Gonçalo M. Tavares, Portuguese writer
In the age of planes books remain
Ljubljana, February 2009
In the late morning he steps in from a walk around the city. He thinks himself as a city-dweller. His mind works fast and loves to laugh. Thirty-eight-years-old lecturer of Theory of Science at Lisbon university is an author of poems, novels, essays and short stories. His work provokes admiration and affection. Nobel Prize Winner Jose Saramago expressed shock that someone so young should write so well. He began publishing at thirty-one, after 13 years of fervent writing and reading. He writes to build worlds like his father built houses.
Your book in Slovenia was published in a series EU Novel. What does Europe today mean to a writer?
Honestly? Nothing. I see no difference. There is no special feeling of belonging. It is a political decision that brings no changes on the cultural front. There are still only few translations of authors from countries like Slovenia. The situation is very poor looking from the literal perspective.
But EU enlargement to 25 and later 27 members was a big thing. It must have brought something to European culture and European identity?
In the midst of this current economic crisis, I have the feeling that bigger and wider identity exists than European. With new member states Europe’s center moved. Before it seemed to be gravitating around France, now it moved further East. Portugal is on the western edge. We are politically connected to these states, all the way to the borders of Russia. But as far as European identity is concerned, I think there is no communal one. There are many. Maybe they meet on the social front, in the feeling for social justice. There is the feeling of mutual help and cooperation. It binds us together as a continent and makes it easier to stand up to the USA or China.
And what does this Portuguese position of being on the edge of a bigger political entity, close to the Atlantic and Morocco, bring?
In the past it brought many things. Now, apart from certain ties with Morocco, it does not bring much. Sea is no longer the bridge. In the age of planes it does not present movement. Times of ships and sea-travel are past. Ocean today has no role in relations we build with other countries. Our only neighbor is Spain and sea is a neutral element.
But is there a feeling of being on the edge?
I would say that it is neither deep nor important enough to be engraved in people’s identities. Portuguese today are marked with a certain deep depression and unhappiness. We are not what you might call a happy nation. Still, we are very open and communicative. There is an inclination to understand other people, to learn their language. In this respect we are not isolated. Geography puts us on the brink. But it brings out a desire to be open for the outside, to move, experience the world.
How did your identity form in these spaces?
I grew up in the north of Portugal in a small town. It was a playful, boisterous childhood. I was outside a lot, playing football, running around. When I was eighteen I left for Lisbon, where I have been living ever since. My identity is very much linked to these two cities and to my family. My mother is a professor of Mathematics and my father is a construction worker. He has had a huge library. I sneaked there to steal books. I think there my love for reading was born. However, part of who I am also goes back to my father’s profession. He built houses and often took me along. I watched how they worked. First they dig a big hole, made foundations and then slowly built higher and higher. My favorite moment was when everything was finished and we drove away. And the house remained. This had a huge influence on me. I like the idea of building something that acquires its own independence. It is how I think of my work. I am here and somewhere else someone is reading my book. It is probably why I did not study theatre. I do not like that you finish something but then it just passes and disappears. With books I fulfill my need to make something material, something that exists autonomously.
The world that you build with your words and your books – is it the world that is in and around you or one you miss?
I think it is both. What I write is greatly an answer to all that I got in my life. It is like a payback. Very personal but at the same time interwoven with the world. The Neighborhood – the series of short stories about Gentlemen – is very personal while also an homage to all these great authors. Starting out of literal theory I wanted to create something unique. I hate the childish idea, that everything one does is new. It is frivolous. Someone who knows nothing of history and has not read much finds everything new and original. I aim to start from a certain tradition and then create something personal.
How did you decide what authors to include in your collection of Gentlemen and which of their characteristics to highlight?
I do not really know. They are not my favorite writers. It is a mix. I create fictional characters, but I find and develop something typical either in one of their works, in their tone of writing or in the theme they tackled. To that I add my own trades that usually surface in the first sentences. I never make a plan what I will write about. I write and reflect at the same time. With Mr Valery I began writing stories and after the second or the third one, it was clear that my character has certain features. From then on I focused and developed them in the outlined trajectory. Starting point for Mr Brecht was that he is a storyteller. His stories have political and social character and this aligns also with the author himself.
Will we ever read about Mr Tavares?
I think in a way I am there in every character. However, it would be too arrogant to put myself in a so well established Neighborhood.
You announced that also Ladies will live there. Will it be more difficult to write about them?
I usually get a question about Ladies from female journalists protesting that so far there are no women in the Neighborhood. But I never wanted to have a ratio of men and women. However, you probably finger to whether it will be more difficult to write from women’s perspective. Well, in Gentlemen I search for something playful, jocular, teasing. They have to have a special sparkle. I love Thomas Mann, but his writing is too serious to put him in the Neighborhood. It could be that it is easier for me to find something absurd in a male character. Nevertheless, I see Ladies as a big challenge and I have almost finished Ms Woolf.
