I know I overwhelmingly neglect contemporary Portuguese literature. In my atavistic love for long dead writers I keep coming back to Eça de Queiroz and Fernando Pessoa. I don’t know contemporary literature that well apart from José Saramago and António Lobo Antunes (love the former, find the latter so-so), and I don’t care a lot about the fates of José Luís Peixoto, valter hugo mãe (who writes his name just like that), Nuno Camarneiro, Jacinto Lucas Pires, João Tordo and Gonçalo M. Tavares. In fact apart from the last name, or else this post wouldn’t exist, I haven’t read anything by anyone on that list. I always feel some anxiety about reading Portuguese literature, I always expect a disappointment, in fact I don’t count myself as a fan. I’m not a fan for the same reasons that Miguel de Unamuno extols it: the overwrought sentimentality; the egocentric lyricism; the cult of suffering, pain, melancholy and death practised by our men of letters. What the venerable Spaniard considers praise, though, to me is the diagnosis of a national pathology.
Eduardo Lourenço, philosopher and literary critic, once made a pertinent observation: our novels are stuffed with monologues, usually of a despondent, pained tone; we use them sing our sorrows, not to create characters, invent situations and create a space for clashes of conflicts and worldviews; that polyphony of which Mikhail Bakhtin and Milan Kundera speak in their essays, and which constitutes the richness of the novelistic form, has had a hard time penetrating in our literary habits. In our novels, a single voice dominates the narrative, more interested in introspection than description or imagination. On top of that there’s something very outdated about our writers. Agustina Bessa-Luís, allegedly our greatest living novelist, writes as if the novel hasn’t advanced since Thomas Hardy. I’ve given up reading her. The reasons for our chronic depression are of course explained by history, whereas the backwardness of our literature has to do with our geographical position, in Europe’s corner, cut off from the circulation of European ideas, but also with too many centuries living under the gauntlet of the Inquisition.
I regularly read Eça de Queiroz, Fernando Pessoa and José Saramago because they’re anomalies in this grim panorama; I presume it’s because each was influenced by external sources: Eça by France, Pessoa by England, and Saramago by Spain and Latin America. In general, though, our literature is backward, isolationist, stiff and ignorant of foreign writers and ideas. It is no coincidence, I think, why these three are our most widely translated authors.
But they’ve also started translating this upstart called Gonçalo M. Tavares, and people keep pestering me about him, and I got tired of replying that I know nothing about him. So I decided to read a couple of books. The man comes very well recommended, by the way: he’s won countless awards and prizes, national and international; Eduardo Lourenço and António Lobo Antunes praise his books; Spanish author Enrique Vila-Matas thinks he’s one of the most promising young writers out there, and one day, after I also bother to read anything by Mr. Vila-Matas, and if I enjoy it, I may actually give a hoot about his opinions. My beloved José Saramago also vouched for young Gonçalo, but then again once upon a time he also admired Fidel Castro and he died thinking Hugo Chávez was going to lead South America into a golden era, so what did he know besides writing excellent novels? Born in 1970, Tavares published his first book in 2001; since then he’s published dozens of books, organized into different series. For instance, one such series is called The Neighbourhood, which imagines a fictional neighbourhood populated by people called Mr. Calvino, Mr. Valery, Mr. Juarroz, Mr. Kraus, Mr. Walser, get it? You can read a review at The Mookse and the Gripes. Another series is called The Kingdom, a series of novels of which Jerusalem, Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique and Joseph Walser’s Machine are a part; bizarrely, but not uncommonly for translations, the first novel, Um Homem: Klaus Kump, is not yet available in English. I don’t think Tavares is an awful writer, but I fail to see any greatness so far. The funny thing is that he doesn’t wallow in miserable monologues, he actually has a sense of humour (very rare amongst us), and he clearly strives to invent engaging situations. Not to mention he’s very determined to innovate with each new book. Some of his books defy and implode genres and media, mashing them up into new configurations. His latest book seems to mix essay, fiction and photos and has a very strange title: Atlas of the Body and the Imagination. He’s supposed to be what I want. Maybe we started on the wrong foot.
