Reading Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, or perhaps any masterwork of its scope, like War and Peace, one experiences a sequence of intellectual, emotional, and bodily responses. They are, at least in part: Wonder at the impossible genius of the author, who can sense, with panopticon vision, the authentic truths of many worlds, and give voice to them, as if a ventriloquist or an interpreter of dreams; Thirst for more of those worlds and the words to describe them, words swallowed as quickly and desperately as they can be provided; Laughter at the absurdity of human desire and failure, rendered in deadpan brilliance and sly humor; and Melancholy that settles in as sweet sickness of mind and body, the very pain of conscious life, the splendor and the terror. “Few other contemporary novels had ever involved me so completely,” says director Robert Falls, a Tony Award-winner who is artistic director of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. He read 2666 in Natasha Wimmer’s English translation as soon as FSG put it out in 2008 and, seduced, began working on a stage adaptation. Eight years later, the play 2666, which Falls adapted and directed with Goodman’s playwright-in-residence, Seth Bockley, is on stage in Goodman’s blackbox, in a five-and-a-half hour production. The play thrills -- indeed producing wonder, thirst, laughter, and melancholy -- when Falls and Bockley trust themselves as interpreters, like Bolaño, of conflicted and contradictory reality. When they forget, pigeonholing characters into cartoons Bolaño never intended, the show becomes exhausting. By the end, after almost a quarter day, one is merely thrilled to move again and then to consider sleep. Hans Reiter, a Prussian boy who goes off to fight in World War II, is the figure at the center of the novel 2666. Detached from his unit and hiding out in a house in a Ukrainian village, Reiter discovers the journal of Boris Ansky, a Jewish writer presumably killed during the war. As he lounges around Ansky’s house reading the man’s journal entry on the idea of semblance, Reiter begins to feel he is Ansky. But at the same time, he discovers a powerful sense of his own original rebirth. “He felt free, as he never had in his life, and although malnourished and weak, he also felt the strength to prolong as far as possible this impulse toward freedom, toward sovereignty,” writes Bolaño. At war’s end, feeling that he needs to mask his identity after killing an amoral Nazi official, Leo Sammer, he renames himself Benno von Archimboldi, the initials a semblance of Boris Ansky’s, and seizes a new identity. Archimboldi’s freedom and detachment is a leitmotif for the unhinged 20th century in Bolaño’s eyes, the specter of possibility, but also of danger and evil. The various dimensions of human existence -- the understood, the confused, the real, and the unperceivable -- is the landscape of the novel, meted out in five parts, beginning with the search, by four scholars in the late 1990s, for the mysterious Archimboldi, an overlooked literary genius, who they think really ought to be considered for the Nobel Prize. The four come to understand Archimboldi’s been seen in the unruly Mexican city Santa Theresa, in the north along the U.S. border, Bolaño’s fictionalized Ciudad Juarez. Santa Theresa, where hundreds of young women have been raped and murdered without resolution, metaphor of human darkness, draws the American journalist Oscar Fate, writer for the Harlem-based magazine Black Dawn; the Chilean-born Oscar Amalfitano, depressed philosophy professor and Archimboldi translator recently appointed to a position at the University of Santa Theresa (presumably the only job he could get); and the troubled journeyman Klaus Haas, who has freed himself from end-of-the-road Prussia. Falls and Bockley’s play follows the novel’s format: Act One is “The Part About The Academics,” Act Two “The Part About Fate” and “The Part About Amalfitano,” Act Three “The Part About The Crimes,” and Act Four “The Part About Archimboldi.” The playwrights also put Bolaño’s show-by-telling prose style to work -- no easy task -- dividing narration among various characters to keep up the story’s pace. Imaginative staging and the use of video screens, PowerPoint, and film help untangle the novel’s discursive threads, and bring the characters to life. A frequent critique of Bolaño’s writing is that his emphasis on ideas shades the true life and motivation of characters. Here, the playwrights and actors allow us to see our tragic heroes as real people. This is possible in these early acts because Bolaño’s ruminating centers around discrete events. Even the most ambivalent ticket holder will