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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Joseph Walser's Machine

Gonçalo M. Tavares

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To purchase Joseph Walser's Machine

Title: Joseph Walser's Machine
Author: Gonçalo M. Tavares
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 171 pages
Original in: Portuguese
Availability: Joseph Walser's Machine - US
Joseph Walser's Machine - UK
Joseph Walser's Machine - Canada
Joseph Walser's Machine - India
La Machine de Joseph Walser - France
Joseph Walsers Maschine - Deutschland
La máquina de Joseph Walser - España
  • Portuguese title: A máquina de Joseph Walser
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Rhett McNeil

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Our Assessment:

A- : effective character-portrait in a mechanical age, presented in a style that's spot-on

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Millions . 14/3/2012 Barrett Swanson

  From the Reviews:
  • "Tavares plumbs the internal life of a character who has or is slowly metamorphosing into a machine, a type of person whose morality is not a divine deliberation of how best to live, but is a mechanical operation. (...) Told in pellucid prose, Joseph Walser’s Machine is a terrifying and mesmeric novel, offering a dark premonition of where we might be headed and what we might become." - Barrett Swanson, The Millions

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Joseph Walser's Machine is part of Gonçalo M. Tavares 'The Kingdom'-series, which translator Rhett McNeil describes in his Introduction as:

four novels connected by a handful of overlapping characters, a number of recurring themes, and, perhaps most importantly, a strikingly odd style
       [Joseph Walser's Machine is the second of the four; Jerusalem is the third (but, confusingly, the back cover-copy of this book claims the series was: "begun with Jerusalem" -- presumably because that was the first volume that appeared in translation); the final volume is Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique (while the first is not yet available in English ...).]
       Set in an unnamed (and barely described) country, Joseph Walser's Machine focuses very much on the character of Joseph Walser, a machine-operator (until an accident leads to him being demoted to clerk) who leads a somewhat mechanical life of routine, patterns, and limited specific goals. There is, in fact, a lot going on in this unnamed country: over the course of the novel war, and then peace are declared; nevertheless, Walser and most of the other characters barely allow this to change their routines or affect their lives. In this and other regards -- he finds out his wife is having an affair, for example -- Walser practices avoidance more than anything else ("he had decided not to meddle with it"), trying to steer clear of confrontation and not getting involved (to the extent that he doesn't even warn his friends about the very serious danger they are in).
       As his foreman -- and the man who is having the affair with his wife -- explains early on to Walser:
     The machines of war are on their way, but don't be afraid. The machines approaching the city aren't the problem: it's the machines that are already here.
       Indeed, Walser understands he is part of a large system -- "It's intelligent, this city, he thought", for example, sensing the larger order of the world around him. And Walser knows he has already become a cog in the machinery. He knows his place, too: the closest relationship he has is with "his machine", and he also understands the nature of their relationship, and his role in it:
The hierarchical relationship between these two entities was clear to him: the machine belonged to a superior tier: it could save him or destroy him; it could make it so that his life went on repeating itself, almost infinitely, or it could, on the other hand, from one moment to the next, produce a sudden change.
       Such a sudden change does eventually come, yet it hardly frees Walser: he remains a cog, albeit in a slightly different role.
       The city is invaded, but some sense of normality remains -- imposed by Walser and his many like-minded cog-citizens. Walser is no revolutionary, rising in opposition (unlike some of his friends) -- but then this is a place where:
     In opposition to the administration of their country, every man in time of war, individually, on his own, founded, as it were, a Ministry of Normality, which established, essentially, repetitions. Because only repetitions calmed their minds, only repetitions allowed each individual to wake up to find themselves human the next day. Repetitions of small actions or small gestures, of banal words or phrases
       Walser is also a collector, and he frequently retreats into the safety of his hobby, finding there a necessary peace of mind. The opening pages already allude to this defining characteristic -- but also suggest it is the activity per se, rather than anything specific about it that is significant, much as it doesn't really matter what Walser actually does at work with his machine:
     Walser was a collector. Of what ? It's too early to say.
       It turns out to be a rather odd collection Walser is curating -- almost pointless, one might think. Yet given the parameters Walser sets himself, it allows him to establish a sense of order; by investing it with meaning, regardless of how arbitrary that meaning is, Walser finds purpose. (Walser's collecting is, in fact, much like a machine automatically performing a set task.)
       An accident at work slightly upsets what had seemed like the natural order, the rote life Walser enjoyed and felt comfortable with. Personally no longer entirely whole after that, one way of making up for it is by filling his collection with 'missing' pieces; when he finds one that he assumes was part of a weapon -- an "indispensable part of the conflict" -- he takes great pleasure in having played a small role in changing the huge cogs of war and life. He doesn't get beyond that, but it's something.
       Joseph Walser's Machine is a fascinating and beautifully written character-study from Tavares' 'Kingdom'-reality. With much that is simplified and reduced to a basic, mechanical level it has the feel of an exercise in parable -- and it also feels like a piece of a larger picture (as, as a volume in a multi-volume series, it is). A very good piece of work -- and the best starting point into Tavares' 'Kingdom'-books (of the ones available in English). Recommended.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 May 2012

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Joseph Walser's Machine: Reviews: Gonçalo M. Tavares: Other books by Gonçalo M. Tavares under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Portuguese author Gonçalo M. Tavares was born in 1970.

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© 2012-2021 the complete review

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