Two books by Rubem Fonseca

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By Joao Adolfo Hansen*

Commentary on a Detective Novel and a Book of Short Stories by the Recently Deceased Writer

Like every detective story, the book And from the middle of the prostitute world, I only kept my cigar starts with the fumes of a problem: “who killed X?”. When the mystery begins to be unraveled, the author produces others, killing more characters. The deaths are functional: the author writes from the point of view of the end, when the criminal is revealed, so he complicates the plot, accumulates violence, suspicions and clues, so that the reader can uncomplicate it.

For example, it provides evidence against a character, induces the reader to believe it, turns suspicion into a false trail, deceives him. Or, finding the culprit, he cites causes that motivate the crime: the murderer's scabrous past, parricide, madness. Literature is full of these pseudodices that specify the verisimilitude of the genre. The reader already knows this, but he is amused by the evil acts, he swallows them with pleasure: “play it again, Reuben”.

Here, the author's intelligence has to be inversely proportional to his goodness. The more perverse, risking art with the commonplace, seducing with technical precision and frightening with skeptical affectation, the better. While playing cat and mouse with the reader, he distracts him with pastiche: Cuban cigars, fatal women, cheap proverbs, cynical disenchantment.

Even more amusing is the cultural veneer that Gustavo Flávio, the writer-character who lost part of a fundamental organ, involved in the crimes, applies in reflective intervals, of self-parodic literacy. Gustavo Flávio talks about imagination and patience – “festina lens”, reader! – required today for the great art of writing. All he says is "pseudo", quote fake by Gustave Flaubert and others: “a heap of sophisms”, comments the lawyer-detective-narrator Mandrake, who, among others, works the magic of explaining that he did not date the transcripts used in the story, “harming” its chronological linearity…”Madame Bovary c'est moi?” Undoubtedly, Rubem Fonseca is grand syntaxier: takes gold from the nose.

The raw material of its syntax is the time of late capitalism, when the sublime, formerly the exclusive aspiration of poets, became democratically general. Global, as they say, today is anything: unrepresentable. If Flaubert said that you have to be very sad to rebuild Carthage, what do you have to be in order to figure Rio or Singapore?

And from the prostitute world... it's for the tales of the book Love stories like the board for the chess pieces: they are literally “boring”. The term does not mean the voluptuousness of boredom, but the smooth combination of a cinematographic syntax that effectively shapes the contemporary absence of events, making visible what is not seen: articulations and tensions, more than things. Here, the calculated incongruity of clear syntax and unnameable materials is the presence of the monster. The black humor of the construction of the insignificant affirms the nothingness, the none, of a cold world, but in no way absurd; rather, it has an explicit logic, which lights up the cynical titles like a supermarket.

There is nothing in it of romantic irony, of the self-reflexive infinity of conscience, of the desire to escape far away from this senseless world. It lacks the old sense of meaning and ignores the “sacrifice for the collectivity”, the tragic, of which Sanguinetti spoke in times gone by. It's low and low, burlesque: death in its contemporary form, the fascist arbitrariness of violence without a concept, remains an infamous fact, but you die like one of those dogs that the owners take to the road to be run over and that's all. Magnificent, therefore, is the realism of the sensation of generalized unreality, because in Fonseca's artifice all things are on the same level, agitated by a horrible purposeless energy.

So much And from the whore world like the tales of Love stories glorify the constructive patience of this equalization. They are hyperfunctional: they take any action in the middle, link it with another and another, intransitively, dissolving its causes or motivations in pastiche. The sentences add up like a syntactic verisimilitude, which imitates and corrodes the schematism of detective fiction and the film noir. Fonseca is a minimalist: his art is perversely classical, it works with the patience of a kaleidoscope that each time brilliantly recombines the same broken pieces of banality.

All of his characters are simulacra: pastiches of characters from other texts. Composed as mechanics of repeated gestures, they are pure relation. Men suck slowly and repeatedly; women hurry, the cigar. Only men know how to smoke, and Freud, 20 a day, died of mouth cancer. The inside of the characters is smoke, like that of Álvares de Azevedo, none, pure effect of the body's relationship with the arbitrary stimulus: Leitão and the love of Jesus, in the short story “O amor de Jesus no Coração”; Robert and Sabrina, in the short story “Carpe Diem".

Still in Love stories, an assassin kills those who hired the service; the near-victim wears a dressing gown, reminding her of the mother she never had. In another, the beloved asks the lover to have the child of his ex-lover's mistress killed to take revenge for the humiliation because – she doesn't tell him this, the current one is a butcher block – she still secretly kisses the picture of her ex. In And from the whore world, Mandrake thinks Gustavo Flávio is nice when he sees him smoking a cigar. The arbitrariness of actions is read as a residue of equivalent acts; the violence without a concept that is experienced in each segment of them stems from the saturation of the stories as mechanics of the gesture.

Therefore, the coldness of the characters is that of the unconsciousness of puppets: like Kleist's, they know nothing about the weight of matter, but in gravity they fly, burning like gunpowder. Between seduction of the move and fear of checkmate, they are elements of a combination. Something passes through them, probably the energy of continuous displacement itself, which makes them quiver with life and void of transitivity, like appliances in the brutally real kitchen where meat is cut: me, you, him. There is no "us". Here, literature is reconverted to the letter: it is literal. The reduction to the naturalistic mechanics of the gesture is vigorous and figures the only real thing, the exchange, without any depth, interiority or height for contrast.

Brutalism, hyperrealism, pop and the postmodern of this art have already been mentioned. Brutalism? His subject matter is immediate: the basic rabble of the lower, middle and upper classes. Hyperrealism? It has the fluorescent glow of the dead life of simulacra; cold figures a world without any sense, but rigorously logical. Pop? Nothing happens in it but the repetition of the event of the lack of events that makes its mood somber and familiar. Post-modern? It vampirizes the libido of the regressive reader. Parody and pastiche? When the matter of reality with which the author's evil weaves fun is the immeasurable thanks to , the parody parodies what, exactly?

*John Adolfo Hansen is full and senior professor of Brazilian literature at USP

Article originally published in Journal of Reviews no 31.

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