Monday, July 6, 2020

"The Taker and Other Stories" by Rubem Fonseca

As part of a master’s degree program in the 1980s, I took a course on the Latin American novel. I was familiar with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his One Hundred Years of Solitude, but I was introduced to Mario Vargas LlosaCarlos FuentesManuel Puig, and many other writers and poets. The timing of the course deliberately coincided with two on-campus speeches, one by Fuentes and one by Vargas Llosa. My major paper for the course was on Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral, a massive and complex novel of the Peruvian military dictatorship of the 1950s. 

The course was limited to major Latin American authors, or at least those who were well-known to literary circles in the United States. One writer we were not introduced to was Rubem Fonseca (1925-2020). Close in age to Garcia Marquez and Fuentes, 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. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, that collection “exposed the dangerous underbelly of Rio, a subject not yet handled by Brazil’s fiction writers.” 
He continued writing stories and novels, which experienced censorship by the Brazilian military government for their violent and sexually graphic content. He 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.

Ruben Fonseca
The Taker and Other Stories was first published in Brazil in 1979, but it wasn’t translated into an English edition (by Clifford Landers) until 2008. It is a collection of dark, often very dark, stories, about serial killers, gangs, thugs, misfits, psychopaths, and the violence associated with them. Fonseca is mining a vein that had not been previously explored by fiction writers in Brazil – the underside and violence of Brazilian society. Many of the stories reminded me of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels, except Fonseca tells the story from the criminal’s perspective, not the police’s. 

In “Night Drive,” an overworked businessman releases tension by taking late-night drives – and running over lone pedestrians. In the title story, “The Taker,” a man is so consumed with anger at the world and everyone he meets begins a rampage with a dentist who extracts his aching tooth – and then he’s joined by a likeminded woman. In “Angels of the Marquees,” a man is so impressed by volunteers helping the homeless that he volunteers to work with them, not realizing with these “angels” are really about. 

“The Enemy” is about a man trying to find the friends of his youth, and none of them remembers what he does. Or they don’t want to. “In Account of the Incident,” a bus collides with a cow on a bridge, and there’s more concern for the food the cow’s carcass offers than for the victims below. “The Eleventh of May” concerns life in a nursing home, and what happens when a few of the residents decide they’ve had enough. “The Book of Panegyrics” tells the tale of a man posing as a home nurse, to protect himself against something that he’s constantly reading the newspaper to find (this is my favorite in the entire collection; Fonseca does a fine job of building suspense). 

The Taker and Other Stories contains 15 stories in all, with only a few missing violence and mayhem. They depict anti-heroes, with misfits and psychopaths deciding to take what they believe is theirs, even if the people affected are innocent and have no connection. A strong theme in most of these stories is what happens in a class-stratified society when individuals in the underclass decide to make some changes. It’s an almost alien, unrecognizable world with its own code of violent behavior.

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