The undertaker

Books For Rubem Fonseca, violence is not just a spectacle, it is the meeting point between rich and poor on the streets of Rio. Benjamin Lytal trails the author's murderous narrators.

General view of the "Morro da Providencia" favela, one of the most violent of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, taken on August 20, 2008. The French photographer identified as JR is launching a project called "Women Are Heroes", through which the photographs of women, relatives of the victims of clashes between the police and drug traffickers, were placed in the facades of the houses. This project already took place in Sudan, Sierra Leone, Kenya and Liberia, and will be taken to India, Cambodia, Laos and Morocco after Brazil. AFP PHOTO/VANDERLEI ALMEIDA
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For Rubem Fonseca, violence is not just a spectacle, it is the meeting point between rich and poor on the streets of Brazil. Benjamin Lytal trails the author's murderous narrators on a tour of Rio de Janeiro.
The Taker and Other Stories Rubem Fonseca Translated by Clifford E Landers Open Letter Dh54
The Brazilian author Rubem Fonseca writes with a violence that his peers - writers of postmodern crime fiction - eschew. Think of Haruki Murakami, who has used noir plot devices to give structure and grit to adolescent dream narratives. Or Michael Chabon, who has reimagined Jewish-American history through the lens of detective fiction. Or Fonseca's co-linguist, Jose Saramago, who in some of his recent novels has been writing like Paul Auster, making the mystery novel a vehicle for philosophical thought experiments.

None of these other authors goes to crime fiction for blood. Though some maintain an interest in evil, the consistent trend in highbrow crime fiction has been away from the dark alley and into the cerebral stratosphere. Fonseca couldn't differ more. Vital to his stories is the troubling moment when the slashing crimes of his characters become too palpable and, to the engrossed reader, almost participatory.

Fonseca's American publisher, the new small press Open Letter, wisely opens The Taker, a collection of his stories translated by Clifford E Landers, with the two-page long Night Drive. A busy executive, narrating the story in the first person, comes home from the office with a suitcase full of papers. His wife would like him to have a whiskey and to sit down beside her in bed, but he retreats to his study. He opens his suitcase and stares into space. At dinner, he is generous but impersonal. Then he goes out for "a drive" - for an assignation, we assume. Crawling along a deserted street, he spots a woman. We learn that she is wearing a skirt and a blouse.

"She only realised I was going for her when she heard the sound of the tyres hitting the curb. I caught her above the knees, right in the middle of her legs, a bit more toward the left leg - a perfect hit. I heard the impact break the large bones, veered rapidly to the left, shot narrowly past one of the trees, and, tyres squealing, skidded back onto the asphalt." Night Drive hits us just when the overworked husband has won our sympathies. Its value lies not only in the sudden impact, but also in our being taken along for the ride. Through bait-and-switch, Fonseca makes us recognise that yes, for this character, running over pedestrians does seem like an effective release. The narrator's specific glee, his sadism, is couched in a broader sense of after-work ennui, one that many readers will relate to. His crime almost makes sense.

We read red-handed, in other words. Readerly guilt is nothing new in crime literature, but it differentiates Fonseca from his immediate peers, and in his hands it produces something more than the thrill of dirty reading - it tells a broader story about Brazil. Fonseca's Rio de Janeiro, where geography lifts the poor of the hills vertiginously up against the rich of the beaches, is a place where crime is partially the prurient release of pent-up economic desires. The denizens of his city, the rich and the poor, rip each other apart with a kind of jealous lust. This dynamic is Fonseca's lesson.

In the collection's title story an unintelligent young man declares that he wants to take what the world owes him. "They owe me food... blankets, shoes, a house, car, watch, teeth, they owe me." What is so scary is the Taker's identification of "they": he opts for blame rather than frustration, and proceeds to kill every rich person he can. Having tied a machete to his leg, he waits outside a party and then limps after a departing couple, following them into their red car, where he produces a gun. "Do what I say or I'll kill you both." They drive to a deserted beach, where the Taker shoots the woman (who is pregnant) and then turns to test his machete on the man. The Taker, a would-be poet, assumes a ritualistic air:

"I held the machete with both hands and raised it into the air. I saw the stars in the sky, the immense night, the infinite firmament, and brought the machete, the steel star, down with all my strength, right in the middle of the neck. His head didn't fall off, and he tried to get up, thrashing about like a dizzy chicken in the hands of an incompetent cook. I struck him again and again and again and the head wouldn't come off. He had fainted, or died, with his goddamn head still on his neck. I threw the body over the car's fender. The neck was in a good position. I concentrated like an athlete who was about to do a somersault. This time, as the machete cut its mutilating path through the air, I knew I would get what I wanted. Plock! The head rolled along the sand."

