Spooky Saramago: a Halloween inspired story from The Lives of Things
To celebrate Halloween, here’s the hair-raising short story ‘Reflux’ from José Saramago’s The Lives of Things, translated by Giovanni Pontiero. The Portuguese Nobel Laureate is an expert in the uncanny, drawing out scenes of psychological unrest brought on by inanimate objects and a lurking sense of violence and death. Enjoy!
First of all, since everything must have a beginning, even if that beginning is the final point from which it cannot be separated, and to say cannot is not to say wishes not, or must not, it is simply impossible, for if such a separation were feasible, we all know that the entire universe would collapse, inasmuch as the universe is a fragile construction incapable of withstanding permanent solutions – first of all, the four routes were opened up. Four wide roads divided the country, starting from their cardinal points in a straight line or ever so slightly bent to follow the earth’s curvature, and therefore as rigorously as possible tunnelling through mountains, dividing plains, and overcoming, supported on pillars, passing over rivers and valleys. Five kilometres from the place where they would intersect, if this were the builders’ intention or rather the order received from the royal personage at the appropriate moment, the roads divided off into a network of major and secondary routes, like enormous arteries which had to transform themselves into veins and capillaries in order to proceed, and this self-same network found itself confined within a perfect square which clearly measured ten kilometres on each side. This square which also had started out, bearing in mind the universal observation that opened the story, as four rows of trig points set out on the ground, subsequently became – once the machines that opened, levelled and paved the four roads appeared on the horizon, coming, as we said, from the four cardinal points – subsequently became a high wall, four curtain-walls which could soon be seen, as was already clear from the drawing- boards, delimiting a hundred square kilometres of at or levelled ground, because a certain amount of clearing had to be done. Land chosen to meet the basic need of equidistance from that place to the frontiers, a relative advantage, which was fortunately confirmed later by a high lime content which not even the most optimistic had the courage to forecast in their plans when asked for their opinion: all of this simply brought greater glory to the royal personage, as might have been predicted from the outset if greater attention had been paid to the dynasty’s history: all its monarchs had always been right, and others less so, according to the accounts of events which were officially recorded. Such a project could never have been carried out without a strong will and the money that permits one to have a will and the hope of seeing it fulfilled, the reason why the nation’s coffers paid for this gigantic enterprise on a per capita basis, which naturally meant levying a general tax on the entire population, not according to income but in the inverse order of life expectancy, since this was considered to be just and readily understood by everyone: the older the person, the higher the tax.
There were some remarkable feats in carrying out a project of this magnitude; endless problems arose, and workers who had been sent ahead met their death even before the cemetery was finished, many were buried in a landslide, some fell from great heights, calling out in vain, others were struck down by sunstroke, or suddenly froze on the spot, lymph, urine and blood having turned to cold stone. All of them victims of being in the vanguard. But the accolade of genius, provisional immortality, excepting that inherent in the King which was guaranteed to last longer, was bestowed by luck and merit on the discreet civil servant who argued that the gates in the walls on the original plan were unnecessary. He was right. It would have been absurd to make and install gates which had to remain open at all hours of day and night. Thanks to this diligent civil servant, some savings were made: the money it would have cost to make four main gates and sixteen secondary gates, twenty gates in all, distributed equally along the four sides of the square and strategically placed along each wall: the main gate in the middle of each wall and two secondary gates on each side. Therefore there were no gates but only openings where the roads ended. The walls did not need gates to support them. They were solid, thick from the base to a height of three metres, then narrowing progressively to the top, nine metres from the ground. Needless to say, the side entrances were served by roads forking from the main road at a convenient distance. And as one might expect, this simple geometrical lay- out was linked by means of suitable junctions to the general network of roads throughout the country. If everything ends up everywhere, everything would end up there.
