Gonçalo M. Tavares
The Inside of Things … Mister Valéry earned a living by selling the inside of things. Mister Valéry did not sell the object so to speak, but only the inside of the object. The buyer would take a dish, for example, but in truth he only owned the inside of the dish. […] Problems, however, arose when the owner of the inside of something happened to meet the owner of the outside of the same object. -Mister Valéry/Senhor Valéry
Contemporary Portuguese writer Gonçalo M. Tavares is a literary figure of international prominence as well asa professor of scientific theory at the University of Lisbon. His radical, unpretentious work offers microscopic examinations of human nature where he tests the materials of logic and language with each sentence, reducing the world to magnified parts only to recompose it for the reader in extended literary forms. Logic and language-play abound inwitty texts that converseas freely with contemporary subjects as they do with world literature and western philosophy. In little over a decade, Tavares has established hisunique voice in contemporary Portuguese and European circles by publishing more than 30 bookstranslated into numerous languages ranging from poetry, novels, and short fiction to theater pieces and unclassifiable”investigative works” such as his 2001Livro da dança (Dance Book). Internationally, his texts inspire installations, theatre, visual art, and operas. In the evidence of such talent Portugal’s Nobel laureate José Saramagodeclared, “Gonçalo M. Tavares has no right to be writing so well at the age of 35! One feels like punching him!” His 2004 novel Jérusalem and the more recent epicand singularly lyric narrative in poetic form,Uma viagemna India 2010 (A voyage to India),have been acclaimedas contemporary masterpieces.
Each Tavares book is part of an evolving, extensive oeuvredivided intosuch categories asO Bairro (The Neighborhood), a series of fictions loosely inspired from his view ofillustrious creators:Mister Eliot, Mister Brecht, Mister Calvino, Mister Walser, andMister Valéry. Encyclopediaoffers three books filled with puzzle-like miniatures, on the subjects of science, connections, and fear. The quartet OReino (The Kingdom)contains4 novels, including his recent Aprender a rezarna Era da Técnica/Learning to Pray in theAge of Technique. Fortunately for English readers, a portion of his oeuvre is available in quality translations and moreare in progress.
Promotional photos and video interviews with the dark-haired, intenseGonçaloM. Tavares suggest a brooding Mephistophelesseized abruptly by the camera. Such appearances, however, disguise the uncomplicated elegance of an amiable,generous, and attentive conversationalist. He is a question mark of a writer who carves fictions in the same manner as he thinks:probing systematically with a surgical scalpel. Too close to the bone and relentless to allow for nostalgia, Tavares’ work contrasts sharply with characteristics often identified as Portuguese and with writers of his generation.
In the opening lines of Jerusalem, Ernest Spengler is about to throw himself from his window when he receives a call from the schizophrenic Mylia. She leaves her apartment at 3 am to go to a church. Wandering the streets at the same moment in search of a prostitute is Theodor Busbeck, the ex-husband of Mylia and the doctor who attempted to cure her years earlier. In the same vicinity is HinnerekObst, a war veteran so traumatized by fear that he is taken for a murderer. These are the disturbing figures Tavares cranks tightly then sets in motion on darkened, anonymous city streets.
In his ominously titled Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique, the reputable surgeon Lenz Buchmann is a domineering figure whose days are filled with cold, unwavering decisions about life and death on the operating table. Obsessed with his superiority and believing himself destined to work on greater projects than ailing human bodies, he becomes involved in politics. He succeeds as brilliantly in the public arena asin his medical profession, advancing towards the summit of public power until he is diagnosed with a brain tumor.
Tavares treats the body as an intimate and political figure in Learning to Pray, as he explores raw human impulses in varying contexts, contrasting them in wide-angle and close-up views. His novels afford the spacerequired to create tension between the poles of systematic logic in which a yes/no response is inevitable and the less predictable wandering of fictional humans where no clear solution to conflict is evident. Tavaresis a master at organizing this fertile confrontation. Jerusalemconcludes with a question that exemplifies this duality when Mylia asks the person who answers the church door where she is standing, “I killed a man. Will you let me enter?”
Born in Portugal’s colonial Angola a few years before the 1974 Carnation Revolution, Tavares is uncomfortable with the notion of identifying with a specific generation of contemporary writers. He claims that what you write has more to do with what you read than when you were born. “Each person has a ‘library’ of references and two people from the same generation can have very different libraries. A text is the result of many influences, and the idea of generation is an exclusion.” Further, he believes that personal culture rather than exterior causes are more determining for a writer. However, he acknowledges that though he grew up with access to his father’s books and space to roam freely outside, his parent’s Portugal was an isolated country where only the elite had access to contemporary culture. It wasn’t so much that things were prohibited as that they simply weren’t accessible.
“I don’t want to be free of the past,”Tavares responds to the suggestion that his was a liberated environment after the Salazar dictatorship. “It’s incorporated in my experience, my cultural heritage.”
Most of Tavares’ texts have nothing specifically Portuguese about them with regards to cultural references or locations. He is purposeful on a much broader scale. As evidenced in his characters’ names, if there is a filiation in his work it is closer to the German and middle European traditions of Kafka, Musil and Walser than anywhere else. He also expresses affinities with the literature of Latin America.
His work is free of any trace of quaintness ornotions of a grander past, notable for example in the country’ssleeping king folk-motif calledSebastianism. Rather, Tavares probes contemporary and seemingly non-biographic themes that link all humans: their animality as expressed in desire, violence, agitation, and fear. He notes, “Culture is what surrounds that, the decor…it’s not essential.”The objects that people employ (a rock, a knife, a pencil, a cup) serve as extensions of emotional dimensions, and he zooms-in on them and narrates how his characters relate to them.
