By Goncalo M. Tavares
Translated by Anna Kushner
222 pages
Champaign, Ill.: Dalkey Archive Press
ISBN # 978-1-56478-555-8

Comments by Bob Corbett
June 2011

Five people are out in the pre-dawn hours May 29. Mylia, suffering two different pains, a stomach pain related to a botched abortion and the pains of hunger. She is seeking relief and she phones Ernst Spengler. He is just about to give up on life and jump out of his window. Instead, he heads off to find Mylia. A would-be murder is walking the streets and finds a young boy whom he does murder in cold blood. Theodore has gone out seeking a prostitute, Hanna, whom he visits often, and she, in turn, gives some of her money to Hinnerk, a man deeply scared by war who also always carries his gun and his fear. The young boy, Kass, wakes up and finds his father not at home, so he heads out into the early morning darkness to hunt for him.

Out of these coincidences and circumstances a tale is woven of loosely connected lives, all coming together on this one night. It is a night of death and revelation; a night of deep pain.

Theodore, a scholar and researcher, has a theory of the relationship between human society, suffering and history. He studies history from that perspective, creating a portrait of what he finds and his theories seem to illuminate the lives of the characters He seeks an historical portrait of Terror:

. . . a painting, if you will, a portrait that one generation starts and the next will continue, trying to perfect its colors, the light and shadows in it – a painting, if you will a portrait, but a historical portrait, a portrait of how we human beings don’t belong to our houses, our parents, our husbands and wives, but instead and above all, to history, to the history of our forebears, to the history of the world. And within that history, a subsection: The History of Horrors.

At the same time he fears his own study:

If he learned to understand the pathology of history . . . if he were able to get inside Horror’s head, and engage it in a rational conversation . . . what would follow.”

While the novel’s opening and much of the action is situated in the early and dark hours of one morning, much of the narrative goes back into the lives of the characters, and thus large sections actually take place in daylight. But darkness, in both the sense of light and the sense of negativity dominates the story.

One is tempted to wonder about the sense of negativity, disfunctionality, and the strangeness of Tavares’ characters. But, negativity, disfuctionality, strangeness in relation to what? The “normal”? What is this normal? I can’t define it. Yet most of us seem to have some notion of a “normal,” a commonality with others in how we live our lives. But what do we really know of most others? Very little, I think. There is some vague sense in social situations of some “normal.” I can think I am an “I” like the others. In that sense certainly Tavares’ characters are strange and it seems they act “strange” in relation to some vague sense of “normal” in their everyday lives. Yet he makes me wonder – is there such a thing as the “normal.”

This is a chilling novel, but brilliantly conceived and presented. The characters are all troubled and suffering, even wondering if life is worth the bother. Yet, they are continuing onward, struggling with their inner pains, willingly and unwillingly inflicting pain on others.

Goncalo Tavares challenges us toward his dark and troubling view of human existence. He forces us to face questions about the meaning of life and the role of suffering and pain in our lives. Despite the darkness of theme and harshness of the novel, I will be waiting for other Tavares novels appear in English. He is a writer to be reckoned with!

He won the coveted Saramago Prize in 2005 and Jose Saramago himself says:

“. . . I’ve predicted that in thirty years’ time, if not before, he will win the Nobel Prize. . . “
Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett