She had a large head covered in growths and lumps. Her small, ever-tearing eyes were set close under her low, furrowed brow. From a distance they looked like narrow chinks. Her nose looked as if it was broken in many places, and its lip was a livid blue, covered in sparse bristles. Her mouth was huge and swollen, always hanging open, always wet, with some sharply pointed teeth inside it. To top it all off, as if that wasn’t enough, her face sprouted long, straggling, silken hairs.
In his story Six Tales, Portuguese writer Gonçalo M. Tavares gives us six short, unrelated pieces, parables that range from mundane simplicity to the macabre fantastic. Taken singly, these pieces have little effect beyond what amusement they may provide in their telling, from the droll irony of the first piece, “The Ingenuous Country,” where the citizenry is so sad that it is paid by the government to smile, reminiscent in tone of Saramago’s Death with Interruptions, to “The Old Man,” where a man races against age and failing sight to read the title of every book in a library, believing that in doing so he will get the essence of the text without having to read the entire book, a radical abridgment, which calls to mind the themes and ideas of Borges’ fiction, but stands in opposition to his exhaustive reading life.
Carefree vagabonds, itinerant peddlers, hokey globe-gazing fortune-tellers. Gypsies are popularly romanticised and imbued with a spirit of nomadic adventure. But there is a darker side to the mythology that presents them as petty thieves not above kidnapping children, practitioners of a dark magic, furtive and wild. The mystery of their whimsical but innocuous way of life clouds over with the suspicion that they are a people steeped in secrets, ultimately unknowable. The truth is that the Romani people, as they are known and name themselves, are descendants of exiles who fled northwest from India into eastern and central Europe, where they spread to every nation of the continent. For centuries, because of their fractured and isolated communities, the Romani have been the victims of persecution most notably in recent history by Nazi Germany whose pogroms are estimated to have murdered anywhere from 200,000 to well over 1,000,000.
Superstitious fears have long been an instrument of repression. As such these fears reached an apotheosis in Middle Ages Europe when the Catholic church governed the actions and beliefs of all men (what’s more terrifying than eternal damnation?), and to stray beyond the pale, that is, to think for oneself, was not only impious but openly transgressive, heretical; to press and probe with one’s fingers God’s perfect spherical domain is to shape an egg from which nothing good can hatch.