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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction / poetry

A Voyage to India

Gonçalo M. Tavares

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To purchase A Voyage to India

Title: A Voyage to India
Author: Gonçalo M. Tavares
Genre: Novel in verse
Written: 2010 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 410 pages
Original in: Portuguese
Availability: A Voyage to India - US
A Voyage to India - UK
A Voyage to India - Canada
Un voyage en Inde - France
Un viaje a la India - España
  • Contemporary Melancholy (a journey)
  • Portuguese title: Uma Viagem à Índia
  • Translated by Rhett McNeil

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Our Assessment:

B+ : creatively wide-ranging verse-epic

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
L'Humanité . 22/11/2012 Alain Nicolas
Le Monde A+ 14/9/2012 Alexandre Lacroix

  From the Reviews:
  • "Un voyage en Inde est un fascinant roman d’aventures, intelligent et burlesque" - Alain Nicolas, L'Humanité

  • "Essayez d'imaginer un roman qui enchaîne les péripéties drolatiques au même rythme qu'un des premiers albums de Tintin, et dont le contenu intellectuel soit aussi dense que les Recherches philosophiques de Ludwig Wittgenstein. (L)'une des oeuvres les plus marquantes de la littérature européenne récente" - Alexandre Lacroix, Le Monde

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:

       With a protagonist -- "our main character, / our hero" -- named Bloom, the promise of an odyssey, and a ten-canto-framework that clearly mirrors the greatest of the Portuguese classics, Camões' The Lusiads, Tavares' verse-epic A Voyage to India immediately suggests a very specific (and grand) lineage as well as some of its literary aspirations. Its first verses similarly suggest lofty, eternal ideals, with mentions of great touchstones of yore -- places (ancient Greece; Machu Picchu; the Lascaux caves; Stonehenge; Vesuvius), people (Hermes Trismegistus), and objects (the Black Stone of Mecca) -- but also hint already that, for all the grandeur of these things past, the focus here will be elsewhere, as Tavares repeatedly intones and reminds: "We shall not speak of" or see these particular things. So while he doesn't quite say it outright, he certainly implies that Bloom's voyage might be a slightly more mundane matter.
       Literary antecedents and allusions certainly matter to Tavares: "you can know a man by what he reads", he slips in -- and even if he is quick to add: "but that's not the only way", it's clear that this epic-voyage is well-informed and shaped by literature. Indeed, at one point he goes so far as to say the written word is defining:

At bottom, each life, in general, is nothing more
than a literary style.
       But in building on the greats Tavares also strikes out in entirely new directions. He has little interest in simple, humble homage or deferential imitation: he goes his own way -- as his Bloom does, circuitously, to India (and, as it turns out, fairly quickly, back) --, creating a modern work, suited to (and reflecting) contemporary times.
       This voyage is contemporary: "We're in the year 2003 / and there's still nothing new under the sun". The reason(s) for Bloom's voyage are gradually revealed, his basic explanation -- "I'm looking for a woman, said Bloom, or else / wisdom" -- explained more closely only over time. Only a third of the way in, for example, does Bloom begin to reveal what he left behind in hometown Lisbon, and that: "I am searching for a woman because I want to forget / a different one"; and it takes even longer until he admits to what else drove him away (or served as reason to flee, as he is guilty of a classically terrible act):
Thus the urgency to leave the place
where the world had existed overmuch.
Thus: a voyage. And somewhat thus: India.
       Bloom advances slowly -- and hardly directly: the book begins with him in London, and from there he proceeds to Paris, then Germany, Vienna, and Prague. Well into Canto IV (of ten) he's still only made it to the French capital -- but as Tavares suggests:
       Men always start close to the end,
or at least very far from the beginning.
Bloom, for example, wants to go to India
and is speaking, thinking, and seeing -- but in Paris.
       Of course modern-day travel is different than in older times:
The voyage was a long one, but the word "long" had been
one of the words whose meaning had changed the most
with technological advances. India was only hours away.
Long hours (in terms of space), but hours.
       The contrast -- and, often, conflicts -- between the classical and modern worlds are central to Bloom's voyage, and to many of his experiences, and a major theme of Tavares' work. Contemporary consumer society is very different from that of previous ages -- "The concept of existence / changed abruptly in the last century" -- and though Bloom finds a different culture in India, it is not everything he may have hoped: able to forget some of what he had hoped to forget, he nevertheless finds it difficult to advance to a new, different plane, or to achieve the hoped-for: "wisdom / and oblivion".
       So also:
The issue is that countries no longer
care whether or not they are creating poets .
And even the factories themselves cannot tolerate waste:
all material must be put to use,
the way a skillful prostitute makes use of all nooks and crannies
of her body. Countries have lost their style,
and gained stockholders.
       Just as A Voyage to India itself combines the classic and the contemporary, Bloom also carries the classical with him on his trip, books remaining a cornerstone even as he has (or tries to) unloosen himself from all his other baggage. Bloom is a true bibliophile -- "a man who was capable of holding up an entire country / at gunpoint just to enter its private library" -- and literature serves as a hold; he travels lightly but his backpack does include five books:
       a bible,
a book about the soul and another about the inner workings of cells,
as well as two books that are treasured classics
       The latter two are only identified considerably later, but its hardly surprising that they turn out to be a Latin classic and an ancient Greek collection, Seneca's Epistles and (even more appropriately) the complete plays of Sophocles. These then also figure prominently when Bloom is in India: even as he says, "I want to see if India exists / outside of language after all", he falls back on the printed word as a cultural exchange involving a copy of The Mahabharata is central to the action there.
       Yet despite his love of literature, Bloom comes to voice disappointment that he traveled all this way: "just to end up / in bibliographic negotiations" -- and even as he can not let them go, he complains:
     There are books and more books -- too many books (thinks Bloom).

There are no longer any wise men, only readers, exclaims Bloom.
       Bloom does reach India, but it too is only a stage in a larger (and ultimately round-trip) voyage -- a 'passage to more than India', with Bloom returning first to Paris and then finally making it back to his starting point, his native Lisbon.
       The India Bloom encounters is, ultimately, not other enough. He learns:
       The cities here
were initially built like poems,
but they were quickly finished up with cheap bricks
and the suffering of those who worked long hours
and earned very little. This country
is like the others: beautiful and brutal.
       Nature, and man's place in the world, are also important themes for Tavares, as he repeatedly notes the overwhelming power of nature, and how feeble any efforts by man against it are, and how ultimately small the role of humans is in the world (even as they believe they have carved out and control so much of it). For all the technological progress since antiquity, the basics -- and man's fragile hold on the world -- remain largely unchanged. As he succinctly sums up, too: "The world is repulsive / and a masterpiece" -- and also: "Life proceeds and is monstrous".
       A Voyage to India is not a lyrical or heroic epic. Tavares constantly jolts readers, rather than trying to lull and seduce them with easy-flowing poetry, and for a supposed personal odyssey to India it takes an unusual route. Yet Bloom's simple classically-tragic backstory -- "That's my story. Synthesis, synthesis. And that's it" -- along with the novel's broad reach and basic elements make for a quite remarkable and always interesting work.
       Bloom at one point suggests:
The important thing, at bottom, is the symbolism of things
and, of course, the money.
       Tavares plays with these, and everything else, in clever and unexpected ways, to create an unusual serious-comic work that is both classic in feel and yet completely modern.

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 December 2016

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A Voyage to India: 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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