admit to detecting plot. The Act One and Act Two script is almost entirely Bolaño’s -- or, really, Wimmer’s -- words, but for one noticeable moment when Falls and Bockley brilliantly augment dialog to make sense of the academics’ growing madness. Enervated by the desire for one another and their growing embattled influence as a scholar bloc in the hidebound world of German literature and Archimboldi studies, the four -- Jean-Claude Pelletier, Manuel Espinoza, Piero Morini, and Liz Norton -- want to get inside each other’s pants as much as their heads. Norton takes on both Pelletier and Espinoza as lovers and in a London cab, driven by a conservative Pakistani immigrant, they go at it, with cosmopolitan banter and unambiguous groping. The cab driver becomes defensive -- imagining the scholars are making fun of him -- and takes offense at the lurid behavior in the backseat. “By what he had heard, the woman here present, in other words Norton, was lacking in decency and dignity, and in his country there was a word for what she was, the same word they had for it in London as it happened, and the word was bitch or slut or pig,” writes Bolaño, “and the gentlemen here present, gentlemen who, to judge by their accents, weren’t English, also had a name in his country and that name was pimp or hustler or whoremonger.” Here, the set, designed by Walt Spangler, flexes perfectly to become the cab, and the script leaps from Bolaño’s thick running paragraph page. When reading the novel, what happens next seems impossible and absurd. Espinoza and Pelletier drag the cabbie out of the car and assault him, nearly to death. On the page, the flash of evil passes by, almost inscrutably. But here on the stage, Laurence Grimm, as Pelletier, and Demetrios Troy, as Espinoza, can’t help but defend the Western values the driver has insulted. As Pelletier lands blows, he cries out, in dialog augmented by Falls and Bockley, “This is for the feminists of Paris!…This one’s for Salman Rushdie!” In fact, the heightening of plot points and characters is necessary for the play's audience to grasp the impossibly expansive world. Many of the characters in the novel just play out into the ether -- they don’t resolve. This is part of Bolaño’s point of the title 2666, a year so far in the distance the world seems to dissolve. The novelist’s role is to reveal the hidden eternal structure of the world and hint at the secret connections, such as that, for example, between Boris Ansky and Hans Reiter. The sprawl -- which is geographic but also layering of time and place, reality and other dimensions, ideas and choices -- gets articulated in the multi-media format, in the staging, and in the use of a core group of actors to each play multiple parts, a subtle gesture to the secret connections of 2666. The playwrights have done some necessary clarifying so you’ll care and, as the play continues, thirst for more, and in this sense, in the first two acts, confining 2666 to the stage opens the work to those uninterested in a 900-page slog. Most obviously, they do so by fully situating the maddening Santa Theresa, meant by Bolaño to be a mirror of our own darkness -- a consequence of freedom -- at the center. “It’s a crazy city,” says Charly Cruz (played by Juan Francisco Villa), the owner of three Santa Theresa video stores, to Oscar Fate. “It looks like a real city, but it’s not real. It doesn’t work.” Had Cruz, a kind of drunk soothsayer in Falls and Bockley’s adaptation, said, instead, “It looks like a real city, but it’s not real. It’s like a mirage,” the playwrights would have kept their central focus but also reinforced Bolaño’s philosophical intent. Unfortunately, with the afterthought “It doesn’t work,” they take a hard turn to the material -- and the city, with its violence and corruption, becomes the firm noir-like subject of Act Three, “The Part About The Crimes.” What’s lost in the exchange is the metaphysical possibility that Bolaño emits of different dimensions of reality. Instead, the here and now. Because of Bolaño’s matter-of-fact handling of the description of the dozens of young women, many of them prostitutes or maquiladora workers, this is the part of the novel that received the most attention. And rightfully, the text is a clear-eyed exposition of evil and impenetrable injustice that no one seemed to care enough about to resolve. I wondered, going into the theater, how the play would handle the endless recital of victims -- “That same month of November 1994, the partially charred body of Silvana Pérez Arjona was found in a vacant lot. She was fifteen and thin, dark-skinned, five foot three. Her black hair fell beneath her shoulders, although when she was found half