My rating: 4 stars
What are the characteristics of insanity? While reading Jerusalém by the Portuguese author Gonçalo M. Tavares (a translation into English is available with the same title), that was the question that kept crossing my mind. The sane characters physically and emotionally hurt others on purpose, whilst some of the mentally ill looked for love and a more fulfilling life. Insanity and horror are the main subjects delved into in this short novel, which follows various characters whose paths crossed on specific occasions.
The story is told from several points of view in the third person and doesn’t follow a strict chronological order. Each chapter gradually presents the reader with more information that connects the characters introduced beforehand with one another. Ernst, Mylia, Theodor, Hanna and Hinnerk’s paths crossed at different points in time, and their lives were all interconnected, although they didn’t fully realise it.
Ernst Spengler was about to commit suicide by jumping from a window when his phone rang. Despite hesitating, he decided to pick it up. On the other side of the line was Mylia. She was seriously ill and in pain. Nevertheless, she had decided to leave the house during the night to look for an open church. She behaved in a strange way, but the author’s approach to convey her actions makes her thought process almost seem reasonable. The pain in the stomach kept getting worse. She only had time to phone Ernst before fainting. The extent of their relationship is only revealed further on into the book.
Mylia had been married to Theodor, a psychiatrist. They met when her parents took her to an appointment. She was 18 years old at the time and believed herself to be schizophrenic. While they were married, Theodor kept looking at pictures of the holocaust. He was trying to come up with a graph that summed up the correlation between horror and time, in order to understand if evil actions were increasing or not.
After living together for eight years, Theodor decided to commit Mylia to a mental hospital, because he considered her to be a danger to herself. It’s a shame that the dynamics of their relationship during the first years of their marriage is not further delved into, though. One thing is certain, Theodor was a vengeful person with delusions of grandeur.
Some characters feel unnecessary for the story for a long time, but their importance is ultimately revealed. That is the case with Hanna and Hinnerk. Hanna was a prostitute who gave part of the money that she earned to Hinnerk, a man who fought in a war and seemed to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Theodor encountered Hanna one night when she was heading to Hinnerk’s house.
It’s only slowly that the characters come to life. Their actions are not revealed in sequence but when they are useful for the narration. The book not following a chronological order enhances it, since that way of telling the story kept me curious to discover what led to the events introduced at the beginning. The characters’ thoughts are explained in a way that is surprisingly enthralling, considering that they are not always restricted to a certain topic or moment in time.
Part of the story takes place in the mental hospital where Mylia was taken to. Life there is not described in detail via actions but by the feelings that the characters remember experiencing at certain occasions. Seldom do the characters recall particular events, and when they do, they are closely related with the book’s revelations. There are only a couple of them, and the most unexpected event is reserved until the end.
I was not expecting Jerusalem to be a page-turner, but its structure rendered it so. I was eager to know what had led to specific events. The characters are not described in-depth, but ultimately what is revealed about them is enough to contextualise their actions.