Why This Book Should Win: "Joseph Walser's Machine" by Gonçalo Tavares [BTBA 2013]
As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.
Joseph Walser’s Machine by Gonçalo Tavares, translated from the Portuguese by Rhett McNeil and published by Dalkey Archive Press
This piece is by avid reader of literature in translation Tiffany Nichols, who runs this Tumblr account.
Gonçalo M. Tavares continues to be the master of allegorical fiction. Here, in Joseph Walser’s Machine, the hands, machines, and the desire for normalcy within an unnamed city are the images of modernity in response to war.
Joseph Wasler, a generic machine operator, conducts his life with order and precision until one day his sleeve is caught in the machine he has been operating for years, resulting in the loss of his index finger. The first reaction to this event is the apparent betrayal by the machine that Wasler has grown to know more intimately than his wife. The last reaction is the importance of the index finger, which was lost in this fleeting moment of distraction, in controlling the weapons of war and human destruction—guns. As Wasler’s boss, whom has a greater intimacy with Wasler’s wife than Wasler himself, states:
It’s the finger that pulls the trigger, the finger that’s essential for shooting . . . [the machine] took from you your most useful finger, the one that shoots, the finger that performs a final contraction just before someone in front of you disappears. The machines were mocking you, my dear fellow. We should be wary of the machines, I’ve told that before. Their malice is far too precise. We’ll never be able to achieve anything like that, ourselves.
This conclusion shows the area of Tavares mastery in storytelling—irony which is only obvious after Tavares decides to reveal it to the reader. Tavares has the innate ability to provide the typical triumphal human response, but shows how it is epically flawed by the larger world. Here, when Walser lost his index finger, shortly thereafter, he found a metal ring to add to his collection of metal (or discarded machine parts). After careful measurements, “research,” and recordation, Wasler concluded that the metal ring was a part of a machine, precisely a gun, that would never be able to fire again because Wasler held an essential piece of its body. In this Wasler found his own resistance to the war occurring around him—disabling machines through collection of their essential parts. However, it is never confirmed whether the ring did in fact come from gun. All Wasler knows is its size and that a women found it in a doorway of her building.
It is not until the end that Tavares reminds us that the index finger is the most essential part of the human body in times of war, as it is the only appendage that can pull the trigger leading to a readily noticeable and permanent mark by an individual in the mist of the attempt maintain normalcy despite the random and often secretive causalities of war. It is here at the end of the tale, that Tavares breaks the reader’s concentration and focus on the machines, with their interchangeable parts able to continue on despite their operators being injured in the process of their operation—similar to war—and reminds us that humans instead house the most effective means to perpetuate or disable a war—our own index fingers.
This precise capture of the inter-workings of human behavior and thought and their interaction and undue attributed importance of machines will lead to conversations and discourse for years to come. Each Tavares novel encountered will create such a response.