her hair was scorched off...” -- and fields, street corners, and colonias where they are found. Falls and Bockley use them, rather effectively, as incantation of evil, in narration handled by various actors, using the text as Bolaño presented it. The incantation could have set a kind of otherworldly tone. Instead, the staging becomes claustrophobic -- perhaps the point -- but at the expense of Bolaño’s expansiveness. That fascinating literary depth also got crowded out by the one-note characterization of Santa Theresa police officials Epifanio Galindo, played by a much less nuanced Grimm; Pedro Negrete, played by Sean Fortunato, who had perfectly handled, in Act One, the academic Morini; and Jaime Contreras, played by Demetrios Troy, otherwise quite convincing as Espinoza and sportswriter Chucho Flores. Contreras, a kind of standard bad man who kills his wife isn’t a cop in the novel. But here he’s further cudgeling evidence of the police force’s evil and corruption. The nuance was lost along with Contreras and various other characters’ conflicted natures, and so was the dramatic tension, which had left this reader, at least, not only disgusted by injustice, but also with a feeling of terrifying melancholy. Falls perhaps overemphasized the apparent range of the novel’s style, the shift “in tone from Pedro Almodóvar-like comedy to film noir to frenetic hyper-realism, finishing with an extraordinary ‘fairy tale’ section.” The shift in tone, which Falls picked up on as a defining feature of the adaptation, is jarring for the play audience much more so than for the reader, who maintains Bolaño’s rather consistent prose style. It’s most unfortunate in play’s last act, “The Part About Archimboldi,” the lynchpin of the book. Here, Bolaño reveals not a maudlin fairy tale of the 20th century, but rather a secret history filtered through the panopticon’s eyes, through which it’s possible to understand how a man like Klaus Haas, the nephew of Archimboldi, could be an evil killer. Instead, Archimboldi and Haas, both played by Mark Montgomery, turn out to be inscrutable plaything giants, monsters without any apparent real will, so much so that it’s impossible to understand, through this portrayal, the academics’ Act One obsession. What all this speaks to is the loss of the novel’s philosopher-king, the writer himself, immersed in the inferno of the world, but separate from it, too. As much as the book is about the writer -- the writer’s process, the writer’s role, the writer’s place in the world and his psychology, too -- the play is about the madness that underlies Santa Theresa. 2666, I was told by a woman who had just seen the show that I met on the Blue Line “L,” is a gaze at the devil. The word “evil,” she said, is contained in “devil.” I frankly hadn’t ever thought about that, not even after reading Bolaño’s masterpiece over and over again.
Jean-Philippe Blondel’s novel, 6h41, was published in 2013. French readers, who use a 24-hour clock, weren’t confused by the title, but I suspect Americans, reading in translation, will be. The 6:41 to Paris, after all, sounds like it might be a work of noir, the train on its way to the lurid night. But it is a morning train, the 6:41. That’s the reader’s first indication that the novel is a work of literary inversion. Shadowy evening is bright morning. Hatred might be the seed of love. A distant end could very well trigger a new beginning. Cécile Duffaut owns a successful organic beauty product corporation. A plain girl from an undistinguished town, Troyes, in middle age, Cécile has become stylish and attractive. She’s spent an emotionally draining weekend with her aging parents; now, 6:41 Monday morning, she’s heading in to work. The seat next to her is blissfully empty -- until moments before the train leaves. Cécile gazes out her window. When a middle-aged man asks if the seat is taken, she sighs. She looks him over: “Wrinkled. Flabby. With sagging shoulders. A definite paunch. A scraggly beard.” This is Philippe Leduc. Twenty-seven years earlier, Cécile and Philippe, a heartthrob, had had an affair. He ended it, without explanation, without a precipitating fight, during a weekend away in London. Blondel switches between Cécile and Philippe’s inner monologues as they become aware of each other on the train. Blondel acknowledges the engineered nature of the plot. “This is ridiculous,” thinks Philippe, and the reader will surely agree. Cécile channels her inner teen: “Oh. My. God,” a stock phrase she later repeats. In purposely overplaying disbelief, the phrase “Oh. My. God.” contains it’s own irony. Blondel uses it to signal to the reader: all novels are false, why fake it? Blondel’s wink begs the