Reading Jerusalem (Jerusalém, 2005; tr. from the Portuguese by Anna Kushner, 2009) is a remarkable experience. The novel’s concise, straight-forward style complements its weighty philosophical questions on the nature of evil. It recalls some of my very favorite novels by Fyodor Dostoevsky whose chaotic and meandering discourses on the essence of evil sit in sharp contrast to Tavares’ slim volume, but to my mind, one is no less brilliant than the other.
Jerusalem takes place in the pre-dawn hours of an unnamed city as five sleepless people leave their respective homes and go out into the night. Each is searching for solace from the mental and physical suffering that afflicts them. Their lives are linked. You become aware of the connective fibers via flashbacks that create context for the characters’ nocturnal perambulations. However, much of what you come to learn about how these lives are joined never becomes known to the characters themselves.
The protagonist is Mylia, a psychiatric patient and the ex-wife of Dr. Theodor Busbeck, a prominent psychiatrist. Mylia and Theodor become estranged when Mylia has an affair with fellow asylum resident, Ernst. In short succession Theodor is told of the affair and discovers that Mylia is pregnant with Ernst’s child. Mylia gives birth to a son, Kaas, in the asylum, and Theodor takes the child and raises it as his own. Soon after Kaas is born, Mylia is forced to undergo sterilization surgery that causes her constant physical pain and threatens her life a decade later.
While Mylia remains locked away in the asylum, Theodor seeks fame through an ambitious research project — he will graph the incidence of evil throughout history in order to demonstrate whether, over time, it has been increasing or decreasing. He concludes that evil is not in decline, that, “we will all get our turn to be massacred,” and that civilization will end when there is equilibrium between the forces that impose and the forces that receive violence.
Theodor believes that immoral thoughts are a sign of insanity, more so than immoral acts, and this conviction leads him to institutionalize Mylia. Eventually, Mylia is discharged from the asylum. But her “exile” to the outside world ends when she is faced with evil deeds, not just immoral thoughts. At the novel’s close she returns from exile to live again in her Jerusalem, this time a hospital for the criminally insane.
The philosophical underpinnings of Theodor’s theory converge with the moral questions that the characters confront. Acts, thoughts (including those of Theodor himself), and the fates of Mylia, Ernst, and Kaas are, in a manner of thinking, case studies for Theodor’s thesis.
Tavares’ writing is spare and powerful, and it is perhaps best displayed in the vivid language he uses to describe sensory experiences: touch, pain, hunger — especially hunger. Hunger that is a sign of life, a pain that battles with and temporarily conquers the pain of disease so that to feel hunger is to be alive and distant from death, and hunger that is insatiable, savage, and horrible. These two types of hunger are forces in opposition, and in the end a balance is reached: Hinnerk’s hunger leads to Kaas’ death; Mylia’s hunger leads to Hinnerk’s death.
There are a surfeit of novels that address man’s compulsion to commit evil against his fellow man, but Jerusalem demands your attention because Tavares’ execution and imagination are fresh. What otherwise might have been a difficult or pedantic read is, in Tavares’ skillful hands, a masterful and original exploration of one of the enduring questions in art and life.