Hailed by Jose Saramago as the best writer of his generation and a likely future winner of the Nobel Prize, Dalkey Archive is proud to introduce Goncalo M. Tavares and his breakthrough novel.
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By Gonçalo M. Tavares
Dalkey Archieve PressCopyright © 2005 Gonçalo M. Tavares
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Chapter OneErnst and Mylia
Ernst Spengler was alone in his attic apartment, getting ready to throw himself out the already-open window, when the telephone rang. Once, twice, three times, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen. Ernst answered.
Mylia lived on the first floor at 77 Moltke Street. Sitting in an uncomfortable chair, she was thinking about the essential words in her life. Pain, she thought, pain is an essential word.
She'd already had one operation, then another, four operations in all. And now this-this echo deep in the center of her body. Being sick, she told herself, is a test, a way to teach yourself how to endure pain. Or else: it's a manifestation of your desire to get closer to Almighty God. And churches are closed at night.
Four in the morning on May 29th. Mylia couldn't sleep. The pain was constant, coming from her stomach-or maybe lower. Where exactly was it coming from? Maybe from her womb. The only thing she knew for sure was that it was four in the morning and she hadn't slept a bit. She couldn't close her eyes because she was afraid of dying.
She got up. Mylia was thin but strong. She didn't waste time on trivialities. (She was always telling herself: don't waste time ontrivialities.) She paid attention to things. She knew she had only a few years left to live. The disease had already begun its work: we'll be together for a few years, then the disease will stay and I'll go. She focused her energy on whatever time she had left in her body, and directed it-her energy-like a rolling pin. Poised to roll. No more trivialities. Only spend your time on necessities-ignore the insubstantial; the only things that matter are the essentials, the things that really change you, that make everything different, the things that strike you down. Everything should be that way-every single thing you do each day should feel powerful, significant. Mylia looked at herself in the mirror. I'm alive and I've made a mistake. To be sick is to have made a mistake. Maybe even a diabolical mistake. But: sickness does change you. Sickness makes everything different.
So, that day, at four in the morning, Mylia decided to leave her house. The pain hit her differently at night-it was more of a gradual sensation, like watching some kind of chemical goo creeping down a slight incline, its progress barely perceptible to the eye. Day and night aren't on a level playing field. There's a bit of a slant.
Focusing on her pain, in that nonspecific place-somewhere between her stomach and her womb-Mylia went outside, looking for a church.
There's a bum, and he's a little startled. He says he doesn't know. A church? Don't you know what time is it? he asks. You're going to get yourself mugged. You shouldn't be out looking for a church, you should be looking for a cop to walk you home. Why are you even out at this time of night? I could mug you myself!
Mylia smiled and walked on. Her pain was more urgent than their conversation.
I don't want the police, I want a church. Are they really all closed at this hour?
Her feet felt like they weren't part of her. It was clear, though, that her shoes-flat shoes, men's shoes-still went wherever her feet wanted them to. Bones and muscles have a will of their own. Not shoe leather. Shoes must obey, without question. Yes-shoes, obey, Mylia muttered. All matter can be divided into two basic categories: things that move according to their own will, and those that must obey without question (you could say much the same thing about people). Shoes were an example of pure obedience, and as such, they disgusted her. Revolting: the subservience of the material world in relation to man. Not even a dog was as submissive as a shoe.
And yet, there was no possibility of dialogue between the two camps ... not "enemy camps," really, since this would suggest that there might be some likelihood of their going to war, meeting on the field of battle, marshaling their various forces ... no, these weren't two predators pecking at each other in order to secure some choice piece of territory, but absolute passivity on one side confronted by pure energy on the other ... an energy that's just as likely to be destructive as creative, but which, in any case, never stops evolving. No, we aren't the sort of stuff that just sits around and waits, Mylia told herself, walking with determination toward a church.
"The church is closed. Do you have any idea what time it is? It's almost five in the morning. You shouldn't be out here anyway. This is a bad neighborhood at night. It's dangerous."
Mylia felt like laughing in the man's face, good intentions and all. Dangerous! Dangerous for someone as sick as her? Dying from a disease down deep inside her, with only a year or two left? Death was already closing in on her-now she wanted danger, something to excite her, wanted to feel something new. She wanted to tell him, this man, he seemed to be a caretaker or something, yes, she was tempted to say, Look, if it's dangerous, then it's not a bad neighborhood at all! At least things can actually happen here!