reader to recall Graham Greene’s 1951 The End of the Affair, which opens ponderously, “A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” Green’s book has the quality of a long, high-walled canal; you can’t see side to side, only front to back, future to past. As the book opens, the narrator is Maurice Bendrix; as in The 6:41 to Paris, the first person voice will switch between Maurice and his former lover Sarah Miles. Like Greene himself, the character Maurice is a novelist of renowned “technical ability.” The closeness between Greene and his protagonist allows him likewise to signal the reader: this story is a construct meant to heighten feeling. “It is convenient, it is correct according to the rules of my craft to begin just there,” winks Greene, speaking for himself and for Maurice, still in the opening paragraph. The novelist is talking about constructing the story as he’s writing it. Blondel places his protagonists next to each other on the train. Greene places his on either side of Clapham Common, in London. Maurice gazes out his window when he spots Sarah’s husband Henry tromping across the common through slashing rain. This is the arbitrary moment. But why should he go out to speak to him? Two years earlier, Sarah had left Maurice without explanation. Hatred for her and for Henry won’t relent. Blondel inverts Maurice’s hatred and assigns it to Cécile: “a voracious feeling inside, the likes of which I had never known. A desire to tear everything to shreds.” This is how she felt on the train from London 27 years before. Now the hatred has returned. It combines with pity. Time has manhandled Philippe Leduc. Divorced, he spends his weekends with his old friend Mathieu, who is dying of cancer. But what might happen after a chance encounter? In London, 1946, after the chance encounter with Henry, Maurice reconnects with Sarah. They have lunch. He wants to kiss her and she pushes him away. He hires a private detective to follow her and he delivers Sarah’s diary. Maurice learns that she had left him because she couldn’t handle the intensity of her love. And that love has delivered Sarah to God; it propels a conversion to Catholicism. She’s lost interest in the here and now. Maurice is left drained, susceptible himself to signs of God. Blondel writes with a similar near-sightedness. People up against a wall will always think in clipped terms, as if always half-injured. Blondel inherits this, too (without needing to invert it) from Greene, but the simplicity of his language, in Alison Anderson’s translation, allies his work with contemporary French writers like Dominique Fabre and Patrick Modiano. The gift of this French contemporary voice is the way it confronts the everyday, without pandering, without fear of the quotidian. This is ultimately how Blondel evades falseness. The voice fails at times, however. Blondel too often privileges realistic speech (but doesn’t he realize we’ve acknowledged his wink?); he fails to exercise language. Cécile’s feeling of separateness is like “a thick layer of plastic.” Philippe’s mother is one of “the baby boomers who never really knew any hardship.” I can forget the flaccid prose when Cécile and Philippe push deep into the emptiness of middle age. At 47, Cécile is only now coming into her own, but who around her is worth her time? Philippe in his own head wanders through the bloated mortgage, the distant kids, the dying friend. “The verb ‘to have,’” he thinks. It’s a troublesome one. It’s not a verb I’m familiar with. The more time goes by, the more I lose. The more I lose, the freer I am. The freer I am the more I wish I weren’t so free. What am I supposed to do with all this freedom? In London, after the end of their affair, Cécile had seized the opening given her by Philippe. The break-up awakened her. Even as she paced the foreign streets, leaving, alone, she took on power, hurling herself toward school and career. But she had already begun to possess power over him, and this had frightened him. Blondel plunges gently into psyche. His prose slows as the train nears Paris. It gains its own confidence and quiet. It glimmers between them. It becomes possibility. Separately they pass over the night in London, remembering; the two novels pass each other here, perhaps somewhere along the south bank of the Thames. Reading Sarah’s diary, Maurice learns she still loves him. But he’s helpless to act. Her love negates possibility because it negates the worldly. Sarah is abandoning life in favor of eternal love. The End of the Affair is one of Greene’s Catholic novels; the characters struggle with God and faith. Sarah’s death indeed produces miracles; the miracles begin to play for Maurice. If he turns