Do you also look for this sparkle, for the absurdity in Ladies or is there something else that characterizes them?
I am not sure. For the Neighborhood as a community I just find it important to include women. Mr Breton has already mentioned Ms Woolf. He meets and talks to her. But this happened naturally.
And illustrations in the book are yours?
No, no. They are done by a painter.
How come you decided to include these images – does it have to do with the idea that we are becoming ever more a society of images?
No. I simply like the idea of mixing words and drawings. I like people opening the book and thinking it is children’s book. They are in for a surprise. I like this visual dimension that makes book not only an object to read but also to see. In Mr Valery drawings replace words, they belong into the story. In other Gentlemen drawings are more like illustrations. I began and want to continue this way. The drawing of the Neighborhood itself is extremely important to me as I can see it now as a space, a world. It has been very important to visualize the world I am building.
Your film How To Draw A Perfect Circle is in post-production. You co-authored the script with the director of the film Marco Martins, who is your generation, right?
Yes, he made a great film Alice a few years ago.
Do artists of your generation join in a community in Portugal?
I would say it has more to do with personal relations. After my works plays, operas or installations are done almost every fortnight. I like that there are new things created out of my works. Film How To Draw A Perfect Circle combines work of two people of different expertise. It is difficult, complicated, it takes time, it can even be dangerous. Different life-experiences and ideas meet. Therefore I find it pivotal that writer writes and director directs. I wrote my part of the script, gave it to Marco and said: “Do what you want with it. It is your film.” Photographers often send me their work. If I decide to write something I want to have the last word. However, I find it fascinating that someone who knows words can work with someone who knows images, both remaining in their separate worlds.
Do you always see the performances and plays made after your works? How does it feel?
Well, they did some terrible things, but also great and amazing ones. Sometimes they invite me to rehearsals but I try not to go or comment. I go to see the final works. Some were fantastic. But they were such because they were what they are, not because they have followed every word written. I usually tell artists that they should do best what they do, even if they move away from what I wrote. It is their work and it matters in itself.
So you have no sentimental relationship to your work?
No. And it is no longer my work. It is a play. I am not from the theatre. I could change my profession and become a director or I could say leave my works alone. Of course there is always the danger that things will not workout in a right way. The actor can say words in a completely different way from how I imagined them. But I leave things open.
You began writing at 18, but started publishing years later. What happened that this changed?
I always had the intention to publish my works. At 25 I decided that being 30 will be a good time. In the meantime I wrote a lot, read a lot. I was afraid that publishing would bring too much confusion in my life so I preferred to postpone it. After I had written a lot of books and read many, I felt I knew where I was standing. I felt prepared to be received well or badly by the critics and I said to myself “OK, let’s do it!”. I think it was a good decision. Most of the books that I have published after 31, have been written before. There are a still many books, good ones, that I have and have not yet published. I shook off the pressure this way. If I had not had books already written I would have been terrified. I would worry if critics liked the old books, what will they make of the new ones. It could have a terrible effect on me.
So we are reading books from the past?
They are not really from the past. When I prepare them for publishing, I throw and cut out a lot. I read them with my present eyes and mind. Some change completely in this post-editing. I published Water, Dog, Horse, Head in 2006, though I wrote it when I was 22 or 23. In it I changed so many things I feel it became a new book.
You also lecture at the university – there you meet many people, it is a very communicative environment. Writer’s work is stereotypically lonely and solitary. What is true for you and what do you need to write?
I need the two parts. It is a lonely job. Wherefore I need my lessons. I think it is dangerous to just stay in my room, write without coming out for the world. I do not give that many lessons – five to six hours a week, so I have enough time to read and work. But these hours are very important. They bring me out of my world and force me not to be selfish and centered only on me, me, me. Family and the lessons are crucial to calm down.
In Water, Dog, Horse, Head you write that book is finished when we manage to repair the mistake we did with the first word we wrote – what mistake are you repairing?
Well, it is the eternal problem of writing. And even talking. You want to be clear and precise, for what you feel you need more words to explain yourself. However, as you use those extra words instead of coming closer to the message you wanted to convey, things become more entangled and confused. And additional words are needed to explain the previous ones. To be precise and clear without being misunderstood would seem you need to explain yourself into eternity. Each sentence bores new sentences. Writing can not be correction of your mistakes or compensation for traumatic experiences you had. It is a need. In a certain moment you know that nothing else can give you what writing can. What is that? Pleasure of building – houses, places.
You use absurdity a lot – is there anything you would not turn into absurdity? Are there borders?
