A crime novel with literary elements, or a literary novel involving crime? That’s the question posed by a reading of The Lost Manuscript by Rubem Fonseca. First published in 1988, the novel was a bestseller in Fonseca’s home country of Brazil, as well as in Italy and Mexico. The English edition I read was published in 1997 in Britain, translated by Clifford Sanders.
The hero of the story is unnamed. He is a film producer based in Rio de Janeiro who’s been producing commercials for two years and is suddenly presented with the opportunity to film and direct a documentary in Germany about the early Soviet writer Isaac Babel. He’s becoming obsessed with all things Babel, reading her story, every scrap of information about the writer who served in the Red Cavalry (a Cossack unit. Even though Babel was Jewish), was a celebrated writer in the early Soviet period, and then was arrested in 1939 and executed in 1940, one more victim of Stalin’s purges.
Very early in the novel, the hero is approached by a woman who works in Rio’s carnival. She thrusts a small package into his hands and asks him to keep it safe. He’s never seen her before and isn’t quite sure how she selected him. Inside the package is some 30 stones, which appear to be costume-jewelry quality but turn out to be something far more valuable.
He holds on to the package, and then learns the woman has been murdered. Then the doorman of his apartment building is murdered right in front of the hero’s door and the apartment ransacked. Someone knows or suspects he has the stones. Gradually he discovers that the stones are part of a major smuggling operation.
He flies to West Berlin, as much to flee the smugglers as the meet his producer. But the producer has something else in mind – to send the hero into East Berlin to obtain a lost manuscript of what is said to be the only novel by Babel. Someone has it and wants to sell it for American dollars. The hero makes the transaction, barely escaping the East German secret police. But instead of turning it over to the producer, he flees with it back to Rio.
The story is one of lost and smuggled things, the lengths to which people will go to satisfy their obsessions, and the violence lurking just below the veneer of society and culture. It includes a few graphically sexual scenes, but fewer than what’s contained in Fonseca’s collection of short fiction, The Taker and Other Stories.
Fonseca began writing later and he specialized in crime writing. He lived most of life in Rio de Janeiro. He became a police officer in suburban Rio in 1952, writing the crime reports that would later become the basis for his stories. He studied business administration at New York University from 1953 to 1954, returning to the police force in Rio until 1958. He began writing stories in the early 1960s, and published his first collection, “The Prisoners,” in 1963. His works were often censored by the Brazilian military government for their violent and sexually graphic content. Fonsecae received numerous prizes for his writing, including the Luís de Camões Prize for Literature and the Juan Rulfo Literature Prize for Latin American and Caribbean Literature. He died in April of 2020.
The Lost Manuscript works as a crime novel, and its works as a literary novel. It bears the influence of the high tide of magic realism in Latin America, as it was published shortly after the tide had crested. But it is still a thrilling story, full of literary discussions, criminal twists and turns, and a narrative that succeeds.