The Neighborhood by Gonçalo M. Tavares (O Bairro, 2010) translated from the Portuguese by Roopanjali Roy (2012) Texas Tech University Press (2012) 304 pp
I feel terrible that I’ve been negligent in reading Tavares, whose work started appearing in English a few years ago. After only a few paragraphs of The Neighborhood I knew I would be reading everything he puts out there, and thanks to Dalkey Archive and Texas Tech University Press for serving us with these publications. Okay, I don’t know if I’ll like the books in his Kingdom series when I get to them — who knows? But if the control, intelligence, erudition, wit, charm, humor, and sadness that we find in The Neighborhood is any indication, I’m going to be a big fan of Tavares.
The Neighborhood is a compilation of six “Mister” stories based on the lives and work of some of our greatest authors: Mister Valéry (Paul Valéry), Mister Calvino (Italo Calvino), Mister Juarroz (Roberto Juarroz), Mister Henri (Henri Michaux), Mister Kraus (Karl Kraus), and Mister Walser (Robert Walser). Importantly, these are not biographies (and are the furthest thing from dry biographies). Each “Mister” story is a playful riff on a theme inspired by the man and his work, both his style and his characters. They are whimsical and charming, though they also contain a great deal of sadness. All of those emotions are nicely underlined in the varied illustrations by Rachel Caiano (Tavares’ wife).
The book begins with Mister Valéry. Paul Valéry was a French poet and philosopher who died in 1945. At various times in his life, he published short pieces centered around a Monsieur Teste (Mister Head) (one can feel the relationship between Tavares’ project and Valéry’s). Monsieur Teste is an intellectual who seeks self-mastery by exploring the limits of the physical world. The first segment of the book is called “Friends,” and we meet a Mister Valéry who seems to be occupied in the same pursuit as Monsieur Teste:
Mister Valéry was very short, but he used to jump a lot.
He explained: “I am just like any tall person, except for less time.”
But this constituted a problem for him.
Later, Mister Valéry began to ponder about the fact that, if tall people were also to jump, he would never match them on a vertical level. And this thought dampened his spirits a bit. One fine day, Mister Valéry ceased to jump. Definitively. However, it was more due to tiredness than for any other reason.
He stops jumping but continues to consider ways he can be as tall as those around him. He could stand on a bench, but then he’s immobile. He could take a chair with wheels, but this isn’t practical. He wishes he could freeze his jump, “if only for an hour (he did not ask for any more than that).” Finally he “decided to be tall in his mind.” So he imagines he’s looking at people as if he were twenty centimeters taller, and “[b]y concentrating, Mister Valéry even managed to see the tops of the heads of people who were much taller than he.” This results in another problem: he then can’t remember their faces. “Essentially, with his newfound height, Mister Valéry lost friends.”
We continue to read about Mister Valéry as he navigates the physical world. Not only is it interesting and witty, but it is also a lot of fun. This can be evidenced by the fact that children in Portugal often perform pieces from these narratives. I’ve even found a video on YouTube where some children filmed their interpretation of “Friends” (click here).
While all of the six stories are charming and sad, and all are approached with whimsy, they are not the same in style. A few have an episodic feel (like Mister Valéry) and a few progress more like a conventional narrative. Further, they match, to an extent, the styles or personalities of the authors they are improvising. Mister Henri, for example, brings up his love of absinthe and encyclopedias in almost every vignette in the Mister Henri segment. Mister Kraus is writing a chronicle of a “Boss” pre- and post-election, and in this narrative Tavares injects the cyncisism and philosophies of power of the real Karl Kraus, the Austrian journalist and satirist.
Probably my favorite of the six (and I loved each) was Mister Walser, a touching and frightening improvisation on Robert Walser, the jubilant writer of long sentences packed with frenetic energy and fearless of that exclamation mark. Mister Walser, you’ll see in the map that makes the cover to this edition, has his abode far from the neighborhood. He’s a wanderer and comfortable in solitude. Yet he’s animated. He’s just finished construction of his home and is anxious to start his new life:
Mister Walser was overjoyed! In the midst of bushes, wild plants, and other manifestations of nature, in the course of a full and unpredictable life, this was what he had managed to build — using all the specialized technical skills that only a great civilization is capable of providing — a simple house, nothing luxurious or ostentatious, a modest home in which to live, the house of Mister Walser, a man who, for the time being, was alone in the world, but someone who viewed this house that had finally been finished — how many years had it taken to build?! so many! — as an opportunity to, frankly speaking, find company at last.
That is pitch perfect Robert Walser prose — the exuberance, the embellishment, the existential fear just under the surface. Proud of his home, he now wishes to inaugurate it, and a proper inauguration requires the presence of the proper individual: Thereza M. He sits to write her a letter. Nearly finished, he is shocked when someone rings his doorbell. A handyman has arrived to fix his tap. Polite and proper as always, Mr. Walser lets him in to do his work, anxious for it to all be finished so he can move on with his plans (the way Tavares describes Mister Walser’s emotions and feelings during the time he waits for the handyman to finish is reason enough to buy and cherish this book). But, before the handyman can leave, another repairman comes, followed by others, until the house is filled with people fixing it up properly, tearing down walls, putting cardboard over windows. The house’s “long career” now seems like a fancy. It’s a remarkable progression of events, culminating in the saddest passage of the book. Night has fallen, and most of the repairmen are still there and have asked to spend the night. Hospitality requires Mr. Walser to be a kind host, so he wanders around, finding ways to make sure everyone is comfortable:
At that point he was just too exhausted. He decided to lie down right there, in what appeared to be a corridor, although it was not very narrow. Not having foreseen this turn of events he had neglected to bring his coat from the hall. It was quite cold there owing to the fact that some windows had been removed from their frames and the cardboard covering these gaps was insufficient.
The entire “Mister Walser” section is charming, witty, funny, as are the other sections, but, also like the other sections, underneath the whimsical descriptions of a bad day is the genuine terror of broken, abandoned, eventually forsaken dreams and the swift (or is it merciful) passage of life. Obviously, that passage takes our mind to that Christmas Day in 1956 when Robert Walser, after spending 27 years in a mental hospital he put himself in, went on a lonely walk and died in the snow.
Genuinely, I feel I’ve discovered a treasuer that will keep me rich for life. I’m thrilled to say this volume didn’t originate from one book. Tavares has been publishing these short pieces in an ongoing series since 2002, and this book is merely a compilation of six of the ten currently available (hopefully a volume containing Mister Brecht, Mister Breton, Mister Swedenborg, and Mister Eliot is in the works). And I have more wonderful news: there are several more planned (apparently the map of the neighborhood now contains 39 names, including Mishima, Woolf (a Mrs.!), and Gogol).