In the novel “Jerusalem,” by the Portuguese writer Gonçalo M. Tavares, there is a character named Mylia, handwho suffers from schizophrenia. One of the manifestations of Mylia’s illness is a strangely intimate experience of, and relationship with, inanimate objects. She is, for example, disgusted by shoes because of their dumb subservience to people, their total self-abnegation as things to be possessed and used. “Not even a dog,” she reflects, “was as submissive as a shoe.” She is also deeply disturbed by eggs: “Eggs, all eggs, contained a kind of concrete, material altruism that Mylia couldn’t find in anything else in the world. Eggs appear because they want to disappear.” This anthropomorphic intimacy leads her to handle things in a way that appears somehow unseemly:

Her mother would say to her, “It’s not right to touch things that way.”“So how should I touch them?”

“Use less pressure. Don’t grab. Don’t get so involved.”

What her mother didn’t tell her—though other people did—was that she was always reaching out for things as though caressing a lover, as though everything in the world turned her on. So, “It’s not right to touch things that way” was, more than anything, a call for modesty.

When you first discover a writer who is unlike any you’ve read before—whose work seems at once to demand and to deny the possibility of contextualization—you tend to seek insights, in the writing itself, into where this strangeness and difference might be coming from. When I came to this passage in “Jerusalem” about Mylia’s way of touching things, I read it again and again, convinced that, in its oblique way, it revealed something essential about Tavares. There is an indecency to his writing, a strange and thrilling obscenity, that has to do with its way of handling things as though they were people, and people as though they were things.

There’s also a certain chilly remoteness that characterizes Tavares’s approach to his fictional world, but the word “objectivity” doesn’t really do anything to capture the subtly pervasive weirdness of his work. People are often described as though they were a particular kind of substance, a specific subgroup within the over-all category of objects, whose distinguishing features happen to include consciousness and autonomous motion. At one point in “Jerusalem,” a character named Ernst, who had a sexual relationship with Mylia while they were inmates of the same psychiatric hospital, is hurrying along a city street late at night, when he sees “a heap of something” next to a telephone booth. As he approaches it, he sees that “it had feet, and a head”; when he reaches out to touch it, it becomes apparent what this heap of something is: “It was Mylia.”

One way to look at this insistence on presenting things and people as belonging to the same ontological category would be as an example of good old-fashioned defamiliarization. When the Russian formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky laid out this concept in his essay “Art as Technique,” he defined defamiliarization as a poetic approach to presenting the habitual as though it were being encountered for the first time—as a way of burrowing beneath not only the clichés of saying but also those of seeing. Tavares is one of the most effective defamiliarizers I’ve ever read. In fact, it’s as though there is no actual “technique” of defamiliarization at work in his prose at all; he reveals the intrinsic strangeness of things (and people) without the need for any particular cunning in the formation of his sentences.

Tavares is, in this sense, a natural emissary of the uncanny. He’s fixated on hands. It would be difficult to think of anything more familiar, and more universally taken for granted, than one’s own hands—those nimble, dutiful, and morally versatile implements that are the primary focus of our perception of our physical selves. In each of the three novels published so far in English as part of what Tavares calls his “Kingdom” series—“Joseph Walser’s Machine” (2004), “Jerusalem” (2005), and “Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique” (2007)—characters’ hands are presented as unsettlingly charged and foreign. In “Joseph Walser’s Machine,” the eponymous protagonist is a quiet and peculiar man who works in a factory operating a machine—we’re never told what kind of factory, or what kind of machine—and loses a finger in a moment of distraction from his job. This dismemberment seems to reveal his hand to him for what it really is: a complex mechanism, and an object in the world of objects. At one point, Walser sits at a table with an anatomy textbook, looking at one diagram after another of hands in various positions, and with their various constituent parts labelled. “The skeleton of the hand,” we are told, “made a real impression on him. In the wrist area, eight little bones were stacked on top of each other: ‘carpal bones,’ he read. Then, between the wrist and the fingers, the five metacarpal bones, one for each finger. Each of the fingers, in turn, was made of three consecutive bones, ‘like train cars,’ he muttered; their names were almost infantile: ‘proximal intermediate phalanges, distal phalanges.’ The thumb was an exception in this case: it only had two phalanges, instead of three phalanges the other fingers had.”

The effect of this passage is almost as alienating for the reader as it is for Walser, who looks at his own hands “as though they were the hands of a monster.” I found myself looking with vague dread at the hands with which I was holding the book, momentarily aware that I had no real sense of what these things were, with their consecutive bones and phalanges. The project of science—the aim of knowing and naming the natural world—can, in this way, lead to a strange inversion of intimacy, to an unnatural alienation from ourselves. The machine of the book’s title could be the machine that Walser operates, and which injures his body, but it could also be that body itself, or the mind that seems to operate it.