Danger raises questions, calls for immediate answers. What I need is a good question, Mylia thought. A specific question, a question that'll force me to come up with a meaningful response. My sickness isn't an old wolf-it won't run away at the first sign of trouble. No, it's not a frightened wolf prowling around me. It can't just be chased away.
"I don't care about danger," is what she actually says. "I just wanted to visit the church."
"It's five in the morning. Everyone's sleeping. This neighborhood is dangerous. You should go home. Look, come back in the morning. We'll all be rested, and then you'll find whatever it is you're looking for. Please, listen to me. We're all tired."
Mylia was quiet for a while, and then she doubled over thanks to the strange new pain shooting out laterally from the other, familiar, constant pain from near her stomach. Then, yet another new pain announced itself-higher up.
"Excuse me," she said. "I'm in pain."
"You should go home. It's very late."
Mylia composed herself. She asked, "Do you know if there are any churches still open?"
The man said goodnight. Mylia walked away. Everything was locked-up tight. Even the little side door. Might as well be a prison. Mylia started walking around and around it.
They were doing some kind of construction on top of the church-during the day men would climb around to work on it. Tiptoeing with bricks, thought Mylia. She'd made herself smile. What kind of job is that, anyway? Climbing all the way up there just to push a brick a few inches higher.
And there was something else making Mylia smile. And blush. She had to pee. But it was after five in the morning. All the doors were closed. That nice man (or maybe he wasn't so nice? ... maybe all he cared about was making sure nothing untoward happened to his church?) had told her so. That insignificant man had apologized for the church being closed. Mylia understood how the world worked: a man whose job is to apologize to strangers at five in the morning is almost as low as you can get. They must have him cleaning the church toilets, she thought-and then was sorry she'd called that image to mind.
But none of this was what had made her blush, exactly. What had made her blush was the realization that her bladder was full, and that there was no one nearby to see her. She thought: if I were a proud man, a man who didn't care what the world thought of him, I would just lean toward the wall, take my penis out, and do my business right here. What had made her blush was the realization that she wanted to urinate on the church wall.
It wasn't because she wanted to mark her territory, like a dog, outside this place she'd been forbidden to enter. It wasn't because of spite, either-it wouldn't be an act of defiance, a way of protesting the church's hours, which, sadly, hadn't suited her needs that night. No, it was nothing like that. Mylia was about to turn forty; she didn't do things just to be provocative. And she was sick, too; she had to conserve her energy; any action Mylia took would be for Mylia and Mylia alone. I act for myself, she said. I act as though alone in front of a mirror. In the end, everything is about myself. About controlling my impulses.
To be clear: her desire to urinate on the church wall wasn't exhibitionism. It was the image itself that seduced her: the image of homo erectus, human in its most biological sense-a man standing straight with his penis in his hand, pissing against the church wall-this image pursued Mylia and, in a way, made her jealous. She'd never once regretted being a woman, never once tried to do anything "masculine," but at that moment-in a strange, unnecessary, irrational way-she was angry that she couldn't be the man in her image. She felt like a failure.
Of course she knew peeing against the church wall in the middle of the night would be ridiculous. How would she even position herself? Facing the wall or turning her back to it, leaning her ass against the wall, bending over? Any of the available options would force her to bow slightly forward, and it was this "slight" bow that bothered her most. A person should either bend over completely-even throwing herself on the ground, if necessary: there's no shame in cowardice-or else stand up straight, unwavering. Here she couldn't do either: she'd piss on her socks if she tried. Yet her other option, to slink away and leave the wall dry, felt humiliating-like admitting she wasn't up to her image.
And then another image popped into her head. If someone saw her peeing on the church wall, he would think: this person is out of her mind ...
Mylia had her share of minor anxieties. For example: she was frightened-like so many people she knew-by mice. Completely overwhelmed by an inexplicable hysteria every single time one of these little gray monsters crossed her path. But her true fear, her greatest fear, was of confrontation. She'd kept away from it all her life. If there was even a hint of conflict in the air, she'd tell herself: "They"-whoever they were-"could tear me apart ..." and then she'd run away. She would only go up to people when she was sure she was safe. Escorted by a friendly hand. She could never understand the men and women who actually preferred open aggression, even physical violence, over other forms of conflict.
So it was important to Mylia that she not seem crazy. Of course, after their initial error (look at that lunatic!), any chance witnesses to her wall-peeing would presumably come to their senses and realize that Mylia wasn't crazy after all; that, really, what she was doing was perfectly normal. But the possibility that someone might think, even for a moment, that she wasn't in her right mind-it was too much for her. She thought: I won't let anyone call me crazy ever again.
