CHAPTER 37 – The Narrator Experiments with the Materials and Cuts Himself, by Gonçalo M. Tavares

©Paulo Mendes, No meu jardim_Estado de Emergência_dia #22_abril de 2020

Translated by Francisco Vilhena

Edited by Kim Olson

“Without a brain to be looked up in anatomy books, objects and material things, like walls, will have somewhere distributed a central nervous system that, paradoxically, is at the same time in one place and everywhere (…)” 

A small suspension is required. The narrator is also subjected to it, and suddenly lifts his arm as if ready to answer a non-existent question. The fact that he takes up very little space and that he is almost made of air, that he is removed from the concrete matter that are characters and walls, facilitates movements and discretion. He is simultaneously here and on the other side – just as the modest air circulating in a modest room. And before the first before and well after the last after, therein remains the narrator whenever he survives and brings himself to glance, from top to bottom, at the concocted misadventures left behind.

In fact, the head of the narrator does not have a fixed position, neither in space nor in time, as if it had been under threat by an enemy bomber which, from the first light of morning, has been trying to shatter it for good. And, for precisely that reason, the brain does not sleep on the same bed for two consecutive nights, nor does it use the same chair, or the same gestures, more than once. That change, even within the narrator’s character is, after all, a cunning animal instinct that knows it will only prevail through the learned art of misdirection, through hiding and disguising; never by the brute force of an arm or a cannon.

And that’s it: the narrator, as he pauses, stares at the sky and the floor of the narrative with the same perplexity; traps might be hiding in the present or in any other tense; and even a useless domestic object carries within itself the power to cut. And here the narrator halts and thinks: when, due to excessive oversight and velocity, a thinking subject cuts a finger in the immovable and unwilling blade of a kitchen knife, will it not be because the immovable and unwilling kitchen knife moves after all and, more than will, it contains greed and gluttony – perhaps it might even carry plans for the future? We know little about ourselves, even less so about objects; but this I know, thinks the narrator, after cutting himself in a simple and almost bureaucratic act of kitchen: these objects are still unpredictable animals, even when shipped straight from the factory.

A knife is clearly an untamed and anxious beast; it cuts and bruises fingers and palms of hands etc, catching us off guard whenever we find ourselves thinking about the many deaths and the daily numbers we’d rather not know about. Every object requires its human’s undivided attention, without it the object will either crash to the floor and splinter into four hundred insinuations with no chance of ever finding its way back into one piece, or it will attack, whenever possible and least expected; never underestimate the rage objects carry for us, the narrator thinks, while in his clumsy manual setting he makes up a crooked band-aid which, even for the swift human duration, is too fleeting.

Yes: the cave and the machine, the narrator oscillates between the two as he pauses – that mix between the very ancient and the very recent disturbs the days and the plains: we have lost watch and calendar and are now lost in a forest with no trees; all is machine and alike, with noise and monotony and without any need for touch, except for the one that starts it up.

It could easily be this way with humans, only two states, but on the skin and the less visible parts of the body, there are desires that exceed the state of simply being switched on and working. Besides being functional, I want a certain joy and the highest excitation, an abuse, that is; humans have always been excessive in their demands from life, while remaining switched on, not yet defunct – switched off for some, in transit for the believers. We ask too much and in turn receive whatever energy and luck allow.

The narrator then briefly pauses the pause and looks at the cards laid out somewhere before in the story and feels a certain call to work; a siren devoid of the sounds of the narrative, clamps, shall we say, the distracted narrator, in between walls and other futile materials that do not speak or suffer.

The narrator touches, for example, the walls and they shake; he thinks about whether it’s the cause or the effect of his hand; if the shaker is the one who begins or the one who ends it. To the narrator, the cave is made in part of made-up matter, but most of all it is made of fear. What is strong always shakes, before the known tremors, the fissures provoked by the tremors coming from very high up or down below. But there the shaking of the walls is not a response to a bombardment or a natural quaking of earth; the simple materials of the cave tremble because they are anxious. Thus are the materials: not all in them is physical. Without a brain to be looked up in anatomy books, objects and material things, like walls, will have somewhere distributed a central nervous system that, paradoxically, is at the same time in one place and everywhere – and which decidedly shakes and has a psychology, like an animal or a person.

Anxious are the walls, the floor and the ceiling. The material of the objects is in fact made of a mild startling that the silly human eye does not register, not even if it focuses for two entire months. The cards, for example, never are an objective physical thing – and that is why, yes, it is necessary to return to them. What is inside them moves, even if it limps.

dedicated to Mário de Carvalho, friend that I so admire

Read the original chapter in Portuguese

Gonçalo M. Tavares (Luanda, 1970) teaches Theory of Science in Lisbon. He has surprised his readers with the variety of books he has published since 2001 and has been awarded an impressive amount of national and international literary prizes in a very short time. His work has been published in almost 50 countries.

Francisco Vilhena is senior editor at the White Review and serves on the advisory board of the Poetry Translation Centre. He writes short essays and translates from the Portuguese. His work has been published in Granta, Asymptote, Wasafiri, Modern Poetry in Translation and elsewhere, and his translation of Adelaide Ivánova’s the hammer and other poems, co-translated with Rachel Long, has been shortlisted for the 2020 Derek Walcott Prize for Poetry. His cat is one of the first feline polyglots.

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