The structure, four walls served by four roads, was a cemetery. And this cemetery was to be the only one in the land. This had been decided by the royal personage. When supreme greatness and supreme sensibility are united in a king, a single cemetery is possible. All kings are great, by definition and birth: any king who might wish otherwise will wish in vain (even the exceptions of other dynasties are great amongst their peers). But they may or may not be sensitive, and here one is not speaking of that common, plebeian sensibility, which expresses itself with a tear in the corner of an eye or by an irrepressible tremor on the lip, but of another sensibility, unprecedented to such a degree in the history of this nation and perhaps even of the universe: a sensibility incapable of confronting death or any of the paraphernalia and rituals associated with death, whether it be the mourning of relatives or the commercial manifestations of bereavement. Such was this king. Like all kings and presidents, he had to travel and visit his domains, to caress little children selected by protocol beforehand, to receive bouquets of flowers already inspected by the secret police in case they might have poison or a bomb concealed inside, to cut ribbons in fast, non-toxic colours. All this and more the King carried out with good grace. But each visit caused him endless suffering: death, nothing but death wherever one looked, signs of death everywhere, the pointed tip of a cypress tree, a widow’s black shawl and, more than once, the unbearable sight of some funeral procession the master of ceremonies had inexcusably overlooked, or which, setting out late or early, unexpectedly appeared at the most solemn moment of all, just as the King was passing or about to pass. After these visits the King would return to his palace in a state of distress, convinced he was about to die. And the sorrows of others and his own fear of death caused him so much anguish that, one day when he was relaxing on the highest terrace in the palace and looking into the distance (this being the clearest day ever recorded not only throughout the history of that dynasty but throughout its entire civilization), he saw four resplendent white walls and these gave him the idea of building one central cemetery to be used by everyone.
For a nation accustomed for thousands of years to burying its dead in public for all to see, this provoked the most awful revolution. But those who feared revolution began to fear chaos, when the King’s idea, with that resolute and rapid progress ideas make, especially when thought up by kings, went further and became what evil tongues described as delirium: all the cemeteries in the land had to be cleared of bones and remains, whatever their degree of decomposition, and put into new coffins which would be transported for burial in the new cemetery. Not even the royal ashes of the sovereign’s ancestors were exempt from this mandate: a new pantheon would be built in a style probably inspired by the ancient Egyptian pyramids, and there, in due course, once calm was restored, their remains would be carried with all pomp and ceremony along the main northern road lined on either side with loyal subjects, until they eventually reached the final resting-place for the venerable bones of all those who had been crowned since the time when one man managed to persuade the others by means of words and force, saying: ‘I want a crown on my head, make me one.’ Some claim that this egalitarian decision helped more than anything to pacify those who saw themselves deprived of the remains of their dear departed. Another factor of some weight must have been the tacit satisfaction of all those who took the opposite view and were tired of the rules and traditions which turn the dead, because of the demands they make, into transitional beings between what is no longer life and a death that is not yet real. Suddenly everyone decided the King’s idea was the best thing any man had ever conceived and no other nation could boast of having such a king, and since fate had decreed that the King should be born and reign there, it was up to the people to obey him gladly, also for the solace of the dead who were no less deserving. The history of nations knows moments of utter bliss: this was such a moment and this nation rejoiced.
When the cemetery was finally completed, the enormous task of disinterment began. At first it was easy: the thousands of existing cemeteries, large, medium and small, were also surrounded by walls, and, so to speak, within their perimeter it was enough to excavate to the stipulated depth of three feet for greater safety, and remove everything, cubic metre upon cubic metre of bones, rotten planks of wood, dismembered bodies shaken out of their coffins by the excavators; then the rubble had to be transferred into coffins of different sizes, for new- born babes as well as for the very old, emptying some bones or flesh into each of them at random, two skulls and four hands, odd bits of rib, a breast that was still firm along with a withered belly, a simple bone or hip, or one of Buddha’s teeth, even the shoulder-blade of some saint or the blood missing from the miraculous phial of St Januarius. It was decided that each part of a corpse would count as a whole corpse, and they lined up the participants in this infinite funeral which came from every corner of the nation, carefully wending its way from villages, towns and cities, along routes which became increasingly wider as far as the main road network and from there, by means of junctions specially built, on to roads subsequently known as the roads of the dead.