to God, will he have Sarah forever? The space between Cécile and Philippe seems to shorten as the alternating passages converge on the London night 27 years ago, on the unsaid, on the unfulfilled now. Blondel isn’t interested in the eternal. Cécile and Philippe seek only verve, a speck of frisson. Such is middle age. Philippe hasn’t prayed for 27 years, when he wanted Cécile to leave London, leave him alone. But the miracle happens anyway, a predictable glitch for regular travelers on the SNCF. The train jilts and stops, knocking loose, at least, rather spare and hesitant words. It’s not yet nine; Cécile and Philippe tumble through conversation, caught in the undertow of a relentless wave of commuters. Another day begins.
The central characters of the first season of The Returned, an addictive and deeply unnerving French television drama available on Netflix, are identical twins, Camille and Léna. When we first meet Camille, she walks briskly up the road to her parents’ house in a polished town in the high Alps. Léna, meanwhile, is doing shots at the town’s rather youthful bar, the Lake Pub, named for the massive hydroelectric dam down below. Léna drinks and drinks some more, apparently chasing a demon. Ravenous, Camille devours a sandwich. What’s to account for the intensity of their behavior? Four years earlier, at the end of a school field trip that Léna should also have attended, Camille was killed when the tour bus went over a cliff as it returned to town. Soon, we are to realize, Camille isn’t alone among the confused and hungry dead who have just returned to walk among the living. A retired schoolteacher, Mr. Costa, has hidden his wife, who died in 1978, in the kitchen. She stuffs herself with spaghetti. Simon, who died on his wedding day, desperately searches for Adèle, his fiancée. Victor, a seven-year-old boy, lurks near a bus stop. He attaches himself to a woman with distant eyes. Indeed, the living here are as lonely as the orphan dead. And the dead feel their betrayal and exile as powerfully as do the living. “I lost my sister too,” insists Camille, when their father reminds her of Léna’s emotional wounds. Compounding the viewer’s discomfort: the script suggests that to execute the lie that allowed Léna to stay home on the day of the accident, the sisters had switched identities. Who exactly is living and who is dead? The question seems gaudy, but it isn’t just a throwaway logline for a zombie show. Not at least to the French writer Hadrien Larouche, Derrida disciple, Sebaldian investigator, playful and meticulous prober of contemporary life, whose first novel, the 2005 Orphans has just been brought out in the English translation by Jan Steyn and Caite Dolan-Leach. In this season of Patrick Modiano, Larouche is another French writer of intense and insistent vision -- in one place in this novel, he gives us Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, in another a man plugging his nostrils with cigarettes to keep off the stench of Serbian war dead. He is hot after the sense of personal spiritual identity in contemporary Europe, where the scars of the Second World War still bleed. He wants to know, in this meeting ground of living and dead, can anyone find comfort? “Death,” he writes, “held the living between its fingers. The dead finger kept the others prisoner.” In Orphans, the living likewise can’t let the dead be. The narrator of Orphans, a man named Hadrien, lives in self-made exile, writing, collecting fragments of others’ lives. “I, someone who was determined to never become a collector have seen the most troubling, obscure, and subtle of collections,” he writes, in a voice that seems determined to beckon W.G. Sebald, the novelist of collected memory and material who died in a tragic accident in 2001. Hadrien’s specialty is “living apparitions,” women, mostly, “a vision of the living body from birth to death,” but, of course, who here, among the observer and the observed, is really alive? Larouche, a writer of precise and palpable sensation, wants the reader to feel the writer’s characteristic isolation, a kind of solitary death, even as he tries to immerse himself in the real lives of others. This tension frames his approach to Jean Genet in The Last Genet: A Writer in Revolt, his only other book to be published in English. “I’ve always felt well-placed in a room equipped with a bed, a table, and a stool, in someone else’s home,” observes Hadrien. “Of course, I am no longer living in my own home in any permanent fashion.” Cut loose and yet not quite trying to connect intimately with others, Hadrien finds himself in the different houses of three people, each of them an orphan of sorts. Two of the orphans he