Gonçalo M. Tavares

by Pedro Sena Nunes

Translated from the Portuguese by Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren

Gonçalo M. Tavares. Photo by Teresa sá.

Many years ago, when I taught a studio class at Lisbon’s Escola Superior de Teatro e Cinema, I challenged my students to bring in literary works that we could interpret as film exercises. I was deeply taken by one piece in particular—I wanted to hide it and bring it home so I could make a film of my own with it. I was surprised to find that its author was, as of then, still unpublished. His name was Gonçalo M. Tavares. At least 14 years went by without me working with that very cinematic text, but I did not give up.

Tavares began to be published widely and I continued wanting to adapt his writing for film. We worked together on a few projects, yet less often than I would have wished. Today, in Portugal, Tavares is an essential reference—he is read and respected widely and his presence literally interferes with our lives. He contemplates, filters, and analyzes our surroundings and returns to us tragicomic philosophical exercises, or unravels implausible scenarios that reveal his tireless exploration of the history of literature. Emotional landscapes are at the core of Tavares’s short stories and novels. With surgical precision, he contrasts and draws parallels between his characters’ feelings, which mirror our own. Upon reading Tavares’s work, we may discover that what we fear the most is learning about ourselves.

According to Tavares, “We face the book when reading. We do not read out of the corner of our eyes; to read is to turn the body toward the letter.” From this intense activity of turning the body toward the page emerges Tavares’s constellation of characters, motifs, objects, streets, buildings, and climates, presenting us with powerful words and somber and radiant visions.

Tavares’s books convey an intricate set of ideas that are dispensed only gradually. Jerusalem , with its shards of memories and visions of the future, had a mind-altering effect on me. I read the book two, three, and four times, seeking to discover it anew each time. It was as if I wasn’t reading about things, but with them.

Tavares is an acrobat of words, a multifaceted writer, a prodigious and compulsive artist. I consider him a revolutionary of thought.

— Pedro Sena Nunes

Editor’s note : In this interview, Gonçalo M. Tavares and Pedro Sena Nunes reference two series of works currently available in English translation. The first series, The Kingdom novels—including Joseph Walser’s Machine (2004), Jerusalem (2005), and Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique (2007)—are set in an undefined central-European country in the midst of constant war, political upheaval, occupation, and other forms of strife. Tavares’s antipodal antidote to the bleakness of The Kingdom books is his unfolding Neighborhood series of short stories inspired by and about famous authors or “Misters” (Mister Calvino and Mister Brecht, among others) all of whom inhabit the same fictitious Lisbon bairro .

Pedro Sena Nunes Why do you write books?

Gonçalo M. Tavares I have a physical need to write. I insist that it’s a physical, not just an intellectual, need.

PSN Is it difficult to write?

GMT Well, the anguish that takes hold of each writer is the anguish over apparent inaction. That is to say, however much it can be romanticized: writing is an act that someone does, at first, when seated. On the other hand, one of the great difficulties of writing a novel, for example, which demands a continuous attention, is precisely the difficulty that we feel in simply sitting down. It seems like it isn’t, but it’s a violent act, because we look out the window, we listen to the noises of reality, we feel that there is a series of events that are out there in the world waiting for us and we, in contrast, in the moment in which we write—I’m not speaking of time spent researching, which can be done in the field, of course, and passes for life experience—but the moment of writing itself, that is solitary, and, as I said before, results in a body which sits, that is removed at least, in the moments of writing, from the world. However, it’s obvious that a writer should be aware of reality and should, if possible, try to influence it through his books. To unsettle is a good verb: to disturb, to make one think.

PSN Who are your main influences?

GMT I could talk about authors I really admire: Italo Calvino, Thomas Mann, and so forth, but it would be an almost endless list. I wrote a book called Biblioteca (Library) where I wrote short texts from the perspective of countless authors. But to respond to your question, I feel that I have hundreds and hundreds of influences. Each week I try to add one or two more influences. In this particular instance, I like to refer to a philosopher, Gilles Deleuze. Deleuze says that there are two great powers: first, the power to affect, to influence others, and that is obviously something that a writer tries to do—and happily, because there are many artists in different countries, people in theater and in music, for instance, that are drawing inspiration from my books. But returning to Deleuze, he spoke about a second great power: the capacity to be influenced. I believe that this is crucial: to be aware, to be receptive.

PSN Your writing is very rich and varied. How do you characterize the connection and separation between your novels and your short stories?

