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.
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .
In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .
There are books that can only wisely be recommended to specific types of readers, where it is easy to know who the respective book won’t appeal to, and Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water is one these. What makes this neither. . .
Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt. . .
In 1899, Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano (a decade later, he published an orchestral version). The piece wasn’t written for a particular person; Ravel simply wanted to compose a. . .
Fiston Mwanza Mujila is an award-winning author, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who now, at 33, lives in Austria. From what I could find, much of his work is influenced by the Congo’s battle for independence and its. . .
Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic is not a novel in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a collection of vignettes recorded by journalist Georges Vasseur in his diary during a month spent in the Pyrenées Mountains to treat his nervous. . .
Founded in 1960 by such creative pioneers as George Perec, Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino, the Oulipo, shorthand for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, came about in when a group of writers and mathematicians sought constraints to find new structures and. . .
There’s little to say about a series of prose poems that willfully refuse to identify pronoun antecedents. Or perhaps there are a million things. The poems in Morse, My Deaf Friend— the chapbook by Miloš Djurdjević published by Ugly Duckling. . .