Cups and hands…Mister Juarroz was always loathe to pick up his coffee cup because he couldn’t help but think that it wasn’t one’s hands that picked up objects but rather the objects that picked up one’s hands. And this fact displeased him, since he couldn’t accept that a simple cup could grab his hand. -Mister Juarroz/Senhor Juarez
“How you look at things determines how you interpret them,”Tavares indicates. His métissage of analytic thought and fictional narrative is distinctive in contemporary literature and unprecedented in the Portuguese canon, blood mixing that is uncannily entertaining, revealing, and savvy. His comment about viewing and interpreting is a key to reading his work. As in his books Mister Juarroz and Mister Valéry, reversing the apparent evidence of ordinarythings makes for playful images and unexpected observations. Critical of the Cartesian tradition inherent in the work of a scientific theorist and which he confronts candidly in his fiction, Tavares comments, “In western tradition we take things apart when we don’t understand them. Understanding means to comprehend the parts rather than seeing the similarities in things. It is rich in detailed knowledge, but the cost has been great in sacrificing other perspectives.”The interweaving of holistic and reductionist views is a philosophical, artistic issue for Tavares and one he manipulates constantly to dynamic effect.
Suggestive rather than didactic, Tavares’ novels are still un-mistakenly intentionedand systematic. In Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique, Lenz Buchmannwatches people from the window of his upper-level apartment. In the operating room, he performs surgery with microscopic precision. In his move towards political power, he imagines the same processes on the body politic as on an infirm human body.In the more spacious long fiction narratives of The Kingdom collection, his metaphors gain dimension and force.
Sadness was so prevalent that people were paid to smile. Amid the city crowds, plainclothes men watched for the few smiling citizens that happened to pass by and, discreetly, ordered them to stop. -The Ingenuous Country
Much of Tavares work reads like puzzles with echoes of a cosmic joke. There is a fertile zone between yes and no, between perfection and imperfection, between beauty and ugliness. This is the sensitive flesh Tavares probes with words. “A book is done when I have corrected the error I made in the first sentence,” Tavares reveals. The notion of error is essential with regards to his relentless analysis of reality, humans and materials. Particularly in his short fiction and miniatures, as if they were literary lab tests, he systematically challenges the idea of success and error. Perhaps each writing project begins with a flaw because it is the only way to start, and it provides irresistible stimulus for an exacting writer to workhis way through the creative labyrinth and back to the beginning. His notions of correcting and error are as metaphorical as they are technical.
So far there are no professors of Science theory in Tavares oeuvre, but one senses the control of a “Technical Age” Lenz Buchmann in Tavares. It is revealing that at age 21, already with finished manuscripts in hand, he decided to wait ten years to publish, all the while elaboratingan oeuvre that since then has allowed himto present an average of 3 new works per year and vault to the forefront of contemporary Portuguese literature.
He is a keen observer of humans’ relationship to technology, commenting in particular on its omnipresent role in contemporary life. “The new thing for humans in our age and what the Greeks couldn’t anticipate is technology, for example, in relation to the body. It’s not what’s around us but what is inside us that is different now. Traditionally the flesh was sacred. A bullet or a blade was fatal. The natural and artificial worlds were different. Now we are artificial and natural at the same time. A factory can make a body part.” For Tavares, this is the subject of ongoing speculation and fertile material for his texts.
He is fascinated by a journalist’s recent excited comments, reporting that a computer program had been created that could write news stories. The journalist marveled at a machine that could render him useless and unemployed. Tavares ponders such behavior and blind credence in the superiority of technology. Intrigue lies in how a human could be so apt at inventing his proper uselessness and admire it at the same time. “It’s a kind of happy suicide…One problem of our economic crisis is that we believe technical progress is equated with human progress. We have to figure out whether it makes sense that a machine replaces a human or not. It is an illusion that technology allows everyone to be more creative. Many people don’t want to be poets.”
It’s exciting to wonder where the pace and scope of Gonçalo M. Tavares’ literary production will lead, and such anticipation adds to the pleasure of reading his work. He retains the childhood memory of viewing the construction sites where his father worked and how it would transform from a hole in the ground to a building with windows and doors. There is no doubt that in hisexpanding, multi-level literary oeuvre,Gonçalo M. Tavares is erecting a world thatis imperative for English readers to discover. As they do, they will discoverthe mutually inclusive qualities of a sensitive human observer and furiously productive writing machine.
More on Gonçalo M. Tavares
Gonçalo M. Tavares in English:
Dalkley Archive Press
-Joseph Walser’s Machine
-Learning to Pray in the Technical Age
*The text on Gonçalo M. Tavares is part of a series of portraits of 4 contemporary Portuguese writers withsupport of Portugal’s Institute Camões and The Québec Arts Council.
(unpublished – texto inédito)
Richard Simas is a freelance writer living in Montreal. His fiction won a 2008 Fiddlehead literary prize and has appeared in the Journey Prize Anthology. His nonfiction work has been published in literary and arts reviews in Canada and Europe, and includes commentaries on contemporary dance, music, theater, and Azorean culture. Recently, he created a New Music-Spoken word performance based on Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet that premiered at the Open Ears New Music festival in Kitchener, Ontario and was performed at Les Éscales Improbables in Montreal
Richard Simas, June 2012
NOTE: Originally published on Comunidades, 2012-07-08.