So far I’ve read two collections of short-stories. One I found mediocre, the other was alright. I began with Histórias Falsas (2005), whose title means false histories or stories; since his characters are historical figures, the ambiguity is deliberate. Tangentially the nine stories are about historical people, but told from the perspectives of fictional or secondary characters: a story of infidelity involving Marcus Aurelius’ wife, Faustina; the story of the rich Listo Mercatore who is influenced by Diogenes’ philosophy; the story of the tyrant who allegedly killed Zeno; the story of a Greek follower of Lao Tse. My personal favourite was about the fictional Arquitas, a man who’s entrusted with Homer’s comic epic, Margites. So, stories, about philosophers and wise men and about how their thoughts shape the lives of others. The word wisdom is constantly bandied about, as if Tavares believes that repeating it will magically imbue with the profundity it desperately seeks, although it never rises above banalities; the man seems particularly infatuated with the book’s oft-repeated line that power curves itself to wisdom, Tavares is an intellectual so he has to toot his own horn, but a casual glance at history shows that power only cares about intellect to use it, not to be used by it. A while ago I happened upon a newspaper article by the historian Vasco Pulido Valente, the go-to guy for 20th century Portuguese history, that dated from the early 90s, in which he made a shocking claim, to me anyway: the article was about how neoliberals have successfully imposed their ideology on the current era, but what I found especially upsetting was that he called Henry Kissinger an intellectual. This was upsetting because never before had I considered Kissinger an intellectual, for me he was just a politician, a different creature, but as Valente rightly says, and which I ignored, Kissinger was a historian, therefore an intellectual, before he joined the Nixon administration. It was also upsetting because it seems like a slander against the word intellectual. But he’s absolutely right, and I’m just an idealistic fool. Often Tavares tried to shock me with this book, but it never succeeded, unlike that little article.
The book, however, has made me think about how easy it is to manipulate the reader’s critical attitude towards a book. For instance, if a writer adds an epigraph to a book, and that epigraph happens to be a line taken from a Jorge Luis Borges poem, it’s easy to steer readers into certain associations. As it happens, the reviews I’ve read of this book have brought out the predictable adjective Borgesian. No doubt had he added a line from Raymond Carver they’d call it Carvaresque. At least the man has good taste in epigraphs. I don’t see enough similarities between their work to understand the comparison. What distinguishes Borges from other writers is that he was perhaps the only person who wrote literature without people. His is a literature purely of ideas, objects and concepts: gigantic libraries, books with infinite pages, fake books, fake book reviews, labyrinths, fictional religious sects, supernatural artefacts. Even when he creates characters, they’re mostly ideas – the Immortal from ‘The Immortal’, or the man who couldn’t forget anything from “Funes The Memorious.” As radical as he’s sometimes called, Tavares doesn’t have the tilted imagination to write outside the prison of humanness. Perhaps Tavares was thinking about the youngish Borges of A Universal History of Iniquity, but this collection was clearly inspired by Marcel Schwob’s Vies Imaginaires. Schwob, a French symbolist writer of fantasy and horror stories, famous in his time but now forgotten, wrote this curious compendium about famous men, poets, killers, leaders, and thinkers – Burke and Hare, Captain Kidd, Empedocles, Herostratus, Petronius, Pocahontas, etc. Through their lives he praised all that was marvelous, vile and mysterious in human history. As I saw the names of Zeno, Diogenes, Homer and Marcus Aurelius on each page, this was the writer I kept thinking of, certainly not Borges.
Água Cão Cavalo Cabeça (2006) moves into weirder territory, and for that reason I enjoyed it more. Just from the title one can tell this is not a normal book: Water Dog Horse Head. As a title it makes no sense, but then again neither do most stories inside. But first of all let’s read the first three stories:
The old lady whose head shakes, in the café
Silence, not like at mass or in the army. The fright that suspends us completely comes from within. As if my feet existed the moment before and disappeared the next moment.
You’re going to die, my dear. Prepare your black shoes, you have to buy black shoes, don’t forget.
An old lady seated in the café trembles in the head, she can’t hold it; sometimes she does the actual gesture (of trying to hold it), but she doesn’t have strength in the hands either, and life is petty, it’s banality, it’s sickness and blood. In the cafés, in beds with lovers, in the chair waiting for father’s death, in the street, unawares, one dies everywhere, in every space and time; it must have happened (by the hundreds) during mass, during a funeral thousands must have died, fell on the ground, one immediately thinks a fainting: for whom do we weep now that there are two dead and where do we go if there are two processions moving in opposite directions?
Two soldiers, instead of burying the corpses of their friends killed in battle, escaped their orders, and in a small bar, still with the uniform stained with blood, send for a woman – a prostitute – and both go upstairs with her to a room and fornicate her. One putting his penis in the mouth and the other fornicating her from behind, like dogs do to bitches and men to women or to other men.
At a given moment they stopped. The bloodied dog howled. But it wasn’t dead.
(We’re all brothers, brothers.)
Let’s suppose she was called Maria and was a bad and false woman. One day, without knowing why, she had two men around her. She was grabbed, thrown onto the floor, raped.
Maria arrived home and couldn’t say a thing. Her sister cried. Maria had blood-shot eyes, her body dark, she trembled, unable to speak. Blood on the clothes.
