Gonçalo M. Tavares - Six Tales
Gonçalo M. Tavares' short story, Six Tales, is split into six discrete sections, and thus:
Sadness was so prevalent that people were paid to smile
1 – The Ingenuous Country
To combat the tyranny of frowns and sadness, the government determined that the best method to enforce the concept of happiness was to pay ordinary citizens to smile. In two years greed, goodwill, or perhaps national sentiment, had eradicated unhappiness and made of this unnamed nation a happy citizenry. The nation became known for “the impressive and unflagging optimism of its citizens”, and though the government may no longer subsidise payments, the citizens still think that, if not all, then at least some of their fellow countrymen are being paid to smile, and thus they all do, and isn't it a happier place?
2 – The Old Man
He's dying, the old man, and he knows he cannot read the texts within the biggest library in the world. He can perhaps read the titles, which is what he sets out to do, methodically, from one floor to the other, one shelf to the next. If a title contains the essence of a book, then reading all of them will contain the essence of a library.
Looking over the many stacks of books within my own meagre library, I understand the sentiment and the concern. There are more books unread on my shelves than read; were I read to read a book a day into the foreseeable future, it would take me more than four years to work through my unread pile, assuming I gained no new book in the interim, which is simply ridiculous. Given that, what do the titles offer? Potential. To read The Issa Valley or The Flanders Road or 53 Days or Chronicle of a Death Foretold on the spine of a book suggests more, perhaps, than the text itself might. A title is all potential, all excitement, all enthusiasm, whilst the text itself necessarily inserts boundaries and enforces rigidity. Anything may be created from War and Peace; it was up to Tolstoy to make of it what he did.
The old man succeeds, and then he is able to die, though he doesn't. He's too happy to die – and who wouldn't be, having captured the essence of the biggest library in the world?
3 – The Dance
They came to believe that by dancing they shifted the qualities of one on to the other; that is to say, the ignorance of the man was decreased while his partner's increased; the agility of one went up while the partner, down; the anger of one heightened, the other, lowered – and so on. Dancing became a transference of attributes, a method for balancing the quirks of one for the ticks of another.
In the end, dancing was a homogenous event, wholly unsatisfactory to those who wished to remain unique and individualistic – those exact people with whom one would wish to dance. Nobody likes to tango with mediocrity.
Couples no longer danced. Only solo dancing remained. One or another dancer still going through their steps, as if for old time's sake, in front of a mirror.
4 – The Anthem
Five men from five different countries sing. They attempt to drown one another out with the exuberance and the sheer feeling of their singing. It's for their nation! Surely that's important?
Others join in. Some attach themselves to one of the original five; others sing their own country's anthem. A cacophony develops. It's difficult to hear. The sound swamps everything.
And then, silence. Nobody's won. Nothing has been resolved. The five original men, their hands in their pockets, grip the revolvers contained within and think that this time, perhaps, matters might be resolved...
5 – The Mother and her Three Children
The mother is, matter-of-factly, headless, but she'll be alright in her own way. She needs to see her children (but how can she yell?, asks Tavares), and they need to see her, too. An escape, a maze, a search, a discovery, a death.
6 – The Coin
Vass Kartopeck has become disfigured; he doesn't know why. The blotches “marred his figure below his eyes and along his neck”, and after much consideration he has determined that the number of blotches coincides with the number of coins he paid a prostitute for her services. Karma? Perhaps, but at any rate his face is unsightly and he knows not what to do.
The first four stories are very short, either a page and a half in length, or not even a page. They each examine a particular concept and take it to its ideological extreme, with the most obvious being the men beginning by singing the national anthem and ending by fingering the revolvers they are seconds away from brandishing and using. Tavares understands the inherent make believe of ordinary actions; he knows that, were any one of us to pull away one of the bottom cards from the house everyone is building, that it would all fall apart. He also knows that nobody will ever do this, which leaves literature, that siren of the possible, to play the part of “what if”.
The last two stories sag and weigh down the rest. Though short, they are significantly longer than the first four, and their ideas, though interesting, cannot hold up to the high caliber of their predecessors. The Old Man and The Anthem in particular are significant pieces in their own right, and to couple them with the final two stories cheapens their impact and dramatically unravels the impact Tavares has created with the opening quartet.
At their heart, these stories take an ordinary concept and follow them to their terminus, and in doing so they highlight the inherently ridiculous nature of a hobby, an activity, a life's goal, or a heartfelt feeling, and what's more these stories may be extrapolated to make fun of virtually any of our mortal activities. We are all absurd, when boiled down to our essence, and if our essence isn't good enough – then what? It's a farce, a great joke of immense seriousness, which Tavares understands and is able to examine in sympathetic and affectionate detail.
Six Tales by Gonçalo M. Tavares is a short story from the Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2011
Other stories from the Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2011, include:
---United Kingdom: Welsh: Roberts, Wiliam Owen - The Professionals
---United Kingdom: British: Mantel, Hilary - The Heart Fails Without Warning
---Turkish: Üldes, Ersan - Professional Behaviour
---Swiss: Stefan, Verena - Doe a Deer
---Spanish: Catalan: Ibarz, Mercé - Nela and the Virgins
---Spanish: Castilian: Vila-Matas, Enrique - Far From Here
---Slovenian: Jančar, Drago - The Prophecy
---Serbian: Arsenijević, Vladimir - One Minute: Dumbo's Death
---Russian: Gelasimov, Andre - The Evil Eye
---Romanian: Teodorovici, Lucian Dan - Goose Chase
---Portuguese: Tavares, Gonçalo M. - Six Tales
---Polish: Tokarczuk, Olga - The Ugliest Woman in the World
---Norwegian: Grytten, Frode - Hotel by a Railroad
---Netherlands: Uphoff, Manon - Desire
---Montenegrin: Spahić, Ognjen - Raymond is No Longer with Us – Carver is Dead
---Moldovan: Ciocan, Iulian - Auntie Frosea
---Macedonian: Minevski, Blaže - Academician Sisoye's Inaugural Speech
---Lithuanian: Kalinauskaitė, Danutė - Just Things
---Lichtensteiner: Sprenger, Stefan - Dust
---Latvian: Ikstena, Nora - Elza Kuga's Old-Age Dementia
---Italian: Candida, Marco - Dream Diary
---Irish: Barry, Kevin - Doctor Sot
---Irish: Dhuibhne, Éilís Ní - Trespasses
---Icelandic: Eiríksdóttir, Kristín - Holes in People
---Hungarian: Krasznahorkai, László - The Bill
---German: Schulze, Ingo - Oranges and Angel
Index of Best European Fiction 2010 under review
Index of Best European Fiction 2012 under review
Index of short stories under review
David J Single