Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Solving crimes, the Mandrake way




No, no, not that Mandrake, the top hat and tuxedo-wearing magician created by the legendary Lee Falk for the newspaper strips. I bow to one of the fathers of American comics, but that topic is for another blog.

It’s really Mandrake the defence lawyer. After reading a collection of short-stories and a novel, my third incursion into Rubem Fonseca’s work brings me to his novellas. And as I’ve come to expect from this Brazilian writer, in spite of the short time I’ve been acquainted with him, they’re tense, sardonic, excellent narratives. Here’s an irony: although I lambasted serial characters in a previous post, Fonseca is the creator of a character who reappears in several of his books. I don’t know when he first showed up, but Mandrake plays a role in the novel High Art (1983), still unread, and the novella E do meio do mundo prostituto só amores guardei ao meu charuto (1997), already on my book pile. But today I’m writing about Mandrake – A Bíblia e a Bengala (2005). This short book collects two interlinked novellas where Mandrake has to use his wits, connections in the police department and knowledge of the Rio de Janeiro underworld to solve two bizarre, dangerous cases.

Mandrake is a womanizer and red wine connoisseur whose partner, Weksler, is a Jew who lost his parents in Buchenwald and whose best friend, the chief of police Raul, breeds frogs when he’s off-duty. It seems to be a trademark of Fonseca that the protagonist is an erudite man who appreciates art and literature and has a knack for remembering sayings by philosophers and writers. And in spite of his weary cynicism he’s a kind-hearted lawyer. His main weakness is women, the cause of all his troubles in both novellas.

The first novella, called “Mandrake and the Mainz Bible,” is my favourite because it’s an off-kilter crime story set in the shadowy world of rare book thefts and the criminal rings that sell them to rich collectors. But why explain things when the second paragraph does such a good job?

How could I imagine I’d get involved with the story of Gutenberg’s incunabulum, with the midget, with Lil’ Skull, with the Fichet safe, with the murders, especially with the one of the poor mature woman who for the first time in her life was in love, a woman who loved books and cats – every woman likes cats, even the ones who don’t like books.

Very well, I’ll explain some more. Karin Altolaguirre, a rare book collector, hires Mandrake to find out what happened to Carlos Waise, a midget who works in the Antique Bookstore and who disappeared without trace. Karin knew Carlos because sometimes he gave her good tips about rare books to buy. She goes to Mandrake instead of the police because ‘crime lawyers have ways of investigating these things without involving the police.’ Now why doesn’t she want to involve the police? Can it have something to do with a Mainz Bible stolen from the National Library? The funny thing is that the first thing Mandrake does is call his former Law school colleague and current Homicide cop, Raul, for help. Things get better because, as Raul starts rounding up suspects, they all go to Mandrake for legal defence, meaning there’s a bit of professional friction to their friendship. Oh, speaking of cops: “I think Victor Hugo described the perfect cop, every good cop has to be a merciless Javert.”

What makes the novella so good is Mandrake’s voice. Rubem Fonseca has a special way of using words, of mixing a direct and austere style with sophistication and unexpected humour, although once you get into the rhythm it stops being so unexpected and becomes one of the text’s main pleasures. And the character work is so good in this, so flawless. I could listen to Mandrake forever. On drinking with Raul: “For people like me and Raul, whose pleasure on drinking is getting slightly inebriated, the second bottle is always better.” This is him after lying to his girlfriend: “Every liar’s doubt: when we lie is it always good if half the lie is true, or is it better if everything is a lie?” And his description of finding Carlos in a bar and scaring him away. “I followed him, walking. I confess I felt shame running after a midget in the street.” And so he loses him. In the whole history of detective fiction who ever heard of someone losing a murder suspect because he was ashamed of running after him? This is what makes Rubem Fonseca special.

Everyone else is well developed too, regardless of the length of their presence in the narrative. Karin, for instance, is a serious book lover. How serious? So serious she broke up with her fiancée after a dispute over an edition of Montaigne’s Essays. How can one not love this detail? But does this mean Karin is capable of killing someone for a book? That’s what Mandrake starts suspecting the deeper he’s pulled into the mystery and its many ramifications. Ah, here’s what he thinks of rare books:

If someone were to give me a present and asked me to choose between the first edition of The Divine Comedy and any book by Fernando Pessoa published yesterday, I prefer Pessoa. This contempt of mine includes stamps, cars, porcelain vases, pens and inkpots, and rare trombones.

See, Pessoa, a man with good taste obviously. He doesn’t see the point of anyone caring about a book just because ‘they have three hundred years.’ I subscribe completely. Still apropos of Karin, Mandrake has a girlfriend called Angélica, and he feels miserable because he’s falling in love with Karin and is afraid of hurting Angélica. Of course he ends up cheating on her, he’s a good man but not a saint.

Then we have the descriptions. I didn’t write anything about the descriptions in my post about Agosto, but Fonseca likes describing very graphic and violent things with his sober, gritty realism. One of the best scenes in that novel is how a killer methodically disposes of a body. Here we have the autopsy of a dead woman, a librarian innocently caught in a scheme to steal rare books from the National Library:

Without waiting for an answer, he placed the brain in a container and next, after laying the corpse belly up, made a deep incision on the dead woman’s body, from the throat to the pubis. The abdomen’s interior appeared, a mass of viscous forms connected between them, of several hues. Now I’ll make the costectomy, he said. With a sort of large scissors he started breaking the ribs, and the bones cracked, and then all the viscera, from the lungs to the intestines, revealed themselves with exuberant impudence. He examined the organs before eviscerating them.

This goes on for another page, until Mandrake gets sick and leaves the room.

The disappearance of Carlos soon turns into a complex case involving a stolen Mainz Bible and the murder of Eunice, the librarian, who may or may not have been killed by Carlos. Stolen from sophisticated Fichet safe, the Mainz Bible is one of the oldest printed books in existence, printed directly by Gutenberg’s printing machine, giving it a symbolic and historical value in the West. Only a few dozens exist in the world. Mandrake also sprinkles the narrative with interesting insights into the business of art theft:

It’s hard to find someone to buy a very famous work of art. And kidnapping a painting or a book is a lot easier than a person, you don’t need guarded captivity, and the painting or book doesn’t needed to be fed, doesn’t run away and doesn’t identify the criminal, who pays a minor fee if he’s caught. The amount of the ransom is always bigger.

The novella even explains when and where the first library catalogue in history was made: 2000 BCE, in Sumer, in Ur’s third dynasty. It’s a crime novella tailor-made for book lovers.

The second novella, “Mandrake and the Swaine Walking Cane,” is not as strong or original. It has a good premise, though, because Mandrake sees himself suspected of murder. His interest in married women backfires on him one day when the husband of the woman he’s having an affair with shows up dead, killed by a cane belonging to him. The cane in question is one made by Swaine Adeney Brigg, a British cane manufacturer for over two hundred years now. It’s a luxury item. I think one of the flaws of this novella is that this aspect of the cane never becomes as important to the plot as the titbits about incunabula and ancient library catalogues. But the novella never lets go the tension and aura of mystery, so it’s a gripping read nonetheless.

Three books, three hits. I don’t think it’s too soon to declare that Rubem Fonseca my best find of 2013.

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