And for Maria – who was bad, always scheming, false – for her certain people cried. Five at least (for I counted them): the sister, the mother, the father, a girl (sometimes they talked); and some other person who hasn’t been seen until today.
What do I care about dogs? An animal is more or less a machine and in their struggle may the best one win. Hitting a dog is the same as spanking a machine. What’s the point, what wickedness is that?
Chance and circumstances. It’s fate, the crossing between an event and a man, which amplifies or not the kingdom of banality. It depends little on the man – almost everything is imposed by his day, by his demands for almost always obscure things.
And the only phenomenon strange to the survival instinct that orders any man, animal or existing angel, is love. But love is so popular amongst the living it’s become a feeling of crowds: one must fear it the way one fears the mottos of any exalted crowd.
The dog may be seen as balanced music (harmony is the word) due to its four legs (like an organic table). But if you cut one of the dog’s paws our live changes, and bleeds everything, like one who is betrayed by a woman or the death of one’s father.
The toothache, tremendous: how can reason move with this local, stupid fever?
Start singing, imbecile: the voice washes away the fever, hides it. Anyway, it, the fever, is better in others than in you.
Jazz music (in the back).
A bar in the middle of Paris, two prostitutes doing gestures (a scene, as we call it), the thigh is too lascivious – like a donkey’s erect penis.
How are you? You’re a beautiful woman.
I fall asleep, this black garter, the music.
From outside someone comes from the rain, they tell me my father is burning and I say:
I ask for another beer.
“This music, do you hear it? Someone said words were invented by deaf people. You should sing, my dear, make noises with your body.”
On rainy days: you write with the finger on the wet glass. There are words that, written, cut the glass like thieves’ tools. Example? This sentence:
The animal gnawed my father’s bones.
On television, days ago, they talked about a theft of rifles and ammo.
There are armed men outside: I hide myself in the brain.
The woman sings a stupid song. The dog wants to get in the bar and the prostitute kicks him hard in the nose.
“Your black garter.”
“It’s for this,” she said.
“The same thing, undress slowly!”
The song ended.
“The money first.”
“No,” I say, “the black garter first.”
She removes the garter.
“Now the money.”
(I’ll cut her neck, I’ll cut her neck, I’ll cut her neck.)
I get the wallet out of the jacket and take off the jacket. I take the money out of the wallet. I take off the shirt. I give her the money (I was going to give her shirt instead of the money, what are you thinking? In death, brother, in death.)
(Do I slap her? Do I?) I slap her and say:
“You shouldn’t kick dogs that want to listen to jazz.”
“Why did you hit me?”
Dogs don’t listen to jazz easily. (I didn’t tell her that.)
I gave her the rest of the money and some more:
“For being so nice,” I said, “and for not screaming when I hit you more.”
“You won’t hit me more.”
I gave her a punch – on the right side of the face. I went to the jacket. A larger note. I gave it to her.
She’s bleeding. She insults me:
“Bastard!” (She doesn’t understand I like playing; should I show her already all my hatred for things?)
I started talking, undressing my pants:
“And if you drop fire on my brain
I’ll continue to bring you in my blood.”
“That’s verses,” I said.
But she continued to undress.
I started talking. I said:
“The dog trying to get in a bar full of smoke.”
I’m naked and it rains, the rain is idiotic and evokes remorse, but we’re guilty of anything, my dear, you didn’t fish me, Christ, I survived the saints, I’m here in the prostitute’s house and I’m going to kill her.
“I have here a medical report,” I say.
“Don’t bother me, you son of a bitch,” she says. (She still didn’t understand I like the game, do I show her my hatred for things? Wait; first the game. Playing with other people’s anguish.)
“It’s a head scan.”
I went to pick it up. I pulled it out of the envelope.
(I’m naked and she has a disgusting body: the tits, hair in the belly button, broken thighs.)
“You’re not very pretty,” I said.
She removes (puts on?) one of her black garters.
“I’ll show you.”
I took out the head scan. I sat next to her in the bed with the scan in hand. I’m naked and excited, and she has a filthy body. I show her the scan.
“This is a head and this head has problems.”
She asks me:
“When do we fuck?”
“A brain can be seen from inside like ribs. See?”
The sagging tits, filthy, a fruit with a rotten bit touching my shoulder.
“I’m getting dressed,” she said but remained seated in the bed, exactly in the same position. “You’re crazy.”
I thought: I’m going to cut your head like in the guillotines.
(A tremendous toothache.)
I get up, I’m naked, I take the scan in my hand, the rain doesn’t stop, fortunately, the wet pane: don’t write that sentence.
