Eat Caviar

Daniel Soar

  • ‘The Taker’ and Other Stories by Rubem Fonseca, translated by Clifford Landers
    Open Letter, 166 pp, $15.95, November 2008, ISBN 978 1 934824 02 3

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.