In the beginning, as stated earlier, there were no problems. But then someone remembered, unless the idea came from the country’s precious monarch, that before this ruling about cemeteries had been enforced, the dead had been buried everywhere, on mountains and in the valleys, in churchyards, under the shade of trees, beneath the floorboards of the very houses in which they had lived, in any convenient spot, and only a little deeper than the depth, for example, of a plough- share. Not to mention the wars, the vast trenches for thousands of corpses, all over the world, from Asia and Europe and other continents, even though probably with fewer corpses, for naturally there had also been wars in this king’s realm and therefore bodies had been buried at random. There was, it had to be confessed, a moment of great perplexity. The King himself, had this latest idea been his, would not have kept it to himself for that would have been impossible. New orders were given and, since the country could not be turned over from end to end, as the cemeteries had been turned over, wise men were summoned before the King to hear this injunction from his royal lips: with all possible haste they must invent instruments capable of detecting the presence of buried remains, just as instruments had been invented to find water or metal. It would be no mean feat, the wise men acknowledged, once gathered together. They spent three days in discussion and then each of them locked himself away in his own laboratory. The State coffers were opened once more, and a new general tax was imposed. The problem was finally resolved but, as always happens in such cases, not all at once. To give an example, the case of that wise man could be cited who invented an instrument which lit up and made a noise whenever it encountered a body, but it had one serious drawback insofar as it could not distinguish between live or dead bodies. As a result, this instrument, handled of course by living people, behaved like someone possessed, screeching and flashing its indicators in a frenzy, torn between all the reactions from both the living and the dead surrounding it, and in the end, incapable of providing any reliable information. The entire nation mocked this unfortunate scientist, then lavished tributes and honours on him several months later, when he found the solution by introducing into the instrument a kind of memory or fixed idea. If one listened attentively, it was possible to detect a constant sound coming from inside the mechanism which went on repeating: ‘I must only find dead bodies or remains, I must only find dead bodies or remains, dead bodies or remains, or remains . . .’
Fortunately, there was one remaining drawback, as we shall see. No sooner did the instrument begin to function than people realised that, this time, it could not tell the difference between human and non-human bodies, but this new aw, which explains why I earlier used the word fortunately, turned out to be an advantage: when the King understood the danger he had escaped, he had the shivers: in fact, all death is death, even the non-human kind, and there would be no purpose in removing dead men from sight, when dogs, horses and birds go on drop- ping before our eyes. And all other creatures, with the possible exception of insects which are only half-animal (as was firmly believed by the nation’s scientists at that time). Then a full- scale investigation was ordered, a Cyclopean task which went on for years. Not so much as a hand-breadth of land remained to be examined, even in places which had been uninhabited for as long as anyone could remember: not even the highest mountains escaped or the deepest rivers, where thousands of dead bodies were discovered; the deepest roots did not escape, sometimes entangled around the remains of someone higher up who had been trying, out of desire or necessity, to reach the sap of some tree. Nor did the roads escape, which had to be lifted in many places and rebuilt. Finally, the kingdom found itself released from death. One day, when the King himself formally announced that the country was cleansed of death (his words), he declared a public holiday and national rejoicing. On such days it is customary for more people than usual to die, because of accidents, muggings, etc., but the National Life Service (as it was called) employed rapid, up-to-date methods: once death had been confirmed, the corpse followed the shortest route to the great highway of corpses, which had inevitably come to be known as no-man’s-land. Having got rid of the dead, the King could be happy. As for the people, they would have to get used to it.
