In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick


Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Short Cuts: Harry Goes Rogue

Jonathan Parry

Eat CaviarDaniel Soar

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website ( — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.

  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
‘The Taker’ and Other Stories 
by Rubem Fonseca, translated by Clifford Landers.
Open Letter, 166 pp., $15.95, November 2008, 978 1 934824 02 3
Show More
Show More

If you want to write about violence – if you want to tell it like it is – then you’re advised to keep it plain. We’re conditioned to think that real horror should be described as succinctly as possible, since superfluous words only distract from the act itself. Words are so often digressive that inserting them where they’re not wanted can be seen as evidence of a lack of moral seriousness, a bourgeois leavening of what can’t be stomached. Accounts of violence, in fiction and in life, tend to the flat, the controlled, the unflinching. Crime novels and police reports and news bulletins have their conventions too, and they all borrow their rhetoric from each other: the who, where, when, what; the calibre of the weapon and the dimensions of the wound. They make up for the slipperiness of words with a superabundance of detail. In these respects, the documentary idiom is very close to lying: terseness is a strategy to avoid inadvertently saying what might not seem true, and a barrage of facts makes a story difficult to contest. But then liars and reporters both have a vested interest in making their account believable.

In Brazil, which since the 1970s has seen more urban violence than any other country in the world, no writer has dealt with the subject more plainly than Rubem Fonseca. In 1976 his bestselling short story collection Feliz Ano Novo (‘Happy New Year’) was censored by a court acting for the military government. Five of the stories were banned, and the ban on the title story wasn’t revoked until 1989. ‘Feliz Ano Novo’ describes an attack on a houseful of rich, white New Year’s Eve revellers by three armed slum-dwellers. One woman is raped and strangled. Shit is smeared on bedsheets. The narrator tries to get the ring off a dead woman’s finger but it won’t budge so he bites off the finger and throws the whole thing into a sack. A man who tries to negotiate is made to stand with his back to a wall, a little distance away from it, so that the blast from the shotgun lifts him off his feet and sends him smack against the plaster. The effect isn’t quite what the killers hoped for, so they get another man to stand against a door: this time, the body is satisfyingly pinned to the woodwork by the lead of the shot, before sliding slowly to the floor. It’s a form of experimentation.

The judges in the censorship case argued that the story might lead the average Brazilian astray. That would be a wholly ludicrous statement if applied to a piece of fiction written, say, in France, but ‘Feliz Ano Novo’ is precisely about what it claims is the average Brazilian; and it’s this claim that’s subversive, not the violence. The protagonists are ‘fucked and underpaid’, like everybody else they come across, apart from the super-wealthy whose party they’ve crashed. What makes them angry is how trivial the partygoers’ possessions are to them: ‘The drinks, the food, the jewels, the money, all that was just crumbs to them. They had lots more in the bank. To them we were nothing more than three flies in the sugar bowl.’ And what’s on their mind is what they don’t have. As convention demands, the story appears to be very precise in its arsenal of weapons-related terminology – they’re using a 12-gauge Thompson – and equally interested in its details, but when you look closely at the way those details are described you find that the language keeps heading in a particular direction: ‘There was a hole in his chest that was big enough for a loaf of bread.’ ‘Bread’, ‘sugar’, ‘crumbs’: this is a story about food, not blood. The people are starving, and what riled the censors was their hunger.

Fonseca’s stories – which are what made his reputation in Brazil – haven’t until now been collected in English translation. Most of the entries in ‘The Taker’ and Other Stories, a selection from Feliz Ano Novo and his 1979 collection, O Cobrador, are nasty, brutish, short. But they all play tricks with the form, and they’re never quite what they seem. ‘Account of the Incident’ appears, at first, to be just what its title suggests: a sober, factual report – of a traffic accident. The specifics are recorded in full: the where (‘the bridge over the Coroado River, at marker 53, in the direction of Rio de Janeiro’); the what (‘a passenger bus of the Unica Auto Onibus firm, licence plates RF-80-07-83 and JR-81-12-27’); the who. Five people have been killed, and their bodies recovered from the river; their names are listed – where they can be known – along with their ages and marital status. It’s all very dry and routine, as if lifted from the pages of a policeman’s notebook.

