To write a novel about happiness is just to write a novel, because after all when you talk about women and men you're always talking about this: about how we are, and how we can and try to be happy every day, and about how we usually feel we do not manage. But sometimes you play with an open hand, even in literature, and that's what Portuguese author David Machado did with his Indice medio de felicidade (2013).
The story of the main character spins around the suggestive idea that happiness can be measured out: parameters change for every single person, and calculations are tough, but it seems that everyone is able to find his own grade of happiness in a scale of one to ten, decimals included. Too simple, apparently. But no. Machado is good at building a solid structure that becomes more and more convincing, but it's plausible from the beginning. His writing is full, limpid, essential but never untidy. And his capacity to paint vividly his characters is undeniable. For some of them a few brush stokes are enough, for others, like the three 40 years old friends at the centre of the story, all of the 260 pages of the book are necessary.
The novel is a sort of long letter written from the main character Daniel to his friend Almodôvar. A letter that won't ever be read, because Almodôvar, in the prison where he's locked up, doesn't want and cannot read it. Neither will Xavier, the third vertex of a triangle born so long ago and still standing, with all its cracks. Xavier is depressed, sociopathic, he's not been leaving his house for more than ten years, and the idea of the average index of happiness is an idea of his: he puts it in Daniel's head, he's the one that, paradoxically, will seem to be able to define the decisive advancement of the story. The three friends, before the inexplicable robbery that leads to Almodôvar's detention, had created a web site in which people could ask or offer some help. Something like a time bank. But the site doesn't work, and it never did, and this is a distress to the three of them, especially to Xavier. And when an unknown woman finally writes claiming some help, and nobody else seems ready to help her, the creators know that it's up to them. It's a matter of responsibility. He who creates expectations must do whatever he can not to disappoint them. This is the real core question: where are we supposed to arrive, how much should we sacrifice our needs and interests to satisfy those of other people? And which, and how many, are those other people? The good thing, obviously, it's that there's no answer at all.
Last but not least, Indice medio de felicidade is a novel about the huge economic crisis that we were still facing when another one, bigger and more dramatic, was brought by pandemic. We are in the Portugal of 2010, more or less, and social ruins of the big bang of 2007/2008 are everywhere. The parable of Daniel is paradigmatic of the fall of middle class, of the slipping of reference points, of the general impoverishment that spared just those who stood at the top of the pyramid. Daniel has not a job anymore, not a house, his family is about to explode, his dignity is hanging in the balance, but his faith in future can't seems to fade. He's always fighting a battle against money, like anyone else, for the primary necessities and the need to save, despite all, even at the cost of lying to the others and to himself, the values on which he founded his existence. It's a hard job for everyone, for someone it's harder. The final picaresque part of the novel sheds light on this point, and some circles get closed, and, although the fundamental knots will remain unsolved, that's ok. Because this is how life goes on, and the stories that we tell one another are part of our life as anything else happens to us.