The first thing to be restored was a sense of tranquility, that calm of natural mortality which allows families to be spared bereavement for years on end, and sometimes for many years if these families are not numerous. It could be said without exaggeration that the removal period was a time of national mourning in the strictest sense of that expression, a mourning which came from the depths of the earth. To smile during those years of sorrow would have been, for anyone who dared, an act of moral degradation: it is unseemly to smile when a relative, however distant, is being carried to the grave, intact or in pieces, and is tipped out from the bucket of an excavator on high into a new coffin, so much for each coffin, like filling moulds for sweets or bricks. After that lengthy period when people went around with an expression of noble and serene sorrow, smiles returned, then laughter, even guffaws and outbursts of derision and mockery, preceded by irony and humour; all of this regained some sign of life or renewed its hidden struggle against death.
But this tranquillity was not merely that of a soul back on the same old rails after a grand collision, but also that of the body, because words cannot express what all that effort sustained over such a long period of time meant for those who were still alive. It was not only the public works, the opening up of roads, the building of bridges, tunnels, viaducts, it was not only the scientific research, of which a pale and fragmentary idea has already been given; it was also the industry in timber, from the felling of trees (forest upon forest) to the sawing of planks, the drying out by means of accelerated processes, to the fittings for urns and coffins which required the installation of huge mechanical assembly lines for mass production; it also meant, as previously stated, the temporary reconversion of the metal industry in order to meet the demand for machinery and other material, starting with nails and hinges; then textiles and braidings for linings and decorations; then the quarrying for marble and stonework which, in its turn, suddenly began disembowelling the earth in order to supply so many tombstones and headstones ornately carved or plain; and those minority occupations almost akin to crafts, such as painting letters in black and gold, touching up photographs, panel-beating and glazing, that of artificial flowers, the making of candles and tapers, etc., etc., etc. But perhaps the greatest contribution of all, with- out which none of the work could have gone ahead, was that of the transport industry. No words could express the amount of effort put into the manufacturing of trucks and other heavy vehicles, an industry obliged in its turn to reconvert itself, to modify its production plans, to organise new sequences of assembly before delivering the coffins to the new cemetery: try to imagine the complications involved in planning integrated time-tables, the periods of disruption and convergence, the continuous flow of incoming traffic with ever increasing loads, and all this having to harmonise with the normal circulation of the living, whether on working days or public holidays, whether travelling to work or for pleasure, without forgetting the infra-structure: restaurants and inns all along the route so that lorry-drivers might be able to eat and sleep, car parks for the larger vehicles, some distractions to relieve the pressures of mind and body, telephone lines, the installations for emergencies and first-aid, workshops for electrical and mechanical repairs, garages for petrol, oil, diesel, tyres, spare parts, etc. And this in turn clearly boosted other industries in a cycle of mutual regeneration, producing wealth to the extent of maximum output and full employment. As was only to be expected, this revival was followed by a depression, and no one was surprised because it had been foreseen by the economic pundits. The negative effect of this depression was generously compensated, as the social psychologists had forecast, because of the irrepressible desire for respite which began to manifest itself among the people once their output had reached the point of saturation. They were embarking on a new phase of normality.
In the geometrical centre of the country, open to the four winds, stands the cemetery. Much less than a quarter of its hundred square kilometres was occupied by transferred corpses, and this prompted a group of mathematicians to try and demonstrate, with the figures to hand, that the land needed for these reburials would have to be much bigger, taking into consideration the likely number of deaths since the country was first populated and the average amount of space needed for each corpse, even discounting those who, reduced to dust and ashes, were beyond recovery. The enigma, if it could be called that, was to exercise the minds of future generations, like the squaring of the circle or the duplication of the cube, because the wise devotees of disciplines related to biology proved in the presence of the King that not a single corpse worthy of the name remained to be disinterred throughout the entire country. After some deep reflection, the King, torn between trust and scepticism, passed a decree which declared the matter closed; the decisive argument for him was the sense of relief he experienced when he returned from his travels and visits; if he no longer saw death it was because death had finally withdrawn.
