David Machado ‘The shelf life of happiness’

The vacuum cleaner scheme went like this: the company that sold them (it was called WRU, though I never found out what that stood for) rented equipment by the week to its employees—me and everyone else who had been selected—so we could do demos. We were expected to arrange these demos ourselves, … They didn’t give me a desk, just the address of a warehouse where I’d go pick up the vacuum cleaners. Everything else was done over the phone. I didn’t have a contract, which allowed me to keep collecting unemployment, and I earned a commission for each vacuum cleaner I sold, between 7 and 11 percent, minus rental fees. In other words, I had to pay to work. I accepted the job immediately.

David Machado’s Daniel had a job, a family and friends and them came Portugal’s financial crisis. In this book read for Spanish and Portuguese lit month, as Daniel ‘s wife moves back in with her parents at the other end of Portugal to find work, and then Daniel’s well paid job as a lunch pin in a travel agent’s just get’s swept away in the internet tsunami, We follow Daniel as he fights to survive in a world that no longer really exists, unable to face up to what is happening to him. There are no jobs out there and in order to try to keep the appartement his family no longer live in he is forced towards degrading jobs, like the one in the opening quote.

The story is told as a conversation between Daniel and his friend, Almodôvar, who is in prison and we slowly learn that despite himself, Daniel is there for his friends and their families around him, for instance for the seemingly asocial Xavier, who has not left his room for a decade and who was more Almodôvar’s friend where we hear of the website the three friends had tried to create to try to bring people together to help each other:

In Xavier’s room, time slows down, things take longer to happen, as if our bodies become denser there, as if nothing—no gesture, no sentence, no silence—could ever really end. After about three minutes, he spoke. “We messed up,” he said. “What do you mean, ‘we messed up’?” “The site,” he said. “The site isn’t working.” Can you believe it? The dude was still working on the site. You hadn’t been around for over six months and Xavier had kept working on that shitty site. … He was right: the site wasn’t working. But I had forgotten about it a long time before. Meanwhile, a year later, Xavier was still messing around with it. I didn’t want to have that pointless conversation, so I tried to be patient. “What do you want to do about it?” I asked him. “We can’t put in more money.” He closed his laptop, and his face went dark. “There are people using the site,” he said. “The problem is that none of them need any help.”

And for Almôdovar’s son, Vasco, who, since his father has been jailed, has become mixed up with other kids of his age, first of all filming themselves pissing on drunks and then posting the films on line, films which, to Daniel’s surprise, have tens of thousands of views a day “who would want to watch this?” And then when Daniel has lost his appartement and is living in his car, as he is talking to Vasco, these same friends set fire to his car.

It takes a road trip in a van with Xavier, Vasco, Daniel’s troubled children and a pensioner who had posted on their website to say he had a seven seater van, in order to help the first person that had ever asked for help on their website, for Daniel to see that everyone struggles and that he needs to let go of the past to redefine himself. And as for Almodôvar, well the clue to what’s happening there is in the first page.

First Published in Portuguese as “Índice médio de felicidade” in 2013 by Publicações Dom Quixote
Translated into English by Hillary Locke and published as “The Shelf Life of Happiness” in 2016 by AmazonCrossing


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