I went into this book expecting the wrong things; I thought I had picked up a novel with, y’know, plot, but the 280 pages of Gonçalo Tavares’ The Neighborhood are filled with vignettes—“chapters” ranging from tiny to small, with concise titles and little-to-no binding between them—sorted by each of six characters: the “Misters’” Valéry, Calvino, Juarroz, Kraus, Walser and Henri, each of them taking their names from one of Tavares’ literary idols. These six men live in a neighborhood outlined in one of many minimalist illustrations by Rachel Caiano, where their entertaining and sometimes outright absurd, but always thought-provoking ponderings on life and the subsequent actions that they take as a result of them create a village where philosophical bendiness can make anything true.
Tavares’ Misters have a way of taking the absurd and making it plausible, taking the patently obvious and making it absurd, and taking the unobserved and making it noteworthy by leaps and bounds of logic which are simultaneously puzzling and simple. Take, for instance, a chapter on Mister Henri (named for Henri Michaux), a man who by Tavares’ description must have sacrificed his liver long ago on the altar of his beloved absinthe, “The Garden Bench”:
Mister Henri was in the garden standing before his favorite bench, where a woman was seated, playing the violin.
Mister Henri interrupted the violinist and said, “Antonio Stradivarius was the most famous violin maker of all time. One could say that he was the architect of violins. He experimented with several kinds of violins until he decided upon the size and shape of the Stradivarius violin. I could have been a great violinist, but I never knew how to play the violin. However, alcohol existed well before the violin. Well before violinists existed, there existed people who were artistically inspired by alcohol. Therefore, please get off that bench with your violin. Because that bench is mine,” said Mister Henri.
The Misters tend to think like this, taking a roundabout approach to get to a strikingly obvious (if not entirely realistic) conclusion, in so few words from Tavares that the simplicity of the writing adds punch to the simplicity of the thought. Mister (Paul) Valéry, for instance, another denizen of the neighborhood, wears a black shoe on the right foot and a white shoe on his left foot. Upon being told that his shoes are “switched” he puts a white shoe on his right foot and a black shoe on his left foot. When he is told again that his shoes are switched, he determines that this must be wrong, since if it was incorrect the first time and he reversed it, it must now be correct, since the inverse is the opposite of the wrong original, making it right. With this in mind, he no longer worries about whether his shoes are on the correct feet—so long as they are the opposite of their inverse, they’re fine.
Now, it took me as many almost as many words to explain that chapter (“The Shoes”) as it took Tavares to write it. That is the beauty of his writing, Roopanjali Roy’s translation, and of this book itself: the simplicity of the ideas mirrored in the simplicity of the writing. The style seems like it belongs in a book for children (it reminded me pretty strongly of Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth), its language simple and straight to the point, creating an entertaining counterpoint to the absurdity of the content. In his introduction, Philip Graham mentions that his eleven year old daughter and her class in school loved Tavares’ writing: “I was mightily impressed by how even young children could be moved by Tavares’ writing, even though they certainly didn’t have a clue who Juarroz,Valéry, or the others might be.”
This is where I get a little uneasy. Based on everything else mentioned above, I want to say that I loved the book—and I did like it a lot—but I couldn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to because, like Graham’s daughter, Hannah, I didn’t have a grasp on who the models for the Misters really were. And unlike those children, while I found the stories were enjoyable, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was missing glaringly obvious references to the Misters’ philosophical views or prevalent themes in their works, which kept me slightly uncomfortable for the duration of the book. That being said, the pathological need to know ALL OF THE BACKGROUND!!!! before I go into reading something is a long-standing personal hang-up of mine, and perhaps because of that this book wasn’t the best way to introduce me to Tavares’ writing. I wish that I could have enjoyed it the way that those children did, but I was nagged the entire time by that feeling of missing something, and I’m sad to say that it diminished my potential enjoyment of the book as a whole.
So I went into this book expecting the wrong things, but that’s not to say that I was disappointed. On the contrary, the project that Tavares underwent in creating the stories and the characters in The Neighborhood is staggering both in terms of its inception and its execution; the entire project had thirty-nine total inhabitants squished into Caiano’s map by the time that this translated collection went to press, all famous figures repurposed by Tavares’ clever hand. The short stories are enjoyable in their absurdity and profundity, simultaneously provoking smiles and making the reader think, “That’s ridiculo– wait, uh, actually . . . that kind of makes sense. I think.” Perhaps for people like me who need to know everything going in, this book is not ideal, but for someone who’s familiar with Italo Calvino, Paul Valéry, Roberto Juarroz, Robert Walser, Karl Kraus, or Henri Michaux and can appreciate the homages to them (or a reader who is able and content to just take the stories as they are) The Neighborhood is a delightful collection from one of Portugal’s most striking modern literary talents.
Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .
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“Rambling Jack—what’s that?”
“A novel. Novella, I guess.”
“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
“Sorta. It’s a duel language book, so really, only about… 50 pages total.”
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