Jerusalem by Gonçalo M. Tavares; trans. by Anna Kushner
Living inward and lost long ago inside of themselves, people stumble into each other and discover that the indistinct shapes in their peripheries are objects, once familiar, thought gone, and now directly in front of them. In Gonçalo M. Tavares’ Jerusalem, the author contemplates the forces which entangle people in relationships, intersecting long-complicated individual lives in one night. His novel has a genius to it: the genius of hiding the complex in the simple and the insane. He begins each chapter with the names of the featured characters, a simple junction, quietly building the connections that will not only last them their entire lives, but often act as a catalyst for the outcome of each other’s situation, a subtle hint to us how much there has been between these people, or how much will be. There are two periods at play here, the first is in the present, approaching the point of culmination, the union of them all that each individual has traveled to since the second period, the semi-distant past that has built the background of these intersecting lives. The most revealing character is Mylia, whose introspective bereavement teeters on the edge of obsessive compulsion and borderlines the aloofness of insanity. Through her unannounced relapses into the past from which she has leapfrogged to this fateful night, one that she is sure will be her last, we learn much, and yet not much is revealed as we would like.
Tavares’ other characters delude us into sympathizing with the matter-of-fact way with which they function, seem to be uncomplicated individuals merely concentrated on themselves. With only one narrator, the reader is not in on quite enough, not party to the design by which this novel moves. The perspective is most concerned with Mylia, this woman beyond hope, one who often tells herself “don’t waste time on trivialities,” but only because it is she who is in one way or another connected with the other characters, and it is with her that their stories begin. Like the rest of them – wretched – Mylia’s focus is inward; she is dying. It reminds her of how she has come to this, and her past emerges: her husband Dr. Theodor Busbeck, who married Mylia soon after he met the eighteen-year-old as patient, the subsequent and disjointed nightmare at Georg Rosenberg Asylum, and Ernst Spengler and Dr. Gomperz, the two men who changed her life there. The opening pages of Jerusalem find her stumbling around the dark city streets, for the first time in her life having control of her life in her own hands, which, at this point, she exercises by starving herself in order to cause pain which she is at once responsible for and able to allay:
“She was alive, and the proof of being alive hurt even more at this moment, in an objective and physical way, than the pain she was going to die from. As if at this instant it was more important to eat bread than to be immortal.”
Having gained this upper hand in her life, Mylia delicately slips into numbness and comfort, out of the reach of everyone.
Dr. Busbeck, too, lives inside of his head. He spends his time studying the history of human atrocity and the relationship between victim and aggressor, but nothing in his approach quite reaches him or moves him as one would hope from him. Here there is no sympathetic emotion – if any emotion at all – nor does this brilliant, acknowledged man understand what world-scale horror, his focus, really means on a human level. Busbeck is nothing but a removed mental process, a living calculator, wholly indifferent to real human suffering, forever incapable of drawing a parallel between the atrocity he studies and the much smaller terrors that he carries out. He is Tavares’ brilliantly subtle depiction of a sick man. Not far from him is Dr. Gomperz, the head of the Georg Rosenberg Asylum, and a man who by all accounts runs a tight ship, whose emotional disconnect is a methodical approach to his job of eliminating complications. Tavares describes his insight into rehabilitation of his patients with the bitter lightheartedness of a furniture catalogue. The way Dr. Gomperz approaches it,
As if every life, just like a compartment, had a wastebasket, a specific place, with the appropriate shape, where all habits, actions, and, if possible, thoughts that were not of interest, should be thrown out. In this case, they were not of interest to the ones who kept watch over them: the doctors. What was thrown in each individual’s wastebasket was not selected by the person himself, but by his therapy.”
Thus they make their rounds through life, imperceptive and megalomaniacal, and powerful enough to effect great harm. The plot is circular; Mylia’s retrospective flashbacks, Dr. Gomperz’s reflections, scenes from Busbeck’s unraveling. The book starts out with Mylia, and it is Mylia that brings them out the night in question, now a force herself, for she is the consequence of their actions personified and one that they must face. Tavares’ Jerusalem is, all in all, a quiet but profoundly moving depiction of a human struggle to make sense of ourselves once we have encountered each other.
Reviewed by Olga Romadin
Posted in Reviews