The only thing that makes the collision more than ordinary is the fact that what the bus hit was a brown cow. Now, cows are intrinsically absurd, especially when they’re brown, but the cow is only the beginning. The accident was witnessed by ‘Elias Gentil dos Santos and his wife Lucília, residents in the vicinity’. Elias asks Lucília to run home and fetch a knife. Then Marcílio da Cunceição turns up, along with Ivonildo de Moura Júnior. They’re all eyeing each other suspiciously, and eyeing the dead cow. Elias jumps first, and starts carving up the carcass, by which point Ivonildo’s mother-in-law Aurélia has appeared, as have Erandir Medrado and his brother Valfrido, and they’re all hopping around trying to get in on the action. Sacks are brought, along with various sharp implements and, as soon as local dignitaries start muscling in to demand their piece of meat, we know that things have taken a Gogol-like turn. There’s nothing left of the cow and, with this crazed escalation, the ‘account’ has become a fable. All the specificity with which the story opens turns out to have been only a blind, a smokescreen: while an act of prestidigitation keeps the eyes of the reportorial world on the calamitous bus, the real action is taking place elsewhere, on the bridge itself, where a cow is being chopped up by a succession of loons. The truth isn’t in the facts, it’s in the fantasy.

Fonseca, who is now 83, has been one of those famously reticent writers – he’s a friend of Thomas Pynchon – who chooses to say as little as he can about what his fiction is meant to mean. One of the distractions his biography throws up is that he worked for the Rio police in the 1950s and 1960s: this is supposed to give him a licence to write about violence, as if what he’s giving us is the documentary dope, the news from the street. He doesn’t exactly dispel the illusion. But the writing itself displays a suspicion of reported fact. ‘The Taker’, which was inexplicably not banned by the censors, relates the escalating exploits of a serial killer with an axe to grind (or more precisely a machete, which he sharpens on a ‘special stone’). As the Taker rapes and shoots his way through the streets of Rio, there’s a distinct background hum from the media at large, which distorts his actions and makes them loud. In the story’s logic, no one notices the disappearance of yet another suburban banker until it’s seen to be part of a pattern. ‘No More Safety in the Streets’: it’s not until he dispatches a couple with serious connections that the ‘society columnists’ sit up and take note. He is known in the papers as ‘o louco da Magnum’, or, in Clifford Landers’s clever rendering, ‘the Magnum maniac’. (Sometimes something is added in translation.) But the papers he avidly reads don’t reflect what is revealed by his first-person narration: he’s a poet, too, and he has a lot to give.

The Taker likes to share his verses with his potential victims. It isn’t all good – ‘It wasn’t God or the Devil/who made me an avenger/it was I myself/I am the Penis-Man/I am the Taker’ – and not everybody knows how to respond to it. (‘Do you like movies?’ one nervous woman interrupts him to ask.) But the poetry, which runs all the way through the story, is a counterweight to those murmuring radios that continuously babble about a madman on the loose: it’s an alternative account, and it has its own narrative. It’s not only a self-justifying means of expression for a man who has no other outlet, whose real voice nobody otherwise will ever hear; it also has a notional addressee: the rich, the fat, the smug. And it isn’t quite as ingenuous as it sounds. As it builds to a climax, it comes over all literary. ‘Eat caviar/your day is coming,’ he warns the soon to be dead, in a curious echo of the Mayakovksy slogan that the sailors are said to have chanted as they stormed the Winter Palace: ‘Eat pineapples, chew on partridge/your last day is coming, bourgeois!’ It rhymes in Russian, as a strict translation presumably can’t be made to in any other language, which is why the Taker’s version – ‘Come caviar/ teu dia vai chegar’ – is so euphoniously cunning.

