Rubem Fonseca: The Taker and Other Stories

Rubem Fonseca’s history intrigued me. A policeman during the 1940s in a country with a high rate of violent crime, particularly murders, who rose to the highest levels of law enforcement before changing career to work as a journalist and film critic, and then devoted himself to writing fiction. Described in the Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Latin American and Carribean Literature as, “One of Brazil’s most eminent living writers, and arguably one of the masters of the short story on the continent”.

What interested me about the first three stories in The Taker and Other Stories was that they disgusted me, not in the sense that I disliked them, though I did, but on a visceral level, genuine revulsion. Fonseca writes, “A man or a woman? It made little difference, really, but no one with the right characteristics appeared.” And he is even-handed about the gender of the victims of these first three stories who are run over, strangled, raped, starved, shot and slashed. I am not easily disgusted and resisted an urge to stop reading to locate its source. What Fonseca achieves, and we can argue about the value of such experience, is to bring to life the exuberant eroticism of his psychopathic protagonists.

Had the series of fifteen short stories continued to mine this dubious seam I would’ve given up, but it is a well chosen collection. After the raw and sordid beginning, the stories develop in range and sophistication without quite leaving behind Fonseca’s acidic cynicism. Each short story is sufficient unto itself, a complete world that Fonseca builds layer by layer until it plays out, occasionally predictably but often unexpectedly. On the evidence of these stories, he is not a character builder and his creations remain puppets throughout but the staging and atmosphere building is accomplished.

Thinking of an invidious analogy to summarise Fonseca’s style, what comes to mind is three-parts Raymond Chandler, one-part Virginie Despentes and a garnish of Bolano. Truth is I’ve not come across anything quite like them, so any analogy is mostly unreliable.

These stories are translated from Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers, and released by Open Letter, a publisher who is likely to feature prominently on this blog during the year.