I grab the scan and placed it on the pane. I explain the differences between the parts of the brain, but the woman isn’t listening, she’s crying.
“You locked the door,” she said.
“I’m going to talk some more,” I said. “Then I’m going to cut your throat with the scan’s paper.”
I moved it (the paper) along my index finger and cut myself. I started bleeding:
“It’s very sharp,” I said.
A blade like five scan leaves glued to each other.
She’s trembling. The jazz music doesn’t reach here because we climbed many stairs (what floor are we in?) and there are doors, a row of them timber and timber and timber.
A study on sound. Timber and timber and stairs and timber and timber.
“You’re going to die before my father,” I told her, and she spat on me, “and it’s fair,” I told her.
I transcribed these three to make my point that this is a book about loose associations. The first three stories goad the reader into thinking they’re connected, but it’s a purely associative trick of the mind. A prostitute has sex with two soldiers, then we move on to a woman who’s been raped by two men (the same event in different words?), next we go back to a prostitute (the same?). Whatever may be, the reader’s mind starts looking for patterns. The book is, I think, very much about those things, like the title, where we try to find connections between the items: dog and horse are both animals; dog, horse and water both start with the letter c in Portuguese; or is there a progression – element, animals, head (brain)? Knock yourself out. Tavares clearly relishes in trapping us in such sleuthing, and for that reason the book is full of soldiers, prostitutes, dogs (symbols of violence and rage?), children (lots of strained relationships between parents and children), disease and injuries, and crimes and perversions like murder, suicide, adultery, incest, plus general cruelty and insanity, a big tapestry of signs and echoes. In particular the book returns to prostitutes, not only do they show up as characters, but out of nowhere the narrator starts using them as metaphors:
If they knock you down, fight on your knees, the ancients said. If they knock you down even further, I say, if they knock you down completely, if they thrown you onto the ground, become a prostitute.
To throw something far away first you need to hold that thigh tight, then make a quick jerk with your arm, and finally suddenly halt and project the wrist forward. That’s how prostitutes expel their heart when they suck with their lipstick-painted mouth the penis of the old man they don’t know, and the bed has springs that emit noises (shrieks) at the same time the prostitute sucks the penis of the old man who’s seated and waits, and that’s how the catapult works.
He goes for shock in a lot of scenes:
There was music in the funeral – what was his name? – and the bums have more decorum with music than with their dicks. In the bathroom they compare size, piss, one onto the other, laugh boisterously. Their pants pissed, bending with laughter, like petty and lively chimpanzees. But not with music.
No, really, here’s the ending of one about a girl with mental problems:
Once a seven-year-old boy called the girl freak and mental retard, but most of the boys and girls in the street would never do such a thing. The boy who insulted her received a slap from his own parents when they heard:
- You shouldn’t do that, they told him.
Yes, you shouldn’t do that, that’s mean. You should never do that.
Most of the time he’s just plain bizarre, like in this startling discovery at a poetry reading party:
I lift one of the pan’s lids and see the head of a black cat. It scares me. I close the lid. These guys are crazy. I didn’t scream and made no noise. I’m alone in the kitchen.
And then there’s the bullying, confrontational, direct style of the narrator:
At the café they hate me for taking books and reading them, and writing. They accept and like someone who takes a newspaper and reads for hours, seated. It’s a matter of not feeling stupid, but they are stupid.
From Borges to, I don’t know, Dostoevsky? That killer’s ‘tremendous toothache’ is a dead giveaway. Nothing in it ever manages to shock me, but perhaps I’m just a jaded person, save when I read Kissinger being called an intellectual. I think Tavares is trying too hard to be unpleasant, to upset the reader, to show how he’s so good at creating this cesspit of nihilistic chaos full of weirdness and evil. I’m sure there are people in this world still affected by the likes of that, but I don’t believe in his unpleasantness, perhaps because I have a sense he hasn’t lived it (and he can’t fake it). Lobo Antunes is a lot more credible at doing the voice of the rabid, deranged misanthropic hater, the man did see horrifying stuff in the war in Africa (or perhaps he didn’t and he’s just better at faking this stuff).
I liked this one better, at least the dark humor makes it more palatable, which is to say I wasn’t fully bored by it like in Histórias Falsas. This book continues to have a serious problem for me: I just don’t like Tavares’ prose, I find it ugly; the vocabulary is simplistic (which is something quite unusual for Portuguese writers, so he’s actually radical), and I can’t feel any beauty in his short declarative sentences. Is the man afraid of subordinate clauses? Does he think he’s writing for a newspaper? At least there’s an explanation for how he’s published 32 books in just a decade, with such a vast output the next book I read may actually be good.