Gonçalo M. Tavares

an explosion


the intoxication of survivors

The intoxication prompted by an explosion is of such an intensity that it makes all other forms of intoxication, from all other sources, seem trifles. First of all, when a bomb goes off, the delusion, the abrupt diversion of rationality to a state of emergency requiring a different sort of rationality, is collective and not individual. At the same time, the inexplicable feeling that links all the people in the vicinity of an explosion, after a bomb blows up . . . fear and the practical need for certain actions are not enough to explain it.

There is actually a sense that—from one moment to the next—the bystanders have indeed ingested some toxic substance, a substance perhaps created by the shock and the surprise of the explosion, but which remains in the seconds that follow. Therefore, its effects are not reducible to a single moment. This substance that intoxicates and obliges people to act like some other kind of animal, it seems uncontrollable, and no specialist—no psychologist specializing in behavior at times of crisis—could ever predict the doses in which it comes to be distributed in different organisms.


movement and immobility. attack and defense.

Within that landscape—previously calm, rational, and ordered—the bomb exploded amid a number of soldiers who were carrying out subsidiary tasks. It was as if the devil himself had dropped into that landscape—or a plane, out of control—and, in falling, at the moment of impact, this everyday devil had scattered red sparks haphazardly across the ground.

Countless soldiers had been hit. It was an assassination attempt on an important officer, but it was still that officer who, following the explosion, was still giving orders.

This officer retained a core of the old authority in him, of the law that preceded the catastrophe, which allowed the others to feel just a tiny bit of security. They could believe that there wasn’t any more danger only because the tide of blood hadn’t risen to the point where it interrupted the voice of command. A boat sinking under the certain, incontestable orders of its captain is a boat that—in spite of everything—is going down in an organized and human fashion; just like a man who, before committing suicide, leaves his home clean and tidy, puts on his best suit, and carefully cleans the rust off the gun, to be sure that nothing will go wrong.

There was, however, general turmoil in the city. Ambulances circulated at triumphant speeds—and this statement of their usefulness elevated all the unmade bodies and the repeating calls for help onto another plane.

Naturally, Dr. Lenz was called to the hospital. The hammer had struck a blow, and men were needed who knew how to reverse the effects of the metal already dissolving into some of the victims’ bodies. The bombs had left pieces of itself in nearby organisms, turning the doctors into hurried fishermen, retrieving the bits of refuse that someone had deliberately introduced into a system that was so tranquil it might otherwise have allowed itself to slip into tedium. Lenz, however, stuck to his theory, a theory he was always trying to corroborate: an inactive man, struck by a bullet traveling at the same speed and in the same conditions as another man who was, by contrast, in combat, alert, with his energies focused, would die much more quickly. The bored man would die in an instant; the man on the move and alert might yet survive. More than this, Lenz distinguished between two kinds of motion: attack and defense. An attack makes the organism perpetrating it not immortal but at least closer to being so. And in that sense, there was, for Lenz, a hierarchy, not only of strength but of resistance to bullets: the strongest and, so to speak, most immortal were those moving, attacking, followed by those moving defensively, and then, last, the most fragile, the most mortal—in short, the sickest: those who do not move, those who are bored.

But Dr. Lenz had to suspend his daydreaming: there were already some men arriving whom this swift and malevolent technique had struck down as they advanced. So they deserved to be saved.


please withdraw, this room is not for you

The art of finding metal shards in the middle of a body—his right hand wandered through that space, albeit in a particular direction, a destination in sight.

The only reason Lenz didn’t burst out laughing was because he wasn’t alone; his movements—which seemed hidden now inside a second glove, the body of the injured soldier—were mockeries of themselves. Lenz felt as though he was engaged in a kind of manual labor that for him, deep down, was like manipulating shapes in clay or working a piece of wood. Any feelings of empathy were dissolved in professional expertise and in the recognition of his triumph in relation to the body lying on the stretcher. Lenz was alive, on his feet, with his reason intact, and still in control of the use of language: in that room he was the person who determined every Yes and every No—and he had long known that being in control of such extreme words was a source of undisputable power.

A startled nurse was asking Dr. Lenz whether he wanted her to pass him another scalpel, one with a fine point, and Lenz replied: “No. No, no. Yes, yes, yes.”

Let us say that “organic craftsmanship,” the most basic craftsmanship, often filled him with enthusiasm. Lenz knew that bullets or bomb shrapnel—in short, all the pieces of metal that find their way into our bodies—were only looking for what any living creature looks for: a shelter, a final home, a home where they can be left alone, where they feel secure. And what might seem to one individual like a search for shelter might also seem, to outside observers, like flight: something or someone trying to hide. Lenz knew it was essential to root out such pieces of metal before each bit found its final home, because then, however great his ability, it would be very difficult to extract—not the piece of metal itself, but its effects on the structure of the nearby organs and cells with which Lenz was so familiar. Ultimately, though, it was true: metal, however small a piece it might be, has just the same instinct as a hare, or any other animal in the forest trying to escape the eyes of the hunter and find some indestructible shelter. And what was at stake in the speed of his scalpel was the conflict between this shelter, the comfort and security the metal might find, and the life of the man who had been hit. The danger to the man’s vitality was the sheltering—the bourgeoisification, Lenz would have said—of the metal, and its effects on that final hiding place, that final cubic millimeter of the body.

The commotion, meanwhile, grew and diminished, the hospital wards seeming to obey the same laws as the tides. Meanwhile, the concentration of rationality there decreased in inverse proportion to the arrival of more bloodied bodies; the sight of the bodies’ sudden incoherence, while only physical, seemed to affect every unit of the great weapon of collective humanity: the calculated and developed way decisions are made. Some of the nurses bumped into one another, two doctors gave contradictory instructions for handling the same injury; in short, there was in some people there an evident illiteracy when it came to discussing what had happened, which was not far short of a catastrophe. Many of the people in the hospital were barely ready to deal with normality—and normality now seemed to be just another name for eternity: a repetition to infinity of a given sequence of events.

Now he was shouting at a nurse who was shaking as though each of the injured men was her lover, her father or son. She was seized by such an attack of nerves that it made her forget everything she’d learned; she mixed up all her intended movements.

So after one more clumsy motion, Lenz shouted at the nurse: “No!” and with a rough gesture pointed her out of the room.

“If you don’t know how to pick up a scalpel or to handle the machines properly,” he said, “get out of this room. Get out!” he actually shouted.

He had no need for her, for her irrationality.

Let her go pray outside. Not here, here was something else.

And the nurse had to leave the room.