The occupation of the cemetery, although the initial plan conformed to more rational criteria, went from the periphery to the centre. First near the gates and up against the walls, then following a curve which began almost perfectly radial and gradually became cycloid, this, too, being a transitional phase whose future plays no part in our story. But this internal moulding, as it were, undulating along the walls and isolated by them, was reflected almost symmetrically, even during the removal, in a form that matched faithfully on the outside. No one had suspected that this might happen, but there were those who asserted that only a fool could have failed to foresee the outcome.
The first sign, like the tiniest of spores about to sprout into a plant, then into a tuft, then into a thick cluster, and finally impenetrable scrub, was an improvised stall for the sale of soft drinks and spirits beside one of the secondary gates on the south wall. Even though revived for the journey, the transport workers felt they would find even greater refreshment there. Then other tiny shops sprang up nearby at the other gates, and began selling identical or similar goods, and those who ran them soon felt the need to set up house there, primitive huts on stilts to begin with, then using more durable materials, such as bricks, stones and tiles. It is worth observing in passing that from the moment these first buildings appeared, one could distinguish a) almost imperceptibly, b) from the evidence before one’s eyes, the social status, as it were, of the four sides of the square. As with all countries, this one, too, was not uniformly populated, nor, despite His Majesty’s extraordinary complacency, were his subjects socially equal: some were rich and others poor, and the distribution of the former and the latter conformed to universal criteria: the poor man attracts the rich man at a distance that suits the rich man; in his turn, the rich man attracts the poor man, but that is not to say that the outcome (the constant factor in the process) will operate in the poor man’s favour. If, because of the criteria applied to the living, the cemetery, after this general transfer, began to divide up internally, it also became noticeable on the outside. There is scarcely any need to explain why. Since the northern region had the highest concentration of the country’s wealthy people, that side of the cemetery, with its imposing outlay, assumed a social status opposed, for example, to that of the south, which happened to service the poorest region. And the same thing occurred, in general, when it came to the other sides. Like attracts like. Although in a much less clearly defined manner, the outside reflected the inside. For example, the florists who soon began appearing on all four sides of the square did not all sell the same quality of goods: some displayed and sold the most exquisite blooms cultivated in gardens and hothouses at great expense, others were more modest and sold flowers gathered from the surrounding countryside. The same could be said about all the other goods displayed there, and as one might have expected, the civil servants complained, on finding themselves weighed down with petitions and complaints. One must not forget that the cemetery had a complicated system of administration, controlled its own budget, employed thousands of grave-diggers. In the early days, the different categories of civil servants lived inside the square, in the central part, and well out of sight of any burials. But soon there were problems regarding hierarchy, provisions, schools for the children, hospitals, maternity care. What was to be done? Build a city within the cemetery? That would mean going back to the beginning, not to mention that with the passage of time the city and the cemetery would overlap, the tombs penetrating gaps in the streets or actually bordering the pavements, the streets circling the tombs in search of land for the houses. It would mean returning to the same old promiscuity, now aggravated by the fact that things happened within a square of ten kilometres on each side with few exits to the outside. So now it was a question of choosing between a city of living human beings surrounded by a city of the dead, or the only alternative, a city of the dead surrounded by four cities of living human beings. Once the choice was formalised, and it also became clear that those accompanying the funeral processions could not make the long, exhausting return journey immediately, either because they did not have the strength or because incapable of sudden separation from their loved ones, the four external cities grew apace in haphazard fashion. There were boarding-houses of every category in every street, hotels with one, two, three, four, five stars or more, numerous brothels, churches for every legally recognised cult and several secret sects, little corner shops and enormous department stores, countless houses, office buildings, public offices and various municipal bodies. Then came public transport, the police, restricted circulation and the problem of traffic. And a certain amount of delinquency. One fiction alone was preserved: to keep the dead out of sight of the living; therefore no building could be more than nine metres high. But this matter was solved later, when an imaginative architect reinvented Columbus’s egg: walls higher than nine metres for buildings higher than nine metres.
