Gonçalo M. Tavares



the adolescent lenz learns about cruelty

His father grabbed him and took him to the room of one of the servant-girls, the youngest and prettiest in the house.

“You’re going to do her, now, here, in front of me.”

The servant-girl was scared, of course, but what was strange was that she seemed to be scared of him, not of his father: it was the fact that Lenz was an adolescent that scared the little servant-girl, not the violence with which the father treated his son, completely without modesty, without even taking the trouble to leave the room. His father wanted to see it.

“You’re doing her in front of me,” he repeated.

These words of his father’s would mark Lenz for years. ‘You’re doing her.’

The act of fornicating with the little servant-girl was reduced to the simplest of verbs—doing. “You’re doing her,” that was the expression, as though the servant-girl was not yet fully done, as though she were matter still unshaped, awaiting his action, Lenz’s action, to complete her. This woman is not yet made till you’ve done her, thought Lenz the adolescent, clearly, and his next gestures were those of a worker, an employee following the instructions of another more experienced, in this case his father: you’re doing her.

“Take off your trousers.” That was the second thing his father said. “Take off your trousers.”

The adolescent Lenz took his trousers off. And all the orders that followed were directed exclusively at him—that is to say, his father did not address a single phrase to the servant-girl—she knew what needed to be done and she did what needed to be done, a machine without any choice. Unlike the adolescent Lenz who, in spite of everything, was able to say to his father, “I don’t want to.”

“Take off your trousers,” his father commanded.

And then Lenz was led, almost pushed, by his father, over to the servant-girl, lying there, waiting.

“Go ahead,” said his father, roughly.

And the adolescent Lenz, determined, went ahead, onto the servant-girl.


the hunt

Lenz pulls on his boots and prepares for the hunt. First comes the ritual of taking control of the various small, immobile objects: the boots, the gun, the heavy waistcoat.

These were the best movements for contributing to the formation of a human being. And to how a good shot he was.

In turn, the more agile elements of nature insist on a disobedience Lenz found it impossible to tolerate. He went hunting out of a particular political determination. A rabbit was a tiny adversary, but it obliged Lenz to occupy a particular position on the earth, within a combat zone. This meagre opponent—a rabbit—forced Lenz to tense his muscles, to mobilize his cunning: just aiming wasn’t enough, the weapon’s mechanical capabilities weren’t enough, an intellectual attention was needed too, an attention of the intelligence: only immobile things did without this attention of Lenz’s.

Between him—Lenz—and the still living quarry, there was a pre-established agreement: he refused to kill a single animal in the first few minutes of the hunt. This was a demand made by the force of habit, a sort of respect shown in relation to the space being invaded. It wasn’t Lenz’s home.

The twenty minutes when he didn’t fire a shot were his way of wiping his feet on the mat of the strange house he was entering. Strangeness existed in the forest, and since there was no front door and no doormat, Lenz spent twenty minutes going down the paths that nature—in its own very particular stupidity—left open, willingly, for men to make their way through.

There was another law in the forest. Morality in the forest was indelicate, crude; it was like going into the bedroom of the little servant-girl when he was an adolescent; into that back room, filled with smells so different to those found in the main house, in his parents’ house. In the little servant-girl’s room to be gentle was to be weak, and was such an absurd mistake that even the girl herself protested at any affectionate gesture made by the master’s son.

In the forest, virtue hadn’t been invaded by the smell of mold; there was another power suspended over him as Lenz walked between the trees, solid trees but twisted, trees which hid hundreds of animal existences within them—existences that were, after all, themselves hunted quarries, in what was also an extraordinarily good synthesis of human relations.

Lenz had no illusions: the only reason he didn’t walk the streets of the city with the same caution and with his weapon cocked to fire was because, in that space, there was something that inhibited his hatred: mutual economic advantage.

The apparent equilibrium between neighbors in the same building is something that even a man of high standing experiences right up until the moment when—helpless—he sets foot into the swamp. The expression “After you,” spoken by someone in a café to another customer entering at the same time, thus accepting that he will get his drink only after the other has been served—these are words of warfare, of pure warfare. Any words of sympathy can be seen—if looked at another way—as words of attack. By letting the other person go ahead of him, the first man wasn’t agreeing to take second place but instead preparing a map of the terrain, the better to keep visual control over his target, who for a few moments believed himself to have won an advantage. The benefit of somebody being ahead of us, Lenz’s father had once said, is that he has his back to us. Where we are doesn’t matter, what matters is field of vision and relative position.

It wasn’t long, however, before Lenz understood that some kind of support was necessary, something the body could lean on without fear of being betrayed; a wall, essentially, that ran no risk of collapsing. The family would be his wall, the place where he could rest the back of his neck (for even during a violent attack the attacker himself still has a neck—it’s important never to forget this fragility).

Lenz readied his weapon, rested the steel of the butt on his chest—a chest that was pounding hard—and, thinking about the little servant-girl whom, more than ten years earlier, under his father’s encouragements, he had done for the first time, Lenz took aim and fired.

Then there was a squeal, which in another situation he would have sworn had come from the wheels of a car, and after a moment of being inexplicably stunned, he began to run toward it. Soon the blood had become conspicuous in that part of the forest, yet Lenz still couldn’t catch the animal.

He had managed to wound the enemy, but not to eliminate it. He still couldn’t eat it.