Mylia retreated. She wasn't about to put herself in that position, wasn't about to let anyone think she wasn't in control. Certainly not for the relatively minor prize of peeing against the church wall. She stepped back about ten meters towards a small garden. Leaning back against a tree, she let go.
There was no one around. The pain was still there by her stomach. She bent over, grabbed some grass, wiped, pulled up her underwear, and collected herself.
The church, silent, faced her as before. The sun would rise in less than three hours, and its brightness would be intimidating, a material threat. The church was closed because it was still nighttime, but Mylia wouldn't make the mistake of being seen there in the morning, still wandering around hopelessly. Her moment of weakness with the man who'd opened the church door had been humiliation enough; now Mylia was starting to recover her animal instinct-she would only let herself be seen in a position of strength. She knew this instinct well ... you could even say she knew it too well, since her sickness as much as her anxiety had always forced her to avoid people when she felt most helpless: when the pain was at its worst, she preferred to be alone. To be seen as weak, she knew, was tantamount to giving up one's membership in the species. Even knowing that she'd probably be dead in a few months-a year would be too much to hope for, she decided-she refused to give up being human. Pride, she often told herself-never lose your pride.
In the meantime, she'd started feeling something new in her stomach. The sensation confused her: it wasn't her pain, it was something else, equally sharp, perhaps even sharper ...
How ridiculous. I'm hungry, she thought. I haven't eaten for hours. She even considered laughing. I thought I was alone here at night, but my stomach came along ... it's keeping me company.
This additional pain was cause for reflection, even a certain inexplicable fear. The new pain in her stomach, brought on by hunger, that pain was actually stronger now than the other pain, the constant pain of her sickness, the pain that was at the root of all her fears, big and small. How is it possible, Mylia asked herself, that this pain brought on by needing to eat can hurt me even more than my usual pain? But I already know I'm going to die from the smaller pain ... the doctors guaranteed it.
She understood then that there, right there, next to the church, her two pains were trying to outdo each other: the pain that would kill her, the bad pain, as she called it, the sickness pain, and, on the other hand, the good pain, the hunger pain, the pain of wanting to eat, a pain that signified life, the pain of existence, as she would say; as though her stomach, even in the dead of night, was the one obvious sign of her humanity ... and likewise of her rather ambiguous relationship with the things in the world she still couldn't understand. Yes, she was alive, and this proof of being alive hurt even more, at this moment, in an objective and physical way, than the pain she knew was going to kill her. As if, tonight, it was more important to have a bite of bread than live forever.
Mylia looked around: where can I get something to eat at this time of night? Not a single light. No one to be seen.
She circled the church again. Still no lights on anywhere. Proof that the world was either dead or still waiting to be born.
Her empty bladder was an unexpected comfort. At least one pain had been dealt with, she told herself, as though this night was a kind of game, a contest she'd been entered into without having realized it, a competition that kept setting little problems in her path-or, rather, in her body-not puzzles but pains, material problems, concrete riddles inside her own body. She had already solved one: she had emptied her bladder next to the tree. One less pain. Her urine had spilled out. The less urine, the less pain in her body.
But that still left all the other pains, and she knew that one of them at least couldn't be solved at all. It came down to one all-important word; the doctors had used it in front of her: there's nothing to be done for this, they said, we have to hope for a miracle ...
It had been a shock. She'd presented her problem to her doctors-a pain, she was ill; it was exactly their kind of problem, an organic complication-and the doctors had responded by shrugging their shoulders sadly (it was a more or less professional sadness) but taking no action, suggesting no therapy: there's no cure for this. Your illness can't be treated. She'd brought her problem to a bunch of doctors and they'd given it right back to her, untouched. Her problem, and her question, remained: Why do I have to die?
Mylia was behind the church now. She sticks her hand into her bag and takes something out, something small, trailing dust: a piece of white chalk. Chalk to write on her slate. She had forgotten it was in her purse. That morning she'd drawn a house on the slate she kept in her living room. She drew the house where she would live if she didn't die in the meantime. For Mylia, living past the coming months would be like finding out she would live forever. If I don't die, she said, I'll become immortal. Immortal for two years at the most.
Excerpted from Jerusalem by Gonçalo M. Tavares Copyright © 2005 by Gonçalo M. Tavares . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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