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Jerusalem by Gonçalo M Tavares

Jerusalem (original 2005; edition 2009)

by Gonçalo M Tavares (Author), Anna Kushner (Translator)

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121499,547 (4.09)9
Authors:Gonçalo M Tavares (Author)
Other authors:Anna Kushner (Translator)
Info:Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, c2009 [orig Port 2005 as 'Jerusalém']
Collections:Your library
Tags:PortLit C21st - Gonçalo Tavares 1970-, Tavares - Jerusalém [2005]

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Jerusalem by Gonçalo M. Tavares (2005)




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Ok, I admit I get really excited about a good book when I finish it (I'd probably give four stars to Richard Ford's latest now...it's great but not GREAT.) Well, this is another great one from Mr. Tavares and fully deserves the five stars. Sometimes I thought it was a little contrived with all these intersecting characters, but I think it works well in this case.

Different from Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique, this novel focuses on the troubling and often violent lives of about a dozen characters in an unnamed place, but it judging by the names and cultural references, it seems to be somewhere in eastern Europe. It's hard to explain how the novel works. It's more of a series of interconnected vignettes (and interconnected in both the past and present) that gradually gain meaning and power as you move through it. As I said, sometimes it feels a bit overplanned, but really, as the characters reveal themselves, the more this makes sense. The ending really shook me up, I gotta say, and will stick with me for a long time.

Off to a meeting, so short version: read it!

Edited to add that it probably takes place in, uh, Jerusalem. I'm pretty insightful. ( )
1 vote MichaelDC | Apr 3, 2013 |
It is easy to agree with Saramago's opinion, quoted on the cover: "Tavares has no right to be writing so well at the age of 35. One feels like punching him!"

Still, there are many faults. Tavares plans very carefully, and he likes to hint at his planning in the novel's structure. But the numbered sections, Roman-numbered chapters, and chapter titles consisting of the names of the characters in each chapter, do not add expressive power or momentum to the book: they read like a device that might have helped the author organize his material, or (worse) a sign left in the text to indicate the work that went into it.

Many of the numbered sections read like exercises in writing for the theater: they have a dramatis personae, a stage for the action, and a sharp or unexpected ending. The sections can be more like set pieces than prose poems, more like fragments for a novel than parts of a novel about fragmentation.

Tavares's psychological insights also come in bursts: a paragraph, a page, two or three pages at most. They do not always accumulate into the sense that characters are growing. This is not a representation of the world as a fragmented place, and because it isn't, it reads as a limitation of Tavares's imagination. I care for each of the characters in a fitful way: I care during an intense or insightful page-long description, and then I care again, differently, when I read another description later in the book. But my care, and my memory of the characters, does not grow -- except artificially, when some characters are shown to have suffered in many different ways at different moments in their lives.

Tavares also has a deficient sense of the relation between fate, evil, and will. The book presents itself as a meditation on those themes, but he seems to think that a series of coincidences, in which characters wander and then meet in unpredictable ways, does the work of philosophic inquiry. Actually it means nothing, because he never draws consequences or builds structures on the apparently random meetings. Some are surrealistic (a woman gets the chance to point a gun at the murderer of her child, without knowing who he is), some are fatalistic, some seem to be about the inexorable nature of evil (a theme that one of the characters researches in an inappropriately quantitative manner), and some are apparently about the world's randomness and the powerlessness of will. But none of the intersections of characters can function in any of those ways, both because all of those implied meanings are mixed in together, and also because Tavares neither develops any of them nor sets them against one another. He prefers to set up the contrasts and let them imply meaning: a common failing of work in the wake of surrealism. What is needed is a position, a theory, a sense of the author's sense of the relation between fate, evil, will, and associated themes: a dose of Canetti, for example.

But Tavares also has an amazing strength: he can imagine and express the relation between the body and its thoughts more closely than many other novelists. The characters in this novel who have spent time in a mental asylum often remember their experiences in the most unusual ways. One person tries to punch another, but finds he can't:

"Ernst's so-called attack was sabotaged not only by his general lack of coordination, but also by what you might call a condition of incompetence... the physical therapy [in the asylum] wasn't focused, naturally, on building strength, since strength is disruptive, but on consistency of pressure, on equilibrium -- his muscles, in fact, had been tamed, made into daydreamers: contemplative, patient. Thus, against his will, if Ernst wanted to grab hold of something, he found it wasn't so easy to let go again, and if he wanted to push something, he didn't press and then release, but kept pushing, regrouping, and then pushing again." (p. 170)

Passages like these have few parallels in other novelists' imaginations. For that reason alone I'll be reading the four books the Dalkey Archive is going to be publishing in the next few years. ( )
2 vote JimElkins | Dec 9, 2009 |
Jerusalém was originally published in Portuguese in 2005, and it won the Prémio Literário José Saramago (José Saramago Literary Award) that year. It was translated into English by Anna Kushner, and published by Dalkey Archive Press this past October.

The story is centered around several solitary residents of a small unnamed city, each of whom walk toward the center of town in the early morning hours of May 29th. Mylia is a terminally ill woman who cannot sleep due to chronic pain and leaves her house to seek solace in any church that is open at 4 am. Ernst is about to jump out the window of his attic apartment, but a phone call from Mylia, his former lover, interrupts his plans. Theodor Busbeck is Mylia's ex-husband, a noted psychiatrist whose widely derided magnum opus on the history of genocide and its victims has led to his professional isolation and downfall; he waits for Hanna, a prostitute who he meets on the way to town. His crippled son Kaas searches for his father, after he realizes that Theodor is not in his bed. And Hinnerk Obst is a deranged war veteran supported financially by Hanna, who spends his days preparing for the enemy and aiming his gun at the school children playing at recess.

The story travels back and forth from the present fateful set of encounters to the characters' past experiences, which both enriches the story and adds to the tension of its denouement. Dr. Busbeck's theories of evil perpetuated by the strong against the weak in times of joblessness, boredom and stress are expounded upon, yet he is unable to predict or control immoral and evil acts committed by and against his family and loved ones.

I found Jerusalém to be a compelling and tense psychological drama, which could easily be read in one sitting. According to the book cover, it is part of a series that the author calls The Kingdom, and the other novels in this series will be released by Dalkey Archive Press in the near future. I will certainly be on the lookout for these books, as Jerusalém was an excellent read. ( )
3 vote kidzdoc | Dec 2, 2009 |
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Ernst Spengler was alone in his attic apartment, getting ready to throw himself out the already-open window, when the telephone rang.
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