Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Discovering Rubem Fonseca

Rubem Fonseca (b. 1925) is a Brazilian writer I recently discovered. Like Ferreira Gullar, he started getting more exposure in Portugal after receiving the Camões Prize in 2003. Fonseca has written novels, short-stories (considered his best work), and also film screenplays (like Exposure, directed by Walter Salles). Although he’s had a long career, he didn’t publish his first book until he was almost forty.

His father was a Portuguese immigrant who started a new life in Brazil. At the age of seven he moved to Rio de Janeiro. Fonseca graduated from Law school and then went to work as a lawyer. In 1952 he joined the police, rising to the rank of police commissioner and also working as inspector and in the public relations department. While studying to join the force he specialised in psychology, and his short-stories attest to his ability to get inside the heads of his characters. During 1953 and 1954 he received licence to travel to New York to continue his studies, and in 1958 he left the police force to work in the private sector. His first book came out in 1963, Os Prisioneiros, a short-story collection. Many more followed, the short-story becoming the genre he’s better admired for, and it wasn’t until 1973 that his first novel, O Caso Morel, came out.

A reclusive writer who nonetheless causes furore in his public appearances, admired by heavyweights like Thomas Pynchon and Mario Vargas Llosa, Fonseca’s novels fall in the category of detective novels; and crimes, murders and violence constantly reappear in his writing. Perhaps in some weeks I’ll write about one of his novels. For now I’m writing about the short-story collection A Confraria dos Espadas.

Rubem Fonseca wins me over with less than 130 pages and just eight stories full of murders, secrets, misdirection, hypocrisy and irony, in a dazzling rotation of forms and topics. Regular prose gives way to one-act plays, and the final story is effectively a poem. Whatever the form used, the talent for psychology, invention, wild imagination, manipulating the viewer, changing the rhythms in a heartbeat are always a part of his narratives.

Fonseca uses misdirection a lot in his stories. He makes the reader think things are one way, and then he shows they’re something else entirely. Here’s a writer who never forgot the old rule of always keeping the reader engrossed. In the first story, “Free Will,” a man corresponding with a woman describes objectively how he helped three women to die. The first lines make the reader think they’re dealing with a serial killer, maybe, but he’s quick to clarify the matter. In his view he was helping the women, who came to him to experience the ultimate act of free will: to choose their own death. “Free will in the act of closing one’s life is only authentic if the person is tranquil, healthy, lucid and likes to live.” Both he and the women are fascinated by the transgression of values. He relates with a precision and directedness that could be mistaken for coldness and is upset at being considered a killer. “Salete’s autopsy, on establishing a nexus between the three deaths, strengthened, evidently, the murderer thesis, a hasty and ridiculous conclusion, for there is no murder without victim. And there were no victims.” It’s certainly a way of looking at it.

Paiva, the character from “The Angel of the Marquee,” is a retired widower trying to find a purpose in his life, fill the void in the middle of it left by his dead wife. Lonely, he wonders at night thinking of ways to occupy his life with. His thoughts eventually lead him to the poor and the homeless, whom he starts noticing. “For many years a driver drove him when he went from home to work and certainly that picture already existed before, only he hadn’t noticed it before. He now knew, thanks to the suffering caused by his wife’s death, that his selfishness had stopped him from seeing the misery of others. It was as if fate, which had always protected him, now showed him a new path.” Wanting to help, one night he comes upon a group people, by an ambulance, seemingly giving assistance to a homeless man. Impressed by their example he tries to contact them even after they ignore him. Eventually he manages to get the Angels of the Marquee, as he calls them, to accept him, but he finds out too late the deadly purpose of their nightly occupation. Again it’s all in the misdirection.

In “The Party” we meet an upper class married woman, Maria Clara, going to great lengths to make sure her perfectly planned party isn’t spoiled. She faces a daunting challenge when her husband suddenly passes away seated in a chair, in the living room, most of the guests unawares. Convening with a few guests in a private room, she discusses what they can do in order not to end the party. The humour of the story is that she’s more worried about the party than her husband being dead.

   Would sneaking him out through the back door be an unworthy thing?, asked Farah.
   It wouldn’t be elegant, certainly, said Maria Clara. For him to go out the front door we’d have to end the party, said Farah.
   Then why don’t we leave him at the party? He always stayed at parties until the end, isn’t it true, Seixas? asked Maria Clara.