GMT There are books with very different tones and contents, but there is a clear link between all of them. There is a form of writing that I believe is common to all of those registers. The tone can be more profound, or more playful, the narrative’s subject or the book’s form can be very different, but there is a style that I believe carries over into all the books. But I think that each form or literary genre expresses a thought, and the narrative arrives at different points. When I write a short story—such as in The Neighborhood, in “Mister Brecht,” or in “Mister Calvino,” for example—I arrive at places that I don’t arrive in with a novel or with an essay. And vice-versa. It’s evident, for example, that a novel, because it asks the reader to extend across time, also creates a rhythm and density that a short text can’t have. Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique or Jerusalem have stories that wouldn’t work in short forms. I’m forced to go down different paths to try and arrive, of course, at different places.

PSN Why do you write in series?

GMT I divide my many books up into series because they are very different forms of writing. There are novels that are more classic books, but still novels, I hope, of ideas. There are earlier novels with a backdrop of war, where I try to understand the behavior of men in extreme situations. Ultimately, I try to understand evil and the form in which each of us (we cannot exclude ourselves), from one moment to the next, can enter into the routine and what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.” There are strong, aggressive books that some classify as “war machines,” and I like that. There are books that claim to shake things up, to reveal man in his deepest misery.

PSN Can you talk more about the neighborhood in The Neighborhood series?

GMT It is a neighborhood of strange, paradoxical, logical, or ultra-logical characters—very anguished or very playful. There is something about the spirit of the names themselves that gave life to the characters that inhabit my stories. I gave the name of a writer to a character, just as you might give the name of a writer to a street. There are various “Misters” who I visualize as possible characters, playful characters. Among those, Mister Kafka, Mister Pessoa, Mister Proust, etcetera.

I’m accustomed to saying that we don’t want the street to resemble the writer, but there is a link. In the first place, nothing is biographical. The characters are fictional and autonomous, they go down their own paths. But obviously, there is a link, even if it’s small, in the themes or the tones or the logic of the writing.

I may view The Neighborhood—which is a huge project, if I can finish it (I probably can’t)—as a kind of essay about literature, but fictional and with complete freedom, yet it is also a type of utopia, a neighborhood of writers and artists who try to oppose barbarity and stupidity. While imaginary, it is a neighborhood, so people can suddenly move in, and others can leave. The possible residents of the neighborhood appear in an illustration in the books, and there is an illustration of the neighborhood that provides a map of the project.

The books about the neighborhood, I write them to relieve myself from the depression and violence and tension I’m left with after finishing a novel like Jerusalem or Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique, for example. I write the Misters stories to relax from the novels, and to release my tension. Therefore, there is a playful feeling, an irony that naturally emerges in the writing.

PSN What can be done in literature?

GMT Everything. Literature is a space of infinite possibilities. I think it is our duty to explore them, trying to increase the average clarity in the world. That is part of our role.

PSN How did you start writing?


The Misters’ residences in The Neighborhood series as drawn by Gonçalo M. Tavares.


GMT At 18 years old, I wanted to be a soccer player, or to get a degree in Pure Mathematics. I really like science and math. During my childhood and adolescence, math was a huge influence. I had a natural intuition, but after 18 it went away. Literature is an individual science, it doesn’t try to prove anything to the world, it wants to investigate it. The same person makes associations, acts intuitively; much like the scientist in the laboratory, it is someone who has intuition and wants to understand things. I feel that the question of physics is very important. If I had always lived closed off, I wouldn’t have had practical experience. No idea can make you forget pain. I don’t place ideas above all else.

I concentrated on writing for many years and I wrote a lot without publishing. Sometimes, I say the same thing to beginning writers—that being a writer has nothing to do with publishing. A writer is someone who writes. Publication is, in all regards, secondary. During my childhood, I frequently watched engineering projects being constructed. I watched, sometimes astounded, how before they started to build up, they dug a hole, an enormous hole. For a child that was crazy: they wanted to start building a wall and they dug a hole. Later on I realized that that hole was made to build the foundations: the metal structures that allow the building to stay standing. That image made a big impression on me. You have to build strong foundations first, in order to make a sturdy house afterward. I think that the period up until I was 31 years old was, in part, constructing those foundations.

PSN How do you organize your writing periods and the themes you choose?

GMT Before writing a book I never know what will come out, I don’t know the characters, I don’t know how many characters will be in the book, I don’t know the conclusion or the route. My pleasure in writing comes from being surprised. I view writing as an investigation. I begin a book searching for something I didn’t already know.