visits in the real time of the narration itself; the third is a recollection from childhood. Larouche employs various devices to move us from one place to the next, but these are transparent -- he isn’t concerned with narrative. Rather Orphans is a work of observation and inquiry. Hadrien’s second visit -- we’ll return to the first momentarily -- is to the home of a friend, Helianthe née Bouttetruie, who has recently married and along with her husband purchased an old farmhouse they have to renovate. The house is located in the Swiss Alps, in a village that at first seems appealing and bright. “In truth,” says Hadrien, “it slowly worked on the bodies of its inhabitants, gently annihilating them, rendering them unrecognizable, and, finally, plunging them into despair.” This doesn’t seem far from zombie television, after all. Helianthe’s house is a mess. Her father, an architect, has drawn up an impossible plan. Her husband, Hector -- every name here starts with H, as if to reinforce the author’s own sense of exile -- keeps getting injured. Worse still, she suffers from a degenerative disease, an orphan disease, according to Larouche for the way its pathology isn’t connected to any other syndrome. “One day, out of the blue, the orphan disease takes shelter under a man’s or woman’s roof, and suddenly, his or her body harbors a new creature,” he says. Helianthe is short of breath, often off balance, and prone to falling down. Her left leg is three and half centimeters shorter than the right. In spite of the disease, Helianthe wants a child. The not yet born, Larouche would say, perhaps like the dead, have a handle on the living. But what of this prospective child? Helianthe’s doctor warns her that pregnancy and birth will kill her or the baby or both. She desires an orphan. Larouche is a post-modern writer of considerable feeling; Helianthe, essentially a subject of exploration, stands up -- crookedly, for sure -- for her sense of humanity. He’s best in this space, close up to the living -- here where contemporary people struggle, sometimes with the dead, for identity. At times, this puts him in conversation with Zadie Smith and Elena Ferrante, two quite different European writers. Helianthe, for example, speaks at least 14 languages and regional dialects. “Arriving in a foreign country meant at once a new life and a new language,” says Hadrien, of Helianthe’s global exile. “She experienced the joy of feeling foreign to herself.” After Hector’s latest accident, Hadrien, walking in the mountains, sees an old man that must be his cousin, Henry né Berg. This jars his memory. As a child, Hadrien had once visited Henry’s family. Henry’s father, a sadistic banker, forced Henry to use the servant’s entrance to the house. The exiled boy rejects his father’s world until at some point the desire for his own power consumes him. Now, “becoming a man exactly like his father,” he embodies the old man, who lives on inside him. In this story, the least interesting of the three for Hadrien’s lack of personal connection, Larouche echoes the tone of Portuguese writer Gonçalo M. Tavares, whose novels often explore themes of father-son domination and revenge. Those themes play out differently in the book’s first chapter, which takes place in the uncomfortable city apartment of Hannah née Bloch, a middle aged woman whose family was put in a Nazi camp in German-occupied Poland and was later exiled to France. Hannah’s story, of a Jew in the diaspora, is the most familiar here. By type, from birth, she lives in exile. Hannah suffers. She pinches pennies; she rarely leaves her run-down apartment. She is a kind of walking dead. But certain tactile things trigger her heart to swell, if only momentarily. In these moments, she touches her childhood, before the war -- the last time she saw her father. She cleanses herself according to Jewish custom, she prepares a Sabbath meal, she lights candles and the light filters through the fingers she holds in front of her face. Once, she traveled to Israel, and in the Old City of Jerusalem allowed herself to become intoxicated by the bazaar. The sensations, smells, and visions carried her to Poland, which she couldn’t otherwise remember, and she fainted. She tells this to Hadrien while they travel on a city bus. When they return to the apartment, they eat pistachios and Hannah recalls her childhood. Her father died in the work camp, but her mother, who she argues with every day on the phone, endlessly, wouldn’t ever admit he was dead. “Everyone in this family lived on the back of the disappeared man,” she tells Hadrien, “on the ruins of his death and, finally, on the spot occupied by a living person we couldn’t bury.” She’d never forgiven the betrayal. Her mother, she says, failed to teach her how to “face up to death, to affirm life.” At some point, as an adult, she forced herself to stop believing her father would return. This was her only revenge against her mother. Hadrien watches her pray in the light of the candle, “an infinite grievance between her teeth.” She tells herself to gaze forward, there’s more to live. But, Larouche reminds us, our thoughts, like the dead, are restless. They badger us into isolation and then they never let us alone.
