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the Complete Review
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Gonçalo M. Tavares

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To purchase Jerusalem

Title: Jerusalem
Author: Gonçalo M. Tavares
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 213 pages
Original in: Portuguese
Availability: Jerusalem - US
Jerusalem - UK
Jerusalem - Canada
Jerusalem - India
Jérusalem - France
Gerusalemme - Italia
  • Portuguese title: Jerusalém
  • Translated by Anna Kushner

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Our Assessment:

B : intriguing novel of overlapping lives and fates

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Independent on Sunday . 3/1/2010 Daniel Hahn
TLS A 4/12/2009 Toby Lichtig

  From the Reviews:
  • "The compartmentalising of characters means that in one sense Jerusalem's story is fragmentary -- there is no single line of consecutive plot, but various strands to be woven together, the chronology interrupted and complex; but it never feels as though it lacks a centre, and out of these unhappy fragments, Tavares has created something compelling, darkly beautiful and driven, and totally original. Jerusalem is not an easy book to read -- at least insofar as it is more disturbing than reassuring, its characters are damaged and their stories distressing, the whole stripped back and entirely unsentimental. Yes, it's bleak -- but it's also daring, thought-provoking and brilliant." - Daniel Hahn, Independent on Sunday

  • "Claustrophobic, menacing, steeped in millenial angst, Jerusalem is part black comedy, part freak show, part philosophical treatise. The prose is bare; the plot bearer still. (...) This is a powerful little book and Dalkey Archive should be commended for bringing it to an anglophone audience. Kushner's smooth translation makes good work of its deadpan humour and the atmosphere of oppression." - Toby Lichtig, Times Literary Supplement

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:

       Much of the action of Jerusalem takes place in the early morning hours of a 29 May, as in short sequences of chapters Tavares offers a dance of characters and their overlapping lives and fates that morning. As the morning progresses, other chapters go back years in filling in the backgrounds and earlier connections between the characters.
       The book opens with one man, Ernst Spengler, set to fling himself out his attic window, but interrupted by a telephone call from Mylia Busbeck -- a woman suffering great pain from several operations and some disease. It eventually emerges that Ernst and Mylia had both been institutionalized, at the Georg Rosenberg Asylum. Mylia also had Ernst's child there, but the boy, Kaas, was taken by Mylia's husband, Theodor, a doctor and researcher who first committed his wife, and then divorced Mylia while she was locked up. Other characters include Hinnerk -- a man with a gun -- and his girlfriend, the prostitute Hanna .
       Their paths cross on this May morning, but Tavares weaves a more complex web as he brings up their pasts, and their paths leading to this night. Mylia was a patient of Theodor's, for example -- and announced when she first met him both that she was schizophrenic and that:

I believe in everything I learned before I turned six. Everything I was told after that is a lie.
       Somewhat to his credit, Theodor wasn't convinced that she was -- like everyone always told her -- crazy, but marrying her probably wasn't the best way to prove his point -- and eventually he did have her institutionalized. He, meanwhile, has grander visions, as he works on an epic study of the history of horror, certain that:
I will be able to see the results of my studies on a graph, the health and sickness not of a single man, not of a single individual, but of men in their totality; of a collective, of the whole of the most relevant and abject human behavior.
       He believes:
If he could understand how History thought, if he treated it like an organism that had a brain, and if through documentation and research, he arrived at graphs and formulas explaining events throughout the centuries, Theodor would reach what thousands of men -- great and small, violent or peaceful -- had tried: to master History.
       Mental instability and delusion figure prominently in the novel, and quite a bit of it takes place in the asylum. Several characters, including Mylia and Kass, are also physically infirm, which affects their abilities and actions; Jerusalem is a novel which shows at every turn that Theodor's hopes for collecting and collating facts and analyzing them in order to determine patterns and make predictions is hopeless: individuals remain unpredictable, with their physical and mental states rendering them unreliable. Yet the inexorable pull these fates exert on one another -- the orbits they are drawn into, and the actions they undertake -- does suggest there is some underlying inevitability .....
       The asylum is run along what could be considered misguided notions, as:
     At Georg Rosenberg,there was a moral concern that went beyond the actions of each individual who was considered mentally ill. The goal was to understand what they were thinking about; exceptional attention was paid to that which cannot be seen: the inside of one's mind.
       Tavares' characters' dance suggests the flow and unpredictable turns of history, large and small. Theodor's thesis -- of the world coming to its end and limit when there was a: "zero sum of violence received and exerted" -- is a grandiose abstraction, and yet the events that play out here suggests that, on some small scale, he may be onto something.
       In its vagueness, Jerusalem isn't entirely satisfying. While the pull of the different stories -- the focus shifting, scene to scene -- gives an agreeable feel to the novel (complete with sleepless, early morning dazedness -- that atmosphere is well conveyed), but too much of too many of the storylines and backgrounds remains obscured.
       Jerusalem is intriguing, but ultimately too loose a dance and arrangement.

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 September 2009

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Jerusalem: 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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© 2009-2021 the complete review

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