Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique by Gonçalo M. Tavares (trans. Daniel Hahn). Dalkey Archive Press. 343pp, $15.95.
Someone once noted that it’s easy to have virtue when facing adversity but the real test of character comes when one is given power. To test this aphorism, one need look no further than Gonçalo M. Tavares’ novel Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique for evidence of how power corrupts and attracts the corrupt. The novel tells the story of a middle-class doctor, Lenz Buchmann, in an uncertain city, country, and time, weaving in and out of flashbacks and long digressive rifts on ideas or concepts that are clearly important to the author.
Tavares is a prolific writer from Portugal who at age 41 has won many prestigious European writing and book awards and has been published in several languages, including French, Hebrew, German, and Spanish. Tavares’ other works, including Jerusalem and the forthcoming Joseph Walter’s Machine (both published, like Technique, by the Dalkey Archive Press), also explore emotionally detached male protagonists who are on the cusp of brutal choices that will influence their entire lives. In his 2006 novel Jerusalem, for example, protagonist Ernst Spingler is about to commit suicide as the novel opens, but circumstance changes the course of the man’s evening. In Technique, too, we are given a pivotal scene as the novel opens, of the young Buchmann being forced by his father to have sex with a servant girl. The implications of this scene continue to reverberate throughout Buchmann’s life and his relations with women and even men.
As he goes to school and seeks his training as a doctor, Buchmann treats his patients with conscientious attention to detail but sees little in them beyond what he can diagnose and treat. For him, they lack any sort of humanity. Even when considering those closest to him, Buchmann has trouble reaching through to anyone’s human side: his brother, tortured and terrified, is little more than a conduit for Buchmann’s own belief in his superiority. His father, brutal and sadistic, is admired, but only insofar as Buchmann thanks the man for making him into a brutal and sadistic carbon copy. Though we are in the head of Buchmann from the beginning to the end of the novel, we are never given access to any kind of emotional core, and, indeed, there is an emotional hollow at the center of this work. While that is most likely Tavares’ intent, the reader is forced into an odd relationship with the story. As interesting as his ideas are, even in the most esoteric of novels one seeks out emotion as a way to mediate and access characters.
We know facts about Buchmann—he is married, he has a successful medical practice—but we know far less than we need to really get at the core of him as a character. Again, this is no doubt intentional, as Tavares is showing us the internal life of a monster that we are not supposed to identify with. Buchmann has little insight into his own life and he is completely detached from everything but ideas. At the center of the tale is the notion of power: political power, personal power, familial power, how we get power and how we keep it. How power builds up nations and how power destroys individuals. In addition, Tavares is interested in showing how doctors hold a certain sway of power over their patients:
Lenz had managed to save the man’s life, and during the operation had felt with unusual intensity the struggle between the two extremes of medical technique: his scalpel embodying precision, morality, the legality that this facet of technique both establishes and requires, and, on the other hand, on the sick man’s side, there were the clear results of an explosion likewise provoked by technique; the explosion that instantly establishes disorder— whether on a large scale (a battlefield of soldiers) or a personal one—and cellular panic, which is simply the temporary establishment of a marked immorality: there isn’t a single straight line left in a body that has just experienced the effects of an explosion. A bomb . . . is simply a machine designed to explode.
The novel is organized into short vignettes or meditations “on a theme,” which are often then subdivided into sub-themes. The titles add an editorial like objectivity to the story, the only time where one senses some kind of moral authority beyond the myopic and highly dysfunctional authority of Buchmann himself. In a section called “A Completely Inappropriate Song—The Brain,” we are told:
It isn’t intelligence, however, nor the extraordinary capacity for abstraction, but the rough and ancient capability to resist the outside world, the material and animal resistance that remain in that intelligence, which it is important to protect. A man who is illiterate, or unable to add three to three, can still consider his head a decisive point as long as he knows how to pick up a weapon and differentiate the blade end from the handle, the barrel from the trigger.
Again and again, violence and power and death are linked, one causing or betraying the other as Buchmann increases his profile in his city and country. He soon manages to get into the machinations of an important up-and-coming political party where he takes on a secretary whose father Buchmann’s own father killed during the war (sadistically, unnecessarily). Buchmann is fascinated by the young woman’s lack of knowledge of the details of her father’s death. He even sees himself falling into another power dynamic with the young woman’s brother, who has the same name as the murdered father, as if in some kind of reincarnated hell. Just when he appears to be on the verge of realizing his highest goal—a position of great power—Buchmann is diagnosed with a mysterious cancer-like illness.
Here Tavares’ own thoughts on the illnesses of his former patients casts an ironic pale on his own experiencing at surgery and recovery:
Illness was clearly a form of cellular anarchy, a disorder, an internal disrespect for the rules that some people even call divine, as they preceded any human arrangement. A body is not a city. There may have been a pre-existing map, but humans were not given the privilege of examining it and suggesting amendments.
What Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique offers is an interesting and highly clinical portrait of a pathologically ambitious man who uses ideas and his own refusal to be engaged emotionally in life to guide him through his choices and reflections. It is a meditative, odd kind of novel, one that is not so much of a cover-to-cover read than a slow, methodical one, requiring thought, rethought, re-reading, and serious reflection. Like Tavares’ compatriot, José Saramago, who died in 2010, Tavares work is complex and at times highly allegorical, allowing a good deal of reflection and analysis to accompany any reading.
Gregory McCormick is the Director of English Programming at the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival in Montreal.
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