Reviewed by Ethan Alexander Perets
Gonçalo M. Tavares (Does the M stand for Man? Maniac? Master? Certainly not anything as common as Manuel . . .) is a writer that trades in oppositions. And business is good.
High-low. Nature-technology. Man-woman. Alive-dead. All are as liquid currency in the not-so-free market of Tavares’s prose, most recently incarnated in A Man: Klaus Klump. The novel follows a would-be book publisher turned wartime revolutionary in some unidentified city likely set in eastern or central Europe. Appearing in Portugal in 2003, the first part of Tavares’s four-part Kingdom cycle is also the last to become available in English through a translation from Rhett McNeil.
His second translation from the Kingdom cycle, McNeil expertly renders the spirit of Tavares’s writing, which can often feel fragmentary and abrupt, more like an outline of a philosopher’s treatise than a specimen of literature in the traditional sense. Rather than focus on a single set of characters, works in the cycle share a common setting that Tavares calls “the Kingdom.” It is a world not unlike our own, but which seems a great deal removed in how Tavares selectively reveals and conceals particulars. Plots are developed to illuminate this world, but they also change the nature of those spaces where actions occur, making them appear distorted and strange. In Klaus Klump Tavares writes that “fire brings night to things, brings it inside of them,” and each novel in the Kingdom feels like one more branch added to that fire. Of course, Tavares isn’t concerned with the burning branch, but the fire itself, which throws light and dark on our surroundings—that backdrop against which our lives, and those of Tavares’s characters, unfold. As Tavares writes about this world in ways that imply rather than explain, McNeil’s ability to convey what might otherwise be lost between the lines makes his translations all the more impressive.
At a slim ninety-three pages Klaus Klump is the shortest installment in Tavares’s cycle, though lacking not in episodes that prompt substantive thought. Throughout, Tavares draws unexpected comparisons as he searches to comprehend the incomprehensible, to find rational meaning in an irrational world, the way a logician might work to establish a proposition or its negation. Unlike the cold calculation for which the logician’s craft is prized, however, Tavares sets human reason against images so cruel that he forces the reader to re-evaluate the cost of unfeeling logic:
Children are treated well. Just like the infrastructure of the buildings in the city center. That which is useful is treated well. And that which isn’t dangerous is useful. But there are different types of children: for example, those whose bodies are already erotic, and violent as well. They play stupid and steal important things from the big machines.
Klaus recalled that as a child he melted ants by holding a lit match close to them. The ants melted quickly, curling up into themselves and then disappearing. Klaus remembered this today because he saw a photograph in the newspaper of the aftermath of a bombing. News sometimes arrived weeks late, but all the sentences remained in the present.
Descended from an affluent family of factory owners, Klaus moves to the woods where he lives with a group of guerilla fighters until being ambushed by enemy soldiers (their informant a socially respected prostitute) and thrown behind bars, into a prison with the air of a psychiatric ward. After his escape (with the assistance of another, “large-breasted,” prostitute) Klaus returns to the woods until the conclusion of the war. Klaus’s denial of his past ultimately delivers him back to the family business he previously rejected. Klaus takes over the factory from his father, and restores his relationship with the woman who helped send him to prison. The end of the novella sees the two talking with perceptible disgust about the recent rise in prostitution, Klaus vowing “to present a formal protest to the president of the city council."
The tragic irony of Klaus Klump arises from the author’s almost fatalistic desire to see his characters accept the social positions they were fortuned to from the start: Klaus becomes the ruthless industrialist his father would have him be, while a former lover, Johana, ends up committed to the same “insane asylum” as her mother. So, when the mother dies in the very hospital where the daughter is now confined, Johana only smiles, “as if she had a secret.” Earlier in the novel, as Tavares swings deftly between the thoughts of Klaus and those of his narrator (a technique repeated ad infinitum throughout the novella), we are informed, “Destiny has its own logic.”
Since the publications of Jerusalem in 2009, Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique in 2011, and Joseph Walser’s Machine in 2012, English-reading audiences have wrestled with Tavares’s subject matter and, in particular, his sharply stylized approach to storytelling. Described by critics as “objective,” “detached,” and “radical-rational,” there is something both piercing and minimal in Tavares’s prose that cries out for description. Yet we always seem just on the edge of meaning, waiting, as if balancing on the sharp edge of a blade, or holding a sheet of glass over one’s head forever, all the while knowing the task is futile. Inevitably, we surrender under the weight when the glass shatters around us, leaving nothing in our bloodied hands but small crystalline slivers of egos and afterthoughts.
All of Tavares’s works harmonize content and style in ways so profound that the reader feels each is mutually dependent on the other. In Klaus Klump, one frequently encounters pointy objects such as needles and surgical tools, a scalpel that “contains all the malice of its velocity,” each just as sharp and quick as Tavares’s sentences. These motifs are further developed in Jerusalem, where velocities, speeds, and rates are used to describe material sharpness as well as its symbolic counterpart, intelligence. In that work a famed psychiatrist, Theodor Busbeck, struggles with conflicting desires to raise and smother images of his father—and himself—in the actions of his physically handicapped and illegitimate son. Theodor’s father tells him, “If we could calculate the rate at which our eyes move over things, taking them in . . . we would have something very close to a numerical approximation of a person’s intelligence—and it would be enough to give us a rather precise idea of that individual’s overall value.” But words like “calculate,” “precision,” and “value” should immediately set off alarm bells for readers familiar with Tavares’s work. With these words the author expresses his greatest skepticism about the progress of modern societies, employing his “radical-rational” style in the service of asking moral questions.
Indeed, the real business Tavares sets himself is to interrogate morality. When Klaus accedes to “his place in the family” at the end of the book, he willingly forgets all that has happened in his past. This includes all that Klaus has done as much as all that has happened to him. Since Klaus’s readiness to forgive and forget is his real moral failing, Tavares also asks us what Klaus could have done. In the world of the Kingdom, where, Klaus muses, it is always “necessary to win or at least not lose,” Tavares teaches that what we ought to do, what we can do, and what the world makes us do, are never the same.
The influence of Tavares’s philosophical forebears is clearly felt in his writing (Tavares himself teaches epistemology at the University of Lisbon), but the author has stated, “No idea can make you forget pain. I don’t place ideas above all else.” Klaus Klump takes such understanding to a new extreme as Tavares navigates rapidly between emotional and analytical depths. In this light, Klaus Klump can be viewed as a prototypal development of Tavares’s ethical project. The result in that book is more skeptical, more ambiguous, and more uncertain whether we can make choices that retain any shred of morality. As Tavares’s narrator reminds us, “You choose the instrument, and you choose the sharpened point that saves and the sharpened point that kills.”
This, then, is surely the power of Tavares’s art: to show us at once what is, and also that it is not. The language of science may be just that, but it is also the language of pain in an unadulterated, emotionally vivid sense. When Klaus comforts a lover after her rape, only to bring an escaped prisoner to her house and let him rape the woman’s mentally ill mother, attempts at separating victims from oppressors sound like mental stillbirths. For those readers in need of resolving such contradictions, Klaus Klump is liable to infuriate. For those who wish to see these questions posed more clearly—to a startling, oftentimes upsetting degree of accuracy—A Man: Klaus Klump stands upright, on its own two feet, alone.
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