In the fullness of time the cemetery wall became unrecognisable: instead of the initial smooth uniformity extended for forty kilometres, what appeared was an irregular denticulation, also variable in width and height, according to the side of the wall. No one can any longer remember when it was decided that the time had come to install the cemetery gates. The civil servant who had pressed for this economy had already passed on to the other side and could no longer defend a theory that was sound at the time but no longer tenable, as he himself would have had the good sense to acknowledge: stories began circulating about souls from the other world, about ghosts and apparitions – so what else could be done but to install gates?
And so four great cities rose up between the kingdom and the cemetery, each one facing its cardinal point, four unexpected cities which came to be known as Northern Cemetery, Southern Cemetery, Eastern Cemetery and Western Cemetery, but which were later simply referred to as Cemeteries Number One, Two, Three and Four, inasmuch as all attempts to give them more poetic or commemorative names had failed. These four cities acted as four barriers, four living walls which surrounded and protected the cemetery. The cemetery represented one hundred square kilometres of almost total silence and solitude, surrounded by the outer anthill of the living, by the sound of people shouting, hooters, outbursts of laughter and snatches of conversation, the rumbling of engines, by the interminable murmuring of nerve-cells. To arrive at the cemetery was already something of an adventure. Eventually nobody could retrace the rectilinear plan of the old roads within the cities. It was easy to say where they had passed: you only had to stand in front of one of the main gates. But leaving aside some of the longer stretches of recognisable paving, the rest had got lost in the confusion of buildings and roads, improvised to begin with and then superimposed on the original plan. Only in the open countryside was the road still the highway of the dead.
And now the inevitable happened, although we do not know who started it or when. A summary investigation, carried out afterwards, verified cases on the outer periphery of City Number Two, the poorest city of all, and facing south, as we stated earlier: corpses buried in small private backyards beneath flowering plants which reappeared each spring. About this same time, like those great inventions which erupt in various minds simultaneously because the time has come for them to mature, in sparsely populated parts of the realm certain persons decided, for many different and sometimes contradictory reasons, to bury their dead near, or inside caves, at the side of forest paths or on some sheltered mountain slope. There were fewer prosecutions in those days and many civil servants were prepared to accept bribes. The statistics bureau announced that, according to the official registers, a lower mortality rate could be safely predicted, and this was naturally attributed to the government’s health programme, under the direct supervision of His Majesty the King. The four cities of the cemetery felt the consequences of the decline in the number of deaths. Certain businesses suffered serious losses, there were a fair number of bankruptcies, some of them fraudulent, and when it was finally recognised that, however laud- able, the royal strategy for the nation’s welfare was not likely to concede immortality, a thoroughly repressive law was introduced to enforce the obedience of the masses. To no avail: after a short-lived outburst of enthusiasm, the cities stagnated and became dilapidated. Ever so slowly, the kingdom began to be repopulated with the dead. In the end, the vast central cemetery only received corpses from the four surrounding cities, which became increasingly deserted and silent. But the King was no longer there to see it.
The King was now very old. One day, looking down from the highest terrace of the palace, he saw, despite failing eyesight, the pointed tip of a cypress tree rising above four white walls, in all probability indicating the presence of a courtyard rather than death. But one divines certain things without difficulty, especially as one gets older. The King stored every item of news and every rumour in his head, what they told him and what they kept from him, and he realised the hour of understanding had come. Followed by a guard, as protocol demanded, he descended into the palace gardens. Dragging his royal cloak, he slowly made his way along an avenue leading to the concealed heart of the forest. There he lay down in a clearing and stretched out on the dry leaves; then summoning the guard who had fallen to his knees, he told him before dying: ‘Here’.