PSN What, then, is the origin—the departure point—of a text?

GMT It’s hard to precisely locate the origin of a text. It can be in a part of the brain, or in a part of reality. Or, most of the time, it is a cross between a thing that you feel and think, and a thing that you see outside, in reality.

PSN Many of your texts are short stories. What do you like about the form?

GMT I enjoy short stories, as much as, for example, philosophical fragments. Many of the authors who I like the most in philosophy write in fragments—Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Walter Benjamin are some examples. Above all, I like the idea of concentration; in the same way that a substance can be concentrated, ideas can be concentrated. The fragment or the short story forces the ideas and the intensity to be concentrated in a small space, within a few square meters. I always try to make things as short as possible. I like to refer to the story of a writer who, after writing a long letter to a friend, at the end of that letter said: I apologize for this letter being so long, but I didn’t have time to make it shorter. This is my methodology: to try to have time to make things shorter, to condense, to concentrate.

PSN What is the importance of reading?

GMT There is a Chinese saying that, at the same time, is a curse: Don’t dare to write one book before you’ve read a thousand. I think, truthfully, that it is indispensable to know what came before, what writers before us did. Without knowing the classics, how can we dialogue with them, how can we know if we’re doing something new, or repeating what was done a thousand times before? I think that in this there is a certain similarity to scientific researchers: a physics researcher is well aware of the research that has already been done about the subject and he understands the research that is being conducted at that moment throughout the world. It is that knowledge of what others are doing that allows him to investigate and search for something new. On the other hand, speaking again about the classics, those that were written in a different time and under different conditions deviate from what is happening in today’s world. And that can be good. Jorge Luis Borges, with his irony, said that when he wanted to read something new he read the classics. Sometimes, we read a classic and feel more transgression in it than in a book that was just published. I think that balance is good: to understand what is being done today, and to properly understand what was done in the past.

PSN Which words never appear in your writing?

GMT We should believe in and, at the same time, distrust the power of words. We have to believe, because if we didn’t, we wouldn’t write. In writing, the idea behind placing those letters in a certain order, and not in another, is to have an effect on the reader, an intellectual effect, an emotional one, etcetera. But we shouldn’t have the illusion that words radically alter the world, particularly the words of a writer. It’s evident that the laws of legislators change the immediate world in a more abrupt way. The words of literature are slow words that have some effects, if everything goes well, in the present moment and perhaps in the future. But I don’t think we should have an unconditional belief in words. In linguistics, they often use the phrase: “the word dog never bites” to demonstrate that words are on one side and things are on the other. The letters “D-O-G” don’t bite, they’re letters. That is sometimes a bit disheartening. What you try to do when you write is to create a kind of miracle or magic: it is to make the word dog itself bite, or at least, to make readers scared of a word–dog that growls. Montaigne, in an unacceptable elitist tone, said that from the moment when his servant could give the name Alexander the Great to his son, the words no longer meant anything. This brutal cynicism is just as unappealing. Ultimately, we shouldn’t be unbelievers, nor should we have too many illusions. Words are dangerous, that is a fact, there are words that are very dangerous—but we shouldn’t forget that, in the final analysis, violence, any kind of extreme violence, is always the result of a suspension of words. Words can be dangerous, but it is when words are suspended that the greatest danger can arise.


A table of cities which are part of the “Cities” project.


PSN What is it that you never fail to offer your readers?

GMT I like the idea of trying to increase clarity, to decrease naïveté, making people understand at least one problem a little better (not the solution)—this seems like a good objective for literature to me. But it can also have no objective, the pure pleasure of one who writes and of one who reads is enough. This pure pleasure is always going to lead to essential changes, I have no doubt about that.

In fact, literature can serve many functions. I defend the idea that the writer should both enchant and disenchant. To create worlds made up of language and to also create other realities. But, at the same time, he should be aware of what is happening: the role of the writer as someone who tries to put forth a clear vision of the increasingly fast-paced events in the world is crucial. Let me give you an example with two literary stories from “Mister Brecht” in the The Neighborhood series. The first story is called “The Sages”:

A hen, at last, discovered the way to solve the city of people’s major problems. She presented her theory to the greatest sages and there was no doubt about it: she had discovered the secret to all people living peacefully and happily.

After they listened to her attentively, the seven sages of the city asked for an hour to reflect on the consequences of the hen’s discovery, while she waited in a separate room, anxious to hear the opinion of those distinguished men.

In the meeting, the seven sages decided unanimously, and before it was too late, to eat the hen.


