Gonçalo M. Tavares: A Máquina de Joseph Walser (O Reino (The Kingdom) series) (Joseph Walser’s Machine)
This book is the second in Tavares’ Kingdom series, all of which are set in an unnamed European city, with the main characters having names that sound more or less German or Eastern European. Joseph Walser is an ordinary man, though something of a daydreamer (“My dear Joseph Walser, are you really listening to me?” was asked of him countless times). He is a good citizen. Walser had never committed a single act that even an ingenuous child would call mischief. He just wasn’t fit for doing evil. He is married to Margha. He works in a factory, operating an unspecified but fairly dangerous machine. His foreman and boss is Klober Muller who, early on in the book, reproaches Walser for his shoes, saying that they are irresponsible. Klober wants order and Walser’s shoes and shirt hanging out represent disorder. Margha has already commented on them. While these mundane events are going on, we learn that an army is approaching the city. We do not known what army and why. Moreover, most of the populace seem fairly indifferent to it. Walser’s view was that he had decided to stay neutral some time ago. An army had already invaded the city, but that wasn’t any of his business.
Klober has a way of pontificating to Walser about all and sundry. For him machines represent happiness. Walser, my friend. If you want exact numbers, we can throw some exact numbers around: individual happiness on a given day is, who knows, 70% dependent on the material effectiveness of machines. Walser has an ambiguous relationship with machines, with his machine. Joseph Walser could feel that the machine, his machine, was watching him. The hierarchical relationship between these two entities was clear to him: the machine belonged to a superior tier: it could save him or destroy him; it could make it so that his life went on repeating itself, almost infinitely, or it could, on the other hand, from one moment to the next, produce a sudden change.
Though generally a solitary person, every Saturday night he went to the house of his friend and workmate, Fluzst, and they and other workmates played cards for money. They played dice and Walser likes this as there are only six numbers on the dice, no more. It was this precision that excited him, this precision that was well-defined by immutable limits that, nonetheless, allowed room for his peculiar decisions, which, in truth, were not decisions at all. Just like everybody else, Walser accepted what the dice gave him. Walser does one have peculiarity – he collects. Initially, we do not know what he collects, only that he keeps them in his study, a room set aside for the child that he and Margha never had. We learn that they are made of metal. Only later do we know what they are – He picked up any piece of metal he could find, but with two restrictions: they had to be solitary pieces, not connected to anything else and each of the dimensions of the piece had to measure less than four inches.
One evening he leaves the dice game early. There is no apparent reason for doing so. As he is walking home, he sees his wife come out of a house. She never goes at out at night and they know no-one in that street. He does not accost her but lets her go home. Later he goes to the town hall and checks in the records to see owns the house. It is Klober Muller. Indeed, Klober Muller later tells Walser that he is sleeping with his wife. Walser does not react.
However, things change at the dice game. Some of them want to start a resistance movement, to attack the invading army. There are bomb attacks and the occupiers search for the culprits. However, Joseph is injured by the machine and loses his right index finger. He can no longer operate the machine but is given a clerk’s job and soon learns to write without the use of his index finger. Things change for him afterwards. His relationship with Margha changes. The occupying forces are attacked by the resistance movement.
The title shows that man’s relationship to machines is key to this book and it is certainly mentioned on more than one occasion. Walser didn’t think it right for Man—purely by virtue of being able to reflect upon the mechanisms of his existence—to pride himself on being so very different from machines. Merely being able to distance oneself from one’s constituent mechanisms doesn’t mean that those mechanisms cease to exist. But there is clearly more going on in this book. Many of the people seem indifferent to being occupied by an invading army and are also indifferent to the few that are not. While not overly Kafkaesque, the name of Joseph, the Central European setting and the general idea that Joseph and the others are just cogs in the machine clearly make us think of Kafka. Walser is a good man, in the terms of this book but clearly for Tavares, he is wanting. His indifference to both the war and his wife’s infidelity, the two amoral acts he will commit later in the book and his only interest being in collecting useless bits of metal do not single him out as a man to be admired. However. Tavares is too good a writer to wholeheartedly condemn him but puts him up for us to consider him and ask ourselves whether Joseph Walser is us.
First published 2004 by Caminho
First English translation 2012 by Dalkey Archive Press