JERUSALEM by gonçalo tavares

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there’s one character in JERUSALEM who writes a long tome on violence and it’s fun (but who knows if truthful) to think of it as commentary on vollman’s RISING UP AND RISING DOWN. here, the eight volume doorstop study on atrocity is published to at first great acclaim for its magnitude and ambition, then very quickly rebutted and disgraced, and then finally utterly forgotten…

the bookback tells us JERUSALEM, along with his other novels, are part of a series Tavares calls THE KINGDOM so it may not be a stretch to say the author hopes for an ultimate integration of his works — a synthesis similar to that hoped for by a character in JERUSALEM who, with broken mind, tries to make of his eavesdropping a whole:

Ernst Spengler used to listen to people talking on the street and try to make sense of their words without tuning in to any one conversation in particular — joining something that a man with a tie was saying to a colleague to whatever a nearby adolescent was saying to two friends. Ernst wanted to keep himself from getting too interested in the details of these individual lives; he wanted to link or weave the entire city’s conversations together, so that it would seem to speak with a single voice, seem to speak a simple command… (178)


for better or worse, tavares does get “too interested” in the details of his characters’ lives — and their discrete narratives rise to take over so that they cannot stay continuous, and so cannot be the whole integrating command that might have proved the beginning of a truly new language.

JERUSALEM is however a very quick-moving, if grim, portraiture of several lives. indeed it’s eventually revealed that the book’s central concern is with the inmates (and their freeside counterparts) of a mental hospital–and that its theme is each of the various meanings of: institutionalized insanity.

maybe best bit in the book: “Back in bed, Kaas picked up his watch. He pretended it was some terrible peephole. You could look through it and catch time itself at work” (78).

JERUSALEM’s provenance is given, in its final words, as “From the Notebooks of Goncalo M. Tavares” — and it’s almost too clear that this is indeed the case. some bare outline, anchored tentatively around madness and violence, gives direction to increasingly detailed character sketches, is finally overcome by them and propelled, despite itself, to a typical, if sinister, conclusion. the result is a very readable hodgepodge of dark characters and situations whose organic method of composition seemed disappointingly evident.

perhaps arguably most representative bit in the book (because it wishes to comment upon or make something new of history and madness but merely highlights it): “A concentration-camp survivor had said: ‘Normal men don’t know that everything is possible.’ Theodor underlined the sentence” (124).

despite some of the above, the struggle and the ambition make it definitely worth a whirl. pick it up from dalkey archive press.


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