This is not a Quentin Tarantino, aestheticising violence. Though the Taker tries, he cannot succeed in romanticising his actions. Fonseca's paragraph break, which interrupts the execution by bathetically announcing that "his head didn't fall off", is not a bravura gag designed to heighten our suspense. As his victim thrashes, still alive, the Taker loses all sense of ritual romance and becomes frustrated. He compares himself to a labourer - an incompetent cook - and then to the labourer's automatic hero, an athlete. The Taker forgets about the stars above, and begins to think mechanically, wondering how best to position the victim.

By narrating so crisply, Fonseca draws us into the Taker's actions. We, too, wonder how best to sever the head. We are also fascinated by his victims, the slaughtered partygoers; the Taker's violence forces open doors that would otherwise be closed, leading us into an elite world of luxury and contentment. When he fires a bullet through the windscreen of a Mercedes, killing a white-socked tennis player, and then rapes a pretty 25-year-old in her spacious, staffed condominium, his crimes function as windows onto a better life, one founded on inequality - but also beautiful, clean and desirable. For Fonseca, crime is not only characteristic of Rio; it is also a handy narrative device, a way of jerking between one class and another.

There is so much violence in Rio that the city seems to be at war, and Fonseca compels the reader to root for both sides. The night driver, safely ensconced in his expensive, customised car, victimises the poor. But in other stories, the poor stalk the rich with a ruthlessness that is just as callous. In both cases, we begin to feel sorry for the opposite class, even as we are made to understand the situation of the criminal.

Although Fonseca's writing enacts violence in the first person, the author, who started publishing these stories in the 1970s, is clearly not bloodthirsty, but rather the practitioner of a wise, judicious cynicism - that of the war-weary detective, perhaps. Not coincidentally, his work inspired the first ever HBO series filmed in Portuguese, the detective show Mandrake. None of the short stories in The Taker are proper mysteries: each is too tightly focused on a single spider to reveal the larger web. But they operate on the basic trick of crime fiction, in which a convex drop of blood reflects the society around it - where a detective takes us on a tour of the city's haunts, high and low. The Taker has no detectives, only victims and aggressors, CEOs and deadbeats switching roles from story to story, but the man who arranges their stories has the amoral wherewithal of a chameleonic cop. Fonseca takes us into doctor's offices, to the beach, to the fortresses of rich shut-ins, to the dens of thieves. Out of Rio's crimes, he creates a map.

Only occasionally, as in The Flesh and the Bones, in which an unnamed man visits a joyless strip club on the eve of his mother's internment, does Fonseca's compass seem narrow. The flat contrast as the narrator crosses without comment the line between sex and death falls short of the high-stakes alertness that criminal transgressions bring to most of Fonseca's stories. More often, Fonseca's outline of Rio is looping and deft. Angels of the Marquees opens with an affluent retiree named Paiva, newly bored, venturing out onto the streets with an almost intellectual curiosity, spotting patterns and observing the homeless as if he had never noticed them before. For a few nights in a row, Paiva watches private ambulances take in pavement sleepers. Finally, he approaches, hoping to join this charitable organisation. The nurses are guarded. But finally, after several missed connections, Paiva secures a trip to the organisation's headquarters. There, his organs are harvested.

Fonseca's sucker-punches require a lean prose. "The corneas were removed and placed in a receptacle. Then Paiva's body was sliced up." The curtain drops immediately, and Fonseca keeps moving to another story, another part of the city. If a moral were to be drawn from Fonseca's unemotional fictions, it would be that the best response to Rio's intractable divides is Fonseca's taut, dry-eyed cynicism. Most of his characters commit their crimes in a state of confused disgust, unable to achieve the chilly calm that would allow them to live with the stark differences within their society. There is the harassed executive who abruptly murders a persistent panhandler in The Other. In Trials of a Young Writer, the hero, in possession of a firearm for the first time, ends up shooting a black man in a momentary confusion. And the murderers of Happy New Year are portrayed as depraved and stupid.

Fonseca understands Rio better than his characters ever could. The Taker is the work of a man without illusions who still finds the motive to write. There is nothing ameliorist anywhere in this panoramic collection's vicious stories of rich versus poor, but there is little that is bitter either - Fonseca does not lament the lopsided world, he only sees it spinning.
Benjamin Lytal has written about books for The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, The Believer and Bookforum.