I play with absurdity in Gentlemen. In the novels it is different as they are very direct. I do not know if I have some taboos. I do not think about the themes in the story before writing. I begin to write and issues appear. If I think of it, I can think of nothing I would not put in an absurd situation.
If we move to the novels you mentioned. One carries the title Learning To Pray In The Age Of Technology. Why or what for pray at all?
It is a good question. I do not know the answer. It was such questions that made me write this book. However, I did not aim to answer them but rather to learn more about them and make them stronger. The novel runs in the direction of how is it possible that today we can pray with the same words that we prayed with in the past. For a writer it is very strange and at the same time fantastic to think that certain words can resist centuries. People read these words today and they feel the same they felt long ago. It is incredible. Every writer wants to do that with his words. If he denies it, he is lying. Therefore I think the words of prayers have something – I do not know what it is – that makes them resist the hands of time. It is not a literary resistance, it is something different. I do not know what or why but it intrigues me.
At the beginning of your novel Jerusalem, the main character, Mylie says that the word of her life is pain. Can you yourself subtract your life into one word?
Of course, but maybe I would stop at saying that I had pain enough.
In Jerusalem you write about violence and power. Are the two necessarily connected?
It is difficult to feel emotions if characters are not put near the edge, near the abyss of violence. I write about madness, human beings, witnesses, about disease and death. I think these are somehow themes of literature. It is difficult to write about happiness. If family is happy for thirty years, writer can only write »Family has been happy for thirty years.«
You really feel that way?
Well, yes, in a way. (laugh) However, it is exactly why as a writer I want to write a happy book. Happy from the first to the last page. With happy people, where everything goes as it should go. And at the same time I do not want to sound like Paulo Coehlo. It will not be easy, but I want to do it.
You want to do this every time you start writing and then you fail or this is something you want to do in the future?
(laugh) I have to admit that I am interested in strange people. I believe that unexpected events, powerful moments lead us to different, more diverse feelings than the ones we are used to. Old Greeks linked a hero not only to a person, who had done something outstanding, but also to a person who faced with an unprecedented event had said a great thought. Maybe I search for this same greatness in my heroes and anti-heroes. They are often people who search for the right word or a sentence to answer something that happened. At the end of Jerusalem Mylie stands in front of the church and when they open the doors she asks: “Do you allow me to enter? – I killed a man.” I am only now thinking of this phrase. Maybe it offers an appropriate answer to all range of powerful events that happened and were needed for the hero to say these words at the end.
In Jerusalem you call the mental hospital Georg Rosenberg. Alfred Rosenberg was a Nazi ideologist who was hanged after Nürnberg. Was this a conscious decision? Can you maybe tell more about the stories behind the characters you created?
In all four novels – The Black Books – the characters and their names are fictional. Of course there are many links to the history but I prefer not to explain too much. It is not that I would like to hide something, but when I write I do not think of symbols. The name of the hospital came instinctively. I never thought about it or planed it. I do not like symbolism. Language and words are for me symbolic in themselves and I hate to add more symbolism, or bring it upon my characters. I want every reader to interpret the book himself. Is it connected to the Nazis? To architecture, maybe? What matters is that the reader asks questions. It is his work. I do not have an original explanation and even if I had it, it would only be an obstacle.
What then provokes you? What makes you ask yourself questions?
Good books, movies, contemporary art.
Can you give some names?
There are so many, it is hard to name specific authors. There is Bill Viola. He is a video artist. His videos look like Renaissance paintings. People seem frozen like on a painting, which has a huge effect on a viewer. Everything is motionless but at the same time you have the feeling that something will happen, that something will change. I also like essays by Peter Sloterdike, a German philosopher. Then there are South American authors whom I enjoy very much. I try to follow contemporary art. I think it is really good and full of ideas. It is not focused so much on the form as on the idea. I like this. I believe the form is not that important, it is not about the beauty, it is about the effect it has on people. To make them ask questions and think.
Newspapers as we know them are said to be more or less doomed in the age of the Internet. What is happening to books? Is a book today modern form of expression?
It is hard to answer this. I would think that book, if it is good, presents something very powerful. However, it is becoming really difficult to find and print such books. I write on computer, I have my web page but I do not write a blog. I do read some blogs. Will they come up with a technology to read long books electronically? Who knows. I like the paper’s touch, though. And the idea of writing and words will never die. Book as a material thing, maybe. Book in its content, never. Homer did not write like I write today nor did he write books as we know them today. For centuries works of fiction have remained. People need to read fiction just as they need to know what happens in the world. It would be dangerous, were it otherwise. How we get to the novels or books is of less importance. Internet for journalists and writers is not a problem if people pay for what they read. Myself, I prefer books. Paper. The material thing. So I can touch it, have it in my hand. It feels good.