Reading Gonçalo M. Tavares, the Portuguese novelist who writes in detached, hyper-objective prose, can be like eating from a brilliantly curated cheese sampler. Each carefully cut wedge of cheese on the plate is given ample space from the others so that it can be savored distinctly, and ultimately ranked according to preference. In the more sophisticated restaurants, the chef will pair each cheese with a precise analog — a flavor of honey, a warm fig, a sprig of rosemary, a sliver of almond. Your enjoyment in consuming the cheese sample springs from this scientific arrangement, the grace and beauty of the experience assured because the chef’s palate is at once so elemental and so refined. Consider this use of language, the way Tavares juxtaposes logical thoughts and sensory experience, in the novel Jerusalem: He smelled his way back to the barrel, then over to the grip; and now, in fact, having spent the requisite amount of time with his nose against its metal — feeling the slightly unpleasant heat radiating from the thing — sitting at his table, completely focused, in total silence, with no other thoughts in his head, Hinnerk found he was able to smell his own hands on the gun. The grip of a gun smells like a man — in this case like a man by the name of Hinnerk Obst. The smell of a man is a human smell, he thought, then went back to concentrating and inhaling. What a difference after the seemingly insignificant journey between the gun’s barrel and its grip: the barrel was free of any hint of humanity...it didn’t smell like a man, it smelled metal: a deeply intimidating smell, a smell you wouldn’t exactly call appetizing. But when it came to the gun’s grip — because of the human smell clinging to it — the smell of Hinnerk’s hand — there was something appetizing...a ripe, organic smell. Tavares has been Portugal’s rising literary mestre since he was awarded the Saramago Prize at 35, nine years ago. American readers got their first taste of his startling prose and his obsessive interest in the dynamics of power—strength and weakness, mind and machinery — with Jerusalem, which Dalkey Archive published in 2007 in the English translation by Anna Kushner. That book was Tavares’s third in his four-part Kingdom cycle. Dalkey put out the last book in the series, Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique, in 2011 in the translation by Daniel Hahn, followed by the second, Joseph Walser’s Machine, in 2012, and now this month the first, A Man: Klaus Klump, which was published originally in Portugal in 2003. Rhett McNeil, who in 2011 translated The Splendor of Portugal, the haunting novel by António Lobo Antunes, produced the English versions of both Joseph Walser and Klaus Klump. The four books are set in a fictional, somewhat Germanic-seeming city at the time of an invasion and occupation by a foreign army and they share characters and character types: powerful people — like industrialists and doctors — and distinctly fragile ones — invalids, mental patients, and quiet workers. The industrialist Leo Vast of Klaus Klump owns the factory where the reticent Joseph Walser works; Walser encounters the soldier Hinnerk Obst on a city street during the war. By the time of Jerusalem, Obst is suffering from PTSD and has an uncontrollable urge to kill (and after smelling his gun, devour human flesh). In each book, Tavares has given us a cold, amoral manipulator who, through reason and will, attempts to hack the laws of nature for profit, political gain, or professional advancement. One of them, Jerusalem’s Dr. Theodore Busbeck, is researching the correlation between human atrocity and history, in search of a groundbreaking “formula laying bare the cause of all the evil men do for no good reason.” The Kingdom cycle itself reads as a kind of objective inquiry, as if Tavares, with language uncorrupted by sentiment and attachment, is in search of the secret order of mankind. “Animals know the law: strength, strength, strength,” he writes in Klaus Klump. “The weak ones fall and do what the strong ones want.” But the natural world can’t account for the effects of shame or humiliation. A sadistic teacher had practiced corporal