speak an inadequate language. It hints at what can never be experienced and what language can never communicate. This may seem profound to some, a con game to others, the way this book repeatedly butts itself against our dead end, never finding a loophole. Yet there is something oddly consoling about its fatalistic perspective and cathartic determination. As José says toward the end,
I, within myself, am all that I am. I’m small and insignificant, I’m a past history of misunderstandings and mistakes, I’m the act of gazing at this sky, I’m the certainty of no future.
How else to describe the book’s pathos? Consider a stone falling. We don’t look to see where it falls. We don’t wait to see the pieces it breaks into. We watch its flickering shadow: We listen to its echo.
Robert Silva writes about film in New York City. His fiction has appeared in ZYZZYVA. Contact him at email@example.com.
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