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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Neighborhood

Gonçalo M. Tavares

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To purchase The Neighborhood

Title: The Neighborhood
Author: Gonçalo M. Tavares
Genre: Fiction
Written: (2002-5), Eng. 2012
Length: 288 pages
Original in: Portuguese
Availability: The Neighborhood - US
The Neighborhood - UK
The Neighborhood - Canada
The Neighborhood - India
  • Translated by Roopanjali Roy
  • With an Introduction by Philip Graham
  • Illustrated by Rachel Caiano

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Our Assessment:

A- : charming, clever, thoughtful, inspired literary variations

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Neighborhood is a selection from a series of short 'O Senhor'- ('Mister'-) books Gonçalo M. Tavares has written -- all part of his larger 'Neighborhood'-project --, collecting 'Mister Valéry', 'Mister Calvino', 'Mister Juarroz', 'Mister Henri', 'Mister Kraus', and 'Mister Walser' (but not including others, such as 'Mister Brecht', 'Mister Swedenborg', or 'Mister Eliot'). As readers can easily guess, these books feature characters inspired by real-life counterparts -- in this case: Paul Valéry (and, by extension, Valéry's Monsieur Teste), Italo Calvino, 'Vertical' Argentine poet Roberto Juarroz, Henri Michaux, Karl Kraus, and Robert Walser.
       It's disappointing that 'Mister Brecht' is not included, because Tavares' booklets most closely resemble Brecht's classic Stories of Mr. Keuner. Almost all the 'Mister'-work consists of short, separate pieces -- little episodes or anecdotes, tailored in presentation and substance to the subject. They're not uniform, however: the 'Mister'-volumes are more than just variations on a theme, as Tavares does take a variety of approaches -- so, for example, 'Mister Kraus' and especially 'Mister Walser' are presented more like continuous narratives -- actual stories. All the 'Mister'-volumes are, however, essentially riffs on (and inspired by) these men and their often unusual work.
       There's something of Henri Michaux's Tent Posts to the 'Mister'-books, too -- though in the case of 'Mister Henri' Tavares leans heavily on the Miserable Miracle-man, his Mister Henri not a mescaline-devotee, but repeating the same refrain in many of the pieces: "Another glass of absinthe". Typical, then, is the piece 'Reality', which includes the explanation:

It is true that if one mixes absinthe with reality, it results in an improved reality. But it is also true that if one mixes absinthe with reality, it results in an inferior absinthe.
     "I made the essential choices that one has to make in life a long time ago," said Mister Henri. "I never mix absinthe with reality so as not to worsen the quality of the absinthe."
       Many of Tavares' characters display a similar attitude -- indulging in a certain remove from reality. So, for example, Mister Juarroz is: "convinced that reality had only one dimension, like a drawing on a piece of paper" (and thus: "Since reality was extremely tedious for Mister Juarroz he stopped thinking only when it was completely unavoidable"). Refusing to accept reality as is, Mister Juarroz also resorts to such behavior as calling objects "by different names every day" -- a creative task that keeps him busy (though also leaves him rather confused). He also insists on keeping one drawer empty -- or rather insists on filling it with emptiness (which his wife finds rather a waste of good space); that piece, 'Utility and the Drawer' ends beautifully:
     In order to ensure that his drawer was not occupied by uninteresting objects and transformed into a mere repository, Muster Juarroz would sometimes open it in irritation, showing it to his wife like someone displaying a valuable treasure.
     "The drawer is completely empty !" his wife would immediately exclaim.
     But Mister Juarroz would shake his head in disagreement. "It's not yet completely empty. There's still some space to go."
     "Well, let's wait another month then," Mister Juarroz's wife would murmur, patiently resigned to her fate.
       Reality is recreated in a variety of ways throughout the collection, beginning with the very first piece, 'Friends', in which Mister Valéry tries a variety of methods to be taller. He jumps -- but that only leaves him occasionally and briefly taller; he stands on a stool -- that leaves him taller but renders him immobile; etc. Finally, simply, he decides: "to be tall in his mind". In Tavares' world that's simple enough:
     Now, whenever he met people in the street, he looked at them as though he were looking at them from a point that was twenty centimeters higher. Mister Valéry even managed to see the tops of the heads of people who were much taller than he.
       Similarly, in this world that isn't so much topsy-turvy as it is very malleable, when Mister Duchamp makes a cameo appearance in 'Mister Calvino', in 'Games': they play a game but only decide on the rules afterwards, to figure out who actually won.
       The Neighborhood is a beautiful collection of playful literature-inspired variations. In some ways a literary exercise book, it allows Tavares to indulge in a variety of experimentation. In both paying homage and showing how these various authors and their creations and writings have been an inspiration, Tavares shows a remarkably sure and versatile hand.
       The book lends itself to repeated dipping into, but it easily works as a whole, too; Rachel Caiano's illustrations are a nice touch, too. It's just too bad the whole 'Neighborhood' wasn't collected in this one volume .....

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 October 2012

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The Neighborhood: 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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