‘A Máquina de Joseph Walser’ (‘Joseph Walser’s Machine’) by Gonçalo M. Tavares

My rating: 2 stars

The characters in A Máquina de Joseph Walser (Joseph Walser’s Machine in the English translation) by the Portuguese author Gonçalo M. Tavares are incredibly detached. It’s not easy to connect with them. They seem to be facing a grim, harrowing situation, but their feelings and tribulations are not affectingly conveyed. Their existence in the story feels merely like a vehicle to communicate abstract ideas.

Joseph Walser is initially an intriguing main character. He was married to Margha and worked in a factory owned by the mogul Leo Vast. A man of few words, he looked like someone who was oblivious to the outside world. He was only completely focused while working. He operated a machine that required his full attention so he didn’t get hurt. Once, while returning home at night after being with his work colleagues, he saw his wife leaving a building and instantly thought that she was cheating on him. He wasn’t wrong. He soon learnt that she was having an affair with his manager, Klober Muller.

Not even halfway through the book, the characters and the plot start to be disregarded. The narration is, since the beginning, interspersed with philosophical considerations about life, war and the human existence in general. However, as events start to be just thrown into the book without having a meaningful impact on the characters’ feelings and actions, this at first promising novel (or maybe novella) becomes just a boring collection of haphazard thoughts.

It’s difficult to care about the characters when they are so aloof and their tribulations are not moving. They lived in a city where a war was taking place, but they carried on living their lives as if nothing of importance was happening. War seemed to be merely an afterthought. At first, it seems like the focus of the book will be on Walser’s mental health, because of the way his behaviours are conveyed, there’s a subtle erratic rhythm to the narration. His emotions are never truly delved into, though.

Although there are a few moments of brilliance in terms of philosophical contemplations throughout, this is overall a forgettable, pointless book, whose ending is dull when it could have been intense had I cared about the characters. Maybe Gonçalo M. Tavares’s aim truly was for the characters to resemble machines, objects completely devoid of emotion. He certainly achieved that.

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