BEF 2011/11 – Six Tales [Portugal]


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.

Taken alone, the stories do not amount to much, but together they are more than the sum of their parts.  It is a strange structure that Tavares presents us with: why collect six seemingly disassociated stories into one short story called Six Tales?  The answer lies in their character of progressive dissolution.  Instead of giving us a single story to convey his theme, Tavares plays with a fragmentary form, and we get instead a gesturing toward the theme, which gesture is the theme.  The pieces orbit the theme and it is detectable by its glancing repetition; we trace its presence in the same way astronomers predict planets by observing the bending of light from distant stars.  The planet here is the last piece, “The Coin”.

“The Coin” is notably different from the other five pieces preceding it, chiefly in the presence of a named character, Vass Kartopeck.  “The Coin” is the story of a man who suffers from disfiguring blotches on his face and who fears, wrongly, that they are the symptoms of a terminal condition.  His relief is so great when he is told this is not the case that he attempts to pay the doctor, to give him a tip, but is politely refused, to his embarrassment.

These parables show the triumph of the sign over the signified, form is emptied of significance and the gesture is elevated in place of meaning: the sad citizens of the ingenuous country go on smiling even after their motivation to do so (money) is taken away; dancers stop dancing in pairs for fear of what they will lose of their “unique admixture of qualities” to their partner; an old man reads the titles of books in place of their contents.  But all of this self-reflexive pointing is precisely the meaning that Tavares wants us to tease out.

It sometimes seemed as though the crowds were made up of people furtively making the same useless gestures over and again.  These were men attempting to resist the ubiquitous disorder of their lives…by burying themselves in the constant tumult of the city and its myriad rituals…But no, this wasn’t a form of resistance: these were merely the movements of bodies more accustomed to acquiescing than to demanding.

“The Coin” differs from the stories that come before it because it is an inversion of Tavares’ theme.  Just as those pieces point toward an erosion of meaning, “The Coin,” specifically Kartopeck’s act of paying, the ritual of transaction, invokes a multiplicity of meaning, and, as the doctor that treats him is aware but Kartopeck is not, equates the doctor with the prostitute waiting outside.  In the city, a coin is attended by too much nuance, its use is contingent and governed by rules of etiquette that Kartopeck, quite literally, cannot grasp.

‘Six Tales’ is translated from Portuguese by Rhett McNeil

This is a review of a story from Best European Fiction 2011, an anthology edited by Aleksandar Hemon and published by Dalkey Archive Press.  There will appear on this website each Friday just such a review until the entire book is done.  For another perspective see Damian Kelleher’s excellent and prolific website.


3 Responses to “BEF 2011/11 – Six Tales [Portugal]”

  1. Harry Elliot Says:

    Kartopeck kopek = penny …mmm

  2. David J Single Says:

    Indeed. I see that you too know how to play the game.

  3. Harry Elliot Says:

    I wish…. More like a stranger on tiptoes trying to catch a peep through a bedroom window.

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