Pedro Burgos’ short whimsical novella, Le collectioneur de briques, is about a middle-age architect going down the rabbit hole of his own obsessions, after both a professional crash and a personal trauma. Valerio used to be a busy architect back in the day, but after the financial crisis hit Portugal, his studio went bankrupt. He had at least a pet project: rehabilitating a small building he owns. However, Valerio must deal with two significant obstacles. On the one hand, his son-in-law is pressuring him to sell the building for people who want to flip it into an airbnb-style business, most likely, as Lisbon is becoming increasingly gentrified and commodified for global tourism. On the other hand, he is slowly trying to recover from an amnesia provoked after he was assaulted, accidentally, by homeless people that were living in the building.
Le collectioneur de briques, however, goes well beyond a mere plot-driven story or a character-based essay. In fact, it becomes almost a short portrait of the effects of economic and political strife in the psyche of its people and the difficulty one has in identifying the source of the problem so that one could, consequently, respond to it and overcome those same effects. Due to the crises of the mid-2000s, to its systemic poor public finances and low economic growth, Portugal was particularly hit, and the consequences were felt throughout the population. There was almost no sector of social class that did not witness a substantial decrease in their quality of life, but some felt that dramatically, whether through sudden unemployment (and the absence of employability for whatever reason) or the drastic cuts of social benefits. This lead to a long period under the auspices of the draconian measures brought about by the assistance programs from the European Union, the European Central Bank and, of course, the IMF, not to mention, as of course, the very political decisions of domestic lawmakers.
Despite the fact that presently things are slightly better, and a left-wing coalition Government seems to be proposing new ways of solving economic problems than not through “austerity” (only time will tell if this is the right way, but from a short-term, pragmatic point of view, it’s working in terms of daily life), Burgos’ book was constructed within that setting, and it shows.
In fact, Burgos’ book would be easily integrated in a number of other works created by Portuguese artists that have responded, in the last ten years, to the same political-economic situation, with artists such as Marco Mendes, Francisco Sousa Lobo, Tiago Baptista, Marcos Farrajota, Amanda Baeza, José Smith Vargas, among others, as groundbreaking examples. What brings these artists together is less form and style than a certain political positioning vis-à-vis the seemingly unavoidable crisis and the negative responses towards it. The widespread economic, political and social instability in the country creates overwhelming and disembodied authority figures that are too blurred and distant to understand. As Susannah Radstone writes, in a psychoanalytical context, “…in a society where authority is diffuse, incomprehensible, or even incoherent, aggressivity toward that authority is less easily managed, since that authority is harder to identify and thus less available for incorporative fantasy”. In other words, “who to blame?”
The psychoanalytical framework is not wholly excessive in relation to this story, given the protagonist dealings with his own psychic frailty. Valerio, in fact, does not create an image of an “enemy” that he has to fight, he simply chooses a goal – piling up bricks, reconstruct the small building, keep busy – in order not to explore big political passions but rather that which cultural critic Sianne Ngai has called “ugly feelings”, which she describes as “minor affects that are far less intentional or object-directed, and thus more likely to produce political and aesthetic ambiguities.”
Ambiguity is indeed a good descriptor of the book. Although Valerio does something and even starts a new love relationship with a woman, Chiara (despite the secrets of the origin of this relationship), his actions seem to be of low intensity. Just small, daily steps. Still, this is the way Valerio finds in resisting what seems to be the social decision upon his life. He refuses to be a washed-up architect and becomes a free citizen, moved by his own volition and desire, no matter how alienated he may become towards others. The people in the streets call him “brickman”, as if he was a lunatic. His daughter tries to make him change his life. His son-in-law won’t stop at anything to make him sell that building. And a myriad of other characters seem to have roles for him to play, which he refuses by keeping to his daily tasks.
Moreover, Lisbon seems to be diluted under contradictory directions. On the one hand, we have global tourism, as we’ve mentioned, and, on the other hand, incessant demonstrations by the disfranchised, struggling against precarity, take place. Valerio is caught in between the two, but seems to find a solipsistic third way.
The books seems centered in Valerio’s story, of course, but Burgo’s creates a social landscape that speaks volumes about the social trappings of the contemporary situation. One recurrent character in the background, for instance, seems to be that of a “melting man.” Perhaps it’s more than one, or perhaps it’s the same. We will never learn his name or his background, but he is the perfect, if not direct and even literal metaphor of Marx’ famous dictum “All that is solid melts into air”, and that Marshall Berman would use in his also famous essay about modernity. Things that you took for granted (security, economic stability, trust in the democratic institutions, and so on) have been shaken to the core, if not evaporated. Is that the reason why Valerio amasses the symbol of the most solid, material, but also smallest unit of construction: the brick?
The construction that Valerio will complete is paradoxically clear and obscure. Obscure in its strict architectural sense, if we are to expect function or use. Indeed, if he had a plan, what was it? What is the purpose of the strange refurbishing within that building? To the contrary, they are quite clear if we follow Chiara’s descriptions: “an irrational structuring of walls,” “an entropy of unfinished spaces,” “a labyrinth of traumas.” They stand as they are, and have no meaning beyond their own materiality and as a product of an action…
This could also be thought of in relation to Valerio’s story and even the book itself. Is Le collectionneur de briques presenting us with a clear-cut narrative that heralds within it the “solution” to the crisis? Does it present a finished story that will bring the reader a feeling of closure and satisfaction? Perhaps not. Nonetheless, it is its very structuring as a book that must show the reader a possible dissident voice and path in relation to the same old discourses that one is expected to provide, the same old roles one is expected to perform, when dealing with political power. It’s not that Valerio will not do something, like Bartleby, but he will do something otherwise.
Pedro Burgos’s background as a professional architect is less important than his last experiences of comics-making in Portugal, which was to provide a one-page comics/cartoon to the magazine of the national architect’s association. In it, he created a free-flowing, decorative-like composition comics structure that followed multiple narrative flows that acted as very short humorous yet incisively political essays about architecture and beyond. In a sense, Le collectionneur is both a corollary of those efforts but also an attempt to narrativize/dramatize that research via a short story. A comics poet and chronicler of the city, whether in solo or collaborative projects, Burgos has been creating in an out riveting comics work through an apparently calm, stylized linework. In a very balanced act between more conventional page compositions and freer structures, filled with clin d’oeils and background secondary jokes, this is a simple, yet interesting project of how to show dissident discourses in relation to overwhelming odds through seemingly unusual, but not ineffectual, tasks.