In the very first scene of this book, a young Lenz Buchmann is instructed by his father to “do” a young servant girl in front of him. The command is issued without qualification, and there is no recourse for Lenz except to follow it. From this incident onward the novel spins forth a philosophy of strength, of power, of competence, of morality, or the lack thereof, that is alienating to say the least.

Lenz is a skilled surgeon, who does not operate out of compassion or to save lives, but because he is good at being a surgeon, and it is simply a side effect of his competent practice that lives are saved. Lenz regularly invites beggars into his home, with the implied promise of food or money, and then drags out their stay, demeaning them in conversation and having sex with his wife in front of them. But at his brother’s funeral—the brother that is his opposite in many ways—Lenz witnesses the influence that public figures hold, a renown and regard that even as a celebrated surgeon he could never possess. And so begins his foray into politics.

As a character, Lenz is unsympathetic and sympathetic at the same time. In his treatment of his wife, in particular, he can be described as monstrous. In his determination to create a rational system of perception and action, in his complete subservience to the memory and ideology of his father, he is understandable. Perhaps the most incomprehensible character however is his wife, Maria Buchmann. It is hard to understand who would marry a man like Lenz, or why even he would want to marry. But she does not play a very large role in the book, and dies about halfway through, to the benefit of Lenz’s political career.

Tavares does not mince words in this novel. His style is severe and technical. It appears to mirror the mental processes of Lenz himself, ruthlessly rational, but as the book progresses, the style seems to convey more of a sense of scrutiny. It is a mockery of itself, a meta-commentary on its own insufficiency, as we simultaneously see Buchmann himself degenerate from illness.

To elaborate, take first that Lenz often likens himself to a hunter, who remains calm and collected while instilling a hysterical fear in his prey:

A good hunter proceeds in this way, and with just two or three of his well-placed steps in the middle of the forest he will be able to instill the second year in the fleeing hare, the decisive fear. And it will be out of this par that the hare will really begin to hurry, to race off at full speed, but a speed without order or objective, recalling those little mice locked in cages that run inside of wheels, turning them with their feet; movements that are very quick indeed, but in a category of motion that might be described as the speed of someone just trying to keep going, so different from the speed of someone who wants to advance.

It was only when—in his role as hunter—he realized that he could strike this second fear into the hare that Lenz Buchmann became completely convinced that the animal would not escape him. His many years’ hunting had taught him that this second terror—unlike the first—has only detrimental effects for the quarry: it is illogical, almost suicidal. The first fear, being instinctive, makes the quarry flee in a direction away from the hunter—any intelligent living creature would do that. The second fear, however, once it invades the organism being pursued, completely disorders the strategic system that all living creatures have, and can bring the quarry around in a circular route ending up—stupidly—five meters from the hunter’s weapon.

For Lenz, a technician, prey is marked by illogicality, which is a stupidity. As he comes down with cancer, and slowly his faculties begin to go, until all he is able to do is hold a piece of paper on which his father’s name is written and read it over and over again, Tavares does not loosen his prose. We see it clearly when spittle drips down Lenz’s face. He cannot kill himself because he has let himself get too far gone, and Tavares’ prose stands strong as a reminder of the irrational hyper-rationality that fueled Lenz’s ambition, his frightened flight from insignificance, which brings about his demise.

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Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique
By Goncalo Tavares
Translated by Daniel Hahn
Reviewed by Lily Ye
360 pages, Paperback
ISBN: 9781564786272
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