Fonseca’s short stories bury their literary references, in contrast to his novels, which parade their learning through a heady mix of high art and low. The 1998 Vastas Emoções e Pensamentos Imperfeitos, for instance (published in Britain as The Lost Manuscript), is a thriller about diamond smugglers and carnival artistes that is narrated by a filmmaker obsessed with Isaac Babel. The stories’ subtlety with their sources allows them, unlike the novels, to be read as pure noir entertainment: ‘Night Drive’, in Landers’s translation, was first published in Ellery Queen’s Prime Crimes 5. It’s one of Fonseca’s simplest stories, and it’s only two pages long, but even here a great deal is happening. It purports to describe the nocturnal activities of a wealthy office worker who, it turns out, likes to take his swanky car for a spin after dinner, using his impressive driving skills to run down and kill random pedestrians.

‘Night Drive’ is a comedy. It begins with the man arriving home after a hard day at work, ‘my briefcase bulging with papers, reports, studies, research, proposals, contracts’. There’s a pleasing note of self-importance to this list: bigwig that he is, he recognises the attitude he ought to have to all the significant stuff he has to do. He’s a character already. But since paperwork isn’t really what interests him, he’s in fact a character pretending to be a different character, performing his part with word-perfect ease. Something similar happens with his wife, who as the story opens is playing patience in bed, with a glass of whisky at her side. She knows how to make herself comfortable. And she knows how to be the good wife. ‘You look tired,’ she says as her husband enters, without looking up from her cards. She doesn’t look up because she doesn’t need to: important husbands are always tired at the end of the day, and good wives always say sympathetic things. Usually, however, they’re required to pretend that their sympathy is genuine; her words, like his, are spoken from a script for a play she isn’t really acting.

It’s not just the language: the whole story is slightly askew. For something so short it places an unusual emphasis on the passage of time. There are several stages. The wife begins in bed, then visits the husband in his study, then tells the maid to serve dinner. Dinner stretches: ‘My son asked for money during the coffee course; my daughter asked for money during the liqueur.’ It’s after the liqueurs that the man goes out for his drive, but not before inviting his wife along, knowing she’ll refuse because ‘it was time for her soap opera.’ He finds that the children’s cars are blocking the garage door, so he has to carry out a lengthy set of manoeuvres: ‘I moved both cars and parked them in the street, moved my car from the garage and parked it in the street, put the other two cars back in the garage, and closed the door.’ After killing his pedestrian, he comes back home and finds his wife on the sofa watching TV. He goes to bed. There’s horror in all this yawning slowness. The sequence of events is hard to argue with – surely a wife can sit in bed drinking whisky before dinner – but it’s oddly unsettling, as if the order has been shuffled; the fact that each step is described in such laborious detail makes it all the more nightmarish. And this is what the story is about, a collection of nightmares: an empty life, an empty wife, words that don’t quite make sense, objects that can’t quite be manipulated.

But there’s still the murder. Fonseca’s stories contain their literal collisions – between bus and cow, between a car and a woman’s legs – but, more unavoidably, they describe collisions between the rich world and the poor. The poor kill the rich and the rich kill the poor, and there are more complex entanglements too. A rich woman falls in love with a poor man who befriends another poor man who blackmails the rich woman. A poor man terrorises a rich man until the rich man snaps and kills the poor one. A poor man nurses a rich man. A rich man nurses the poor. The permutations are so various that in the end all you can see are the patterns, and you realise that Fonseca is playing formalist games with social divisions. When other writers address the gulf between rich and poor, they do so from some kind of vantage point; they are motivated by a need, conscious or not. Some want to narrow the gap, to campaign. Others are driven by something like fear: in much British fiction of the 1980s and 1990s – in Ian McEwan or Martin Amis, say – the poor or their representatives erupt like an insistent dream into middle-class life as stalkers or thugs. Fonseca also writes about stalkers and thugs, but from both worlds at once. And all that can reliably be said about the two worlds as they appear in his fiction – since how can we know what he thinks? – is that they’re a very long way apart.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.