The hand scene works as a miniature representation of Tavares’s fiction as a whole, which regards the human world with a peculiar combination of distance and precision, as though examining it from a remote location through a very powerful lens. The extent to which you find this disturbing depends on how deeply invested you are in seeing people as, in various important ways, distinct from things. Most of us would consider a high level of such investment a necessary condition of basic sanity. But then, history is rarely what you would call sane; and history—specifically recent European history, although it is never represented in any direct way—is Tavares’s central concern. In “Jerusalem,” there’s a character named Theodor Busbeck, an ambitious psychiatrist who concocts an elaborate system of tracking the horrors of history with a view to diagnosing it as either healthy or sick. He wants to use his skills as a psychiatrist, as one of Enlightenment’s heirs, “to understand the pathology of history,” and to “get inside Horror’s head and engage it in a rational conversation.” The idea of such a project is itself, of course, insane; it’s difficult not to think, here, of Primo Levi’s insistence on the moral imperative of not finding reasons for what happened at Auschwitz, or of Claude Lanzmann’s remark that “there is an absolute obscenity in the very project of understanding” the Holocaust.

Tavares is interested in the ways in which history, either through barbarism or its apparent opposite (scientific progress), has reduced humans to the status of things. He is, in other words, interested in what we call “the problem of evil” as though it were at least potentially soluble. He is preoccupied by the mechanisms of political control, and by the ways in which they can make mechanisms of people. There’s an extraordinary passage in “Jerusalem” in which Theodor sits in a library looking at photographs in a book about a concentration camp. Like so many things in this writer’s fictional world, this camp is never specified beyond the bluntly categorical. With one long, calmly propulsive sentence, Tavares gives us a vivid insight into what dehumanization actually means:

Theodor Busbeck kept thumbing through his book, in which there were several photographs of corpses lying one on top of another on a stairway: small bodies, large bodies, naked, men and women joined together in a parody of pornography, a parody of obscenity, see it nestled in between those bodies, one on top of the other—an inverse obscenity, the opposite of the kind that exists between living, healthy things: the obscenity of stasis, without pleasure, without excitement, the obscenity of bodies that would never be desired again, bodies with nothing to offer but horror—an endless, material, indifferent kind of horror—as though to trick you into thinking you aren’t looking at people at all, not at men, women, and children reduced to lifeless skin and bone, but at something else, something homogenous, inanimate, a material, a substance: not even something dead, not even the remains of human beings who had once been alive and full of friendly or antagonistic energy—no, merely bodies, bodies that now seemed as though they’d never even been alive: members of an entirely different species, a species that had experienced such enormous obscenity that it had been definitively removed from the core family of Homo sapiens, as represented here in the library by one of its exemplary units: a doctor.

The punctuation here—the dashes and, in particular, the five colons—reads like a futile gesture toward order, as though this were a subject in which one thing might follow on from another, on which logic might have some bearing. It’s a reflection, at the level of syntax, of what is going on at the level of the narrative, where a man of science is sitting in a library attempting to impose the machinery of his reason and learning on an unthinkable evil. In trying to figure out what he’s looking at, the most he can do is to literally figure it out: he concludes that the space captured in the photograph is something in the region of forty square metres, and that there are more than a thousand bodies contained in it. These numbers lack any human content, but enumeration seems to be the extent of what is possible when thought has been paralyzed by horror. Tavares (who wrote these novels in his mid-thirties, and is now forty-two) is a professor of epistemology at the University of Lisbon, and it’s tempting to see his fiction as a kind of nightmare intensification of the subject he spends his days teaching. And he has a gift—like Flann O’Brien or Kafka or Beckett—for revealing the ways in which logic can be as faithful a servant of madness as of reason.

The “Kingdom” novels are all set in a hazily determined but strongly central-European (decidedly not Portuguese) location at a time of undefined war and occupation. All the characters have brusquely Germanic names—Lenz Buchmann, Joseph Walser, Theodor Busbeck, Hinnerk Oberst. We are given signposts as to our location, and yet, in an important sense, we don’t know where we are. His imagined world is clearly linked to the very real history of twentieth-century Europe, but it is made strange, and somehow universalized, by the withholding of detail we would ordinarily consider decisive. Such combinations of the particular and the inscrutable are crucial to Tavares’s work, and connect with the deep, intoxicating estrangements of his prose. This alienated recognition—the way in which something unfamiliar and unsettling can seem to carry the aura of irrefutable truth—is, for me, one of the hallmarks of serious art. His books may be bleak and unnerving, but they are, for this reason, exhilarating in the way that only the work of a powerfully original artist can be.

Illustration by Seymour Chwast.

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