punishment on the child Klump; Busbeck’s father Thomas had been willful and cruel to both Theodore and Theodore’s physically disabled son Kaas; and in Learning to Pray, protagonist Lenz Buchmann’s father Frederich is an old army commander who believes foremost in strength and domination. “In this house, fear is illegal,” he told Lenz and Lenz’s brother Albert. “I can hear of any accusation about you, you can commit the most immoral acts, you can have the police coming after you, or even the devil himself; I will defend my sons with any weapon I have. I will only be ashamed if I hear that you have been afraid. If that happens, don’t bother to come running here: you will find this door closed to you.” What’s needed, for those who wish to assert power in Tavares’ books, is distance, from fear as well as love; distance allows for objectivity, a clear sense of one’s goals uncolored by emotion. Man can be as predictable and reliable as a machine, if only he can control himself and others around him. Can Klaus Klump achieve this sort of distance? Not now — the invasion by a fictional foreign military has interrupted his climb and ill-timed desire has put him in the arms of Herthe, a prostitute, who has set him up. (In Tavares, rather disturbingly, most women are either prostitutes or mentally ill and whereas fathers dominate their sons, mothers are inconsequential.) Klaus is arrested and imprisoned. In jail, he befriends the monstrous Xalak, thinking, “I’m going to be your friend until I’m able to kill you.” At 93 pages, A Man: Klaus Klump is the shortest of the four novels of the cycle. The prose is characteristically slender, naïve, as if rendered by an alien: Klaus’s gums were very red. There was blood on Klaus’s lower gum. Vitamins are important for the sentences you speak. Klaus now spoke with faulty grammar, he spoke confusedly. He lacked vitamins in his gums and his sentences had lost their former precision. He no longer discoursed promptly and aptly. His sentences were approximations, attempts. Language deprived of vitamins is incompatible with reality. The distance pricks the reader. The words rendered this way certainly taste different. But the detached form inherently eschews emotion; for all Klaus endures, the reader doesn’t feel much of anything for him. Once the war ended, “Klaus grabbed hold of the family business as he’d previously grabbed hold of weapons: calmly and coldly,” says Tavares, for that is the only reasonable way to go on. In Klaus Klump, we’re seeing early experimentation with the form that will ripen as the cycle unfurls, so that eventually, in Jerusalem and Learning to Pray, Tavares is able to extract sensation from the brittle machinations of human behavior in order to deliver tragedy that feels like tragedy and melancholy that emerges from the genuine failure of will. In Jerusalem, Tavares’s characters explode with the raw vulnerability that Klaus and Leo Vast (and Joseph Walser) lack. Moreover, with the reckless figures Theodore Busbeck and Lenz Buchmann, Tavares demonstrates that even within the realm of detached language — this radical rational form — his characters can occupy real emotional space. In the complexity of their failures, they linger with us in ways the strangely bland Klump cannot. It’s notable that the year before Rhett McNeil produced the excellent translations of Joseph Walser’s Machine, which was longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award, and Klaus Klump, he translated Lobo Antunes’s masterpiece The Splendor of Portugal, a Faulknerian opera of family disappointment and shame also published by Dalkey. The tone, structure, and psychological ambition of Antunes’s book is quite the opposite of Tavares’s work — a testament to McNeil’s extraordinary talent as a translator. But Antunes’s riveting, unsettling, utterly lyrical book, told in the distinctly sad overlapping voices of four members of a once wealthy family whose plantation was lost during the war for Angolan independence, suggests that Tavares’s approach in the Kingdom cycle is limiting. (Tavares interestingly was born in Angola in 1970, in the middle of the Angolan war.) Without a real city and its particular culture, history, and visceral reality — and without having invented these things for his fictional “Kingdom” — the worry is that he is left with abstract ideas of them: the idea of a political system, the idea of dark and dangerous streets, the idea of cruelty, the idea, even, of graffiti. Tavares would say, I imagine, that the clinical distance is what gives his books their strange power. Through him, we’re able to taste the world — offered in exquisite, sampler-sized portions — as if we’ve never eaten before.