The second story is called “The Unemployed Man with Children”:

They told him: we’ll only offer you a job if we cut off your hand.

He had been unemployed for a long time; he had children, he accepted.

Later on he was fired and once again he looked for a job.

They told him: we’ll only offer you a job if we cut off your other hand.

He had been unemployed for a long time; he had children, he accepted.

Later on he was fired and once again he looked for a job.

They told him: we’ll only offer you a job if we cut off your head.

He had been unemployed for a long time; he had children, he accepted.

It’s a literary story, but it reminds me somewhat of the world today—and Europe, in particular—the economic tragedy that we have been witnessing.

PSN What country would you still like to visit with the goal of writing about it?

GMT What always interests me is observing human behavior. How people act and react. How they speak and how they stay silent. How fear and violence work. Thinking about intense situations like illness, madness—all of that is very interesting to me, too. In all honesty, I believe that, many times, all of this is treated with a certain distance, with an irony, as a way of escaping, even if it is through humor—even black humor. When I take a trip and walk through cities, I always look for people and how they act; the buildings, the great monuments, are elements of the landscape for me. A landscape without human beings becomes tiresome. I need to see people. They are at the center of my work.

PSN Do you have to visit the places themselves to write about them? Reality and fiction—what is the relationship?

GMT Well, one of the projects that I’m working on is one about cities. There is a diagram, parallel to the one of the neighborhood, and it is very important for me, since it’s a chart of cities. It’s another project. I like images in order to visualize these projects.

But the truth is that imagination and direct observation actually blend together a lot. Thus, when you are writing, things blend in such a way that at some point it’s no longer imagination, dream, reflection, or reality, but just a thing. Sometimes, the sensation of not being able to distinguish what happened in reality from what came out of the imagination is one of the most enjoyable sensations: it’s as if we constructed a new world in which the two normal categories no longer function. A novel, for example, destroys, it seems to me, the separation between the real and the imaginary—I see no harm in that. It’s funny that certain authors (Musil, for example) defend this belief in fiction—that is, if a reader believes in the book’s fictional narrative that he is reading, it would be considered a mental illness, because he’s believing in an illusion, in a fantasy. If I make people think with the “Misters”—and looking at an everyday situation from a different angle is already making the reader think—it’s participating and intervening in reality. Deep down, I think that literature is able to change the diopters, so to speak, of the reader, until he finds a good lens. So that someone says at the end of the book: now I see certain things in a different way. That’s very good.

PSN What question would you have liked me to ask you?

GMT To what extent does literature depend on the presence of evil?

And my answer is: Evil is one of the themes that most interests me. In a certain way, the series of novels that I called The Kingdom (Jerusalem, Joseph Walser’s Machine, etcetera) are novels that try to understand evil, its emergence, its apparent concealment, its hovering over our heads. It might be wrong, but I have the sensation that evil is always around us, suspended, looking at us, waiting for us, as if from one moment to the next we could be the object of evil, victims therefore, or the subjects, of evil: tormentors. Evil circles around us, we can’t fully free ourselves from it. I’m very scared of people who say that they’ve already completely distanced themselves from evil, or those other people, naive ones, in my view, who say that some things that happened in the 20th century will never happen again because people, they say, have learned a lesson. I don’t believe that, and furthermore, I think that naïveté is the terrain where the greatest evil develops. Hence, for me, the importance of literature. If you asked me, in a word, what I think literature can give to a person, I would say once again: clarity. That is, the opposite of naïveté. I believe that evil is always present, threatening or tempting, and naïveté can lead people to confuse evil with other, much more enjoyable things. Literature, good literature, can help us, as readers, to be aware, to detect the symptoms of evil emerging. It’s not about becoming suspicious and cynical, it’s not that. It’s about becoming people who are aware; people who do not necessarily view the things that the whole of humanity seeks to acquire as good, wonderful things. We have to be aware of the signs because I think that history often repeats itself, only it becomes more and more violent. History, it seems to me, tends toward the repetition of evil but with more technologically advanced means each time. Hence, the state of awareness shouldn’t be, not even for a minute, suspended. Literature can help with this, but, obviously, there are many other things, beyond art and artists, that can help us to be aware: social media is, in that regards, one of the most relevant instruments. Moreover, it seems to me that one of the mottos of every newspaper, of every television or radio station, should be to increase the amount of clarity by the square meter. And literature should try to do the same.

BOMB 125
Fall 2013
The cover of BOMB 125