Her argument prevails and the guests use the party to say farewell to the dead man. From a human angle, this is certainly the best story, with its subtle ironic attack on the protagonist’s obsession with appearances the way she rationalizes her lack of emotions. A variation on the theme of appearances is “The Insurance Seller,” about a man who kills people for money under the façade of selling insurance, a hitman less concerned with killing than his uninteresting sex life.

In “DT” the arrival of Suzana, an animal rights activist, at a farm makes everyone worried and precautions are taken to make sure she sees none of the usual animal abuses. But above all they want to make sure she finds nothing about what the narrator describes only as the DT. He and Suzana fall in love, and this intimacy makes her reveal her true intentions to him. “Human rights are my field of action. I lied to you. I came here because I got information that in this region there’s the practice of an odious, sadistic form of abuse against helpless people. But I feel in my heart that if that crime is committed in this region, you don’t directly take part in it.” When I discovered what DT stood for, I didn’t know if I should laugh or take it seriously, but when I looked it up on the internet and discovered Dwarf Tossing really is an illegal sport, I was befuddled to say the least.

“Like Goddard” is arguably the strangest short-story in the collection, told in play form, and is about two politically opposed activists, a right-wing reactionary woman, and a mopey left-wing guy, meeting to have what I can only describe as politico-erotico-cultural-intellectual games. The homage to or parody of Goddard would make more sense to me if I had actually seen his movies, perhaps. It was my least favourite of the stories.

“The Fellowship of the Swords,” which gives the book its title, is another good story. It starts with a narrator describing how a secret society invented its name. We think something sinister, especially when they invoke the Masons and the Rosicrucians. And the word Sword in their name seems menacing. But again the story turns the tables and the group is in fact a society of fuckers, sword being nothing but a metaphor for their interests. They’re effectively a society devoted to fucking. “The richer Brothers were its main supporters: the aristocrats are drawn to the underworld things, they’re fascinated by delinquents, and the term Sword as synonym of Fucker came from the criminal world, sword tears and attacks, so is the penis just as bandits and fools in general, see it.” But the short-lived society disbands after the disastrous consequences of using a method or tantric sex that allows men to have multiple orgasms without actually ejaculating. All seems well until their wives start wondering why they no longer reach climax, leading them to accuse the men of cheating on them and no longer having any interest in them. And this leads to a very strange predicament. “We continue to have a woman waiting for us, but that woman has to be replaced constantly, before she discovers we’re different, strange, capable of climaxing with infinite energy without spilling of semen. We can’t fall in love, for our relationships are fleeting.” Yes, that’s a predicament alright.

The final story, “A Day in the Life of Two Participants” is a poem and short enough for me to transcribe it in full:

We arrive at the cinema’s door and she asked
If I really wanted to stay inside the cinema
Three hours and forty minutes watching a movie
about mobsters.
She’d had one or two boyfriends who only fucked
When they had nothing else to do
Why fuck this evening when they could fuck at night
Why fuck at night when they could fuck
tomorrow morning
And why fuck the next day if they could fuck
on Saturday,
And why fuck Saturday if they could fuck
next week,
On the holiday or his or her birthday?
But she knew that with me – with both of us,
For in fact it wasn’t just me who made everything
Be different –
it was something else.
And we walked in a hurry under the sun
For we didn’t want to waste time, afterwards we had
To go back to our prisons and wait
The new encounter, and we went
To the first place closest to us, an apartment
Without furniture at all, and we kept grabbing each other inside,
Most of the time me on top of her
With the knees resting on the floor, and my knees
were left lacerated.
And my dick skinned, and she with her flesh burning, and one of
My front teeth chipped and one of her front teeth
 Chipped, and red marks
Showed up next to old purple marks and the
Dark rings under our eyes became even darker, but I
Didn’t complain nor did she complain. It was a pact of burning,
Against that space of grey routine between
Birth and death which they call

One of the best finds of 2013. Translator Clifford E. Landers has been involved in an uphill struggle to bring Fonseca to English-speaking readers. Before it disappears, I recommend reading The Taker and other stories.


  1. Your description of the plot of Free Will reminds me a little bit of the character of Alexei Nilych Kirillov in Dostoyevsky's The Devils. Though not a positive portrayal believes that his suicide will also be the ultimate act of will and make him God.

    1. Ah yes, good old Kirilov, I had forgotten about his suicide philosophy. The thing with Fonseca, is that he's not creating a whole character around a single idea, like Dostoevsky did. Here I think he just wants to shock a bit, and to create a contrast between the women who want to die and the cool narrator who has no problems helping them.