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.
For me, 2012 has been at least as much a Year in Not Reading as a Year in Reading. Like a lot of members of the book-based community, I’m prone to making aspirational purchases, as though buying a book were somehow the first link in an unbroken chain of causation that ends, inevitably, with having read it. For me, it’s become increasingly clear that this is a form of magical thinking, but there’s no sign of my changing my ways just because I’ve had this realization. I’m always buying books on the basis that they are exactly the books I should be reading, while knowing that the likelihood of my ever starting them, let alone finishing them, is vanishingly small. I am, as we say in Ireland, a divil for it. I have no idea how many works of academic literary criticism I have bought on this basis, but it is, I fear, a number approaching shitloads.
There’s one book in particular that I have spent much of this year not reading, and that’s Adorno: A Biography by Stefan Müller-Doohm. I’m pretty sure that my relationship with this book is a lot more intimate and emotionally fraught than it would be if I’d actually read it. For the past nine months or so it has been squatting on my desk, in all its arrogant bulk and imperious disdain — like Ray Winstone in scholarly-volume form — taunting me with the fact of my not having read it. The thing about Adorno: A Biography is that it couldn’t care less that I haven’t read it; in fact, it seems to derive a kind of smug enjoyment from my continuing failure to do so. It knows all about the life and writings of Theodor Adorno, and will continue knowing all about them regardless of whether I read it. It also knows me better than I know myself, this book; it knows that I’m the type of person who will buy a 648-page biography of Theodor Adorno, but not, crucially, the type of person who will read it.
I allowed that domineering bastard into my life in the first place after reading — as opposed to merely purchasing — Adorno’s Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (which, ironically, I wrote about here in the context of its bucking the trend of my failures of readerly steadfastness). It’s an amazing book of short essays and elegant aphorisms on a vast array of topics — love, capitalism, war, fascism, children’s toys, architecture, psychoanalysis — that contains some of the most beautiful accumulations of sentences I’ve ever come across. Like this, for instance:
Waking in the middle of a dream, even the worst, one feels disappointed, cheated of the best in life. But pleasant, fulfilled dreams are actually as rare, to use Schubert’s words, as happy music. Even the loveliest dream bears like a blemish its difference from reality, the awareness that what it grants is mere illusion. This is why precisely the loveliest dreams are as if blighted.
I also sat down and properly read a couple of books by Susan Sontag — Against Interpretation and Where the Stress Falls — and loved more or less every word of both, especially the stuff I vehemently disagreed with. I also dipped in and out of the first volume of her journals. As with so many of the best cultural commentators, Sontag’s critical persona was itself a kind of ongoing work of art. I love the spectacle of her hawkish aestheticism; for its own sake, certainly, but also for the way it forced me to think more clearly about my own cultural values. (Right now, I couldn’t tell you exactly what these are, but I do remember having a sense of them at the time).
The most fun I had with a book all year was definitely the Sunday I spent reading David Rees’s How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening, for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, and Civil Servants, with Illustrations Showing Current Practice. (With a title like that, it’s basically immoral to shorten it to its first four words.) It’s a deeply funny and fascinating exercise in sustaining a rarified tone in the face of an apparently absurd subject matter, and it’s also a covert quasi-memoir about obsession and coming to terms with difficulties and disappointment in life and art. Primarily, though, it’s a very, very detailed guide to sharpening the bejesus out of a pencil, and it’s stood me in good stead in that regard. The second most fun I had with a book all year was the second time I read it, about three weeks later.
As for fiction, I spent quite a lot of time this year harassing friends, acquaintances and perfect strangers to read the Portuguese writer Gonçalo M. Tavares, who I feel confident is lurking somewhere in the general vicinity of genius. I read his “Kingdom” series of novels — Jerusalem, Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique, and Joseph Walser’s Machine — straight through, one after the other, and the experience was a full-on revelation. He’s one of those writers (like, say, Kafka or Beckett) who makes almost all other writers seem not fully serious, as if they are, on some crucial level, just messing about. Not everyone I bullied into reading him was as impressed as I told them they would be; a couple of people said they found his fictional world too cold and inhuman, but this is, I think, exactly what so enthralls me about him. In the best possible way, he writes like an alien.
Chris Ware’s Building Stories was also a rich and remarkable experience. I don’t really know what else to say about it, except that it’s definitely a masterpiece.
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