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Gonçalo M. Tavares: Jerusalém (O Reino (The Kingdom) series) (Jerusalem)

People in Tavares’ novels tend to be miserable and this one is no exception. Much of the action takes place in the early hours of the morning (though with suitable back stories for the people and the events of that morning). Indeed, we open with Ernst Spengler, who is about to throw himself out of an open window, when the telephone rings. Eventually, he answers it Only some time later do we know who it is that is phoning him. It is, in fact, Mylia Busbeck , whom we meet in the second paragraph of the book. Mylia has had several operations but remains in considerable pain and she cannot sleep. The doctors do not seem to know how to solve her problem and can do little to help her. Only later do we learn why she is suffering. She goes out to look for an open church but they all seem to be closed.

Mylia, we learn, had been taken to a doctor, Theodor Busbeck, when she was eighteen. Her parents had maintained that she had visions. She herself insisted that she was schizophrenic. Dr. Busbeck was sure that she was healthy and, eventually, proposed to her. They did get married but she herself warned Theodor that he was making a big mistake. This turned out to be the case, as her behaviour got steadily worse and he had to have her committed. Why she is now living on her own, with severe health problems is not initially clear, though this and other events that happen that morning are eventually explained. Theodor now lives with his son (and, presumably, Mylia’s son, though this is not made clear, either, till much later). On this particular evening, Theodor is looking at pornography but decides that that is insufficient and sets out in search of a prostitute. He finds Hanna, to whom he is particularly attracted, but she makes an assignment with him for an hour’s time, as she has another appointment. His son, Kaas, later wakes up and finds his father absent. He is annoyed, feeling that a twelve-year old boy who is handicapped should not be left alone at night.

Theodor Busbeck is not just a general doctor but is doing a detailed study on the relationship between history and atrocity. He wants to chart whether horror has been increasing or decreasing century after century. His intention is to arrive at another, greater equation: a formula that will allow us to predict the horrors to come. However, he is worried that the results will not show horror increasing or decreasing but that the level of horror has remained constant throughout history.

Meanwhile, we learn that Ernst answers Mylia’s call but she hangs up. He fears the worst, dashes out to find her and does, indeed, find her, collapsed outside the phone box. We now meet Hinnerk Obst. He has come back from the war with two things – his gun, which he always keeps on him, and fear, presumably what we would call post-traumatic stress disorder. For the local children he has the face of a killer and he is the bogeyman they use to threaten one another. Indeed, as we learn, more than once he has aimed at one of the children from his window but not fired. We also learn that Hanna was dashing to meet him when she bumped into Theodor. She considers him her boyfriend and gives him a percentage of her takings from her prostitution. He never thanks her.

Much of the rest of the book explains some of these events and much of it revolves around the Georg Rosenberg Asylum, run by Dr. Gomperz. He is a strict disciplinarian. Both Gomperz and Busbeck, who have an uneasy professional relationship, are studying ways of treating the mentally ill. Busbeck is focussing on his own book and, eventually, publishes a five-volume work which is highly controversial as he forecasts which countries are most likely to have massacres. Obviously, this is not welcomed by the countries concerned and he receives a lot of criticism. We have already met his father, now dead, who had been mayor and had been named Man of the Year. His son now is also named Man of the Year but his reputation soon fades. Inevitably, we get back to that fateful morning with all the main characters wandering the streets.

There is no doubt that Tavares is aiming to show the world as a miserable place, where people are ill-treated, are often mentally unstable and subject to the vicissitudes of arbitrary decisions by the authorities and, indeed, by other people. The church offers no help, is indeed closed when needed. Nor do other people seem to offer much comfort, except just for sex. It is a bleak, almost Beckettian view of the world and one that does not really make for enjoyable reading, even though the Becketts and Tavares do have a role to play in literature. If you are looking for something with at least a hint of the positive, I am afraid that Tavares is not going to be the author for you.

Publishing history

First published 2004 by Caminho
First English translation 2009 by Dalkey Archive Press