“Why I Love the Policial: Brazil’s Bonanza of Crime Fiction” (by Clifford E. Landers)

Translator Cliff Landers’s work for EQMM goes back many decades.  He’s also a professor—now professor emeritus at New Jersey City University—whose knowledge of Brazilian literature is extensive. He has translated from Brazilian Portuguese novels by Rubem Fonseca, Jorge Amado, João Ubaldo Ribeiro, Patrícia Melo, Jô Soares, Chico Buarque, Marcos Rey, Paulo Coelho, and José de Alencar as well as short stories by Lima Barreto, Rachel de Queiroz, Osman Lins, Moacyr Scliar, and Raphael Montes. In 1999, he received the Mário Ferreira Award for his work and in 2004, a Prose Translation grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. His latest book-length translation project in the crime field is Winning the Game and Other Stories by Rubem Fonseca. His insights into the current state of Brazilian crime fiction left me wanting to know more. . . . —Janet Hutchings

Crime fiction was long thought of as the privileged—if not exclusive—province of English-speaking writers. The detective/mystery genre that began with Edgar Allan Poe, an American, achieved maturity at the hands of British authors like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and more recently P. D. James. Add in such classic American figures as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain and it’s easy to understand why French, German, and even Latin American authors looked to the Anglophone world as a source of inspiration and technique.

That exclusivity is rapidly disappearing. More and more, writers outside the Anglo-American sphere are producing quality fiction in the genre—need I mention Stieg Larsson? Today I want to talk about a country more associated in the public mind with real-life crime than with crime fiction—Brazil.

For over 25 years I’ve been a translator of Brazilian works in all genres, from scholarly studies by leading academicians to cheery works for young adults. But of all the millions of words I’ve brought into English from Portuguese, the most gratifying—and most enjoyable—has been prose focusing on crime in all its guises.

Beyond the megalopolises of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, smaller cities and even the rural countryside serve as backdrop for a panoply of homicide and lesser transgressions. It is, however, urban crime that gets the headlines and makes the TV newscasts, where, as in the U.S., “if it bleeds, it leads.”

Unfortunately for the foreign aficionado of Brazilian crime fiction, the number of works translated into English is limited. In part this reflects the well-known (and lamentable) disinclination of Americans to read translations —and the subsequent reluctance of American publishers to take a chance on them. But they can be found; check your local library or Amazon.com.

The undisputed master of the genre known in Brazil as the policial is Rubem Fonseca. He has won every major literary prize in Latin America, including the Camões Prize in 2003, known as the Portuguese-language Nobel. An octogenarian who has been producing edgy, controversial fiction since the 1960s, he has inspired numerous younger writers. At the risk of appearing self-serving, I would like to call attention to two collections of his works still in print in this country. (Full disclosure: I am the translator of both, along with three of his novels.)

The Taker and Other Stories was published by Open Letter in 2008, the first collection of Fonseca stories available in English—fifteen tales of conflict and tension, leavened by the occasional foray into black humor. “Night Drive,” published in EQMM’s Prime Crimes anthology, is the embodiment of Hannah Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil: an unexceptional executive finds relief from ennui by nocturnal excursions in his high-performance car to run over luckless victims on deserted streets. The title story, “The Taker,” explores the acts of a psychopath whose random slaughter is channeled by a woman’s love into systematic terrorism. “Trials of a Young Writer” is a velocity exercise, a single eleven-page paragraph narrated by a hapless wannabe author whose thirst for glory leads to a death, a forged suicide note, and dubious fame. The protagonist of “Angels of the Marquees” (which first appeared in EQMM) learns to his regret that truly no good deed goes unpunished. “Happy New Year” led to the book in which it was published being banned by the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985; it depicts in graphic terms the horrific upshot of the invasion of an upper-class Rio home on December 31 by a criminal gang. Much lighter in tone, “The Notebook” recounts how a cynical womanizer uses a small red notebook in furtherance of his sexual conquests.

Earlier this year, Winning the Game and Other Stories, comprising seventeen of Fonseca’s shorter works, was brought out by Tagus Press. The title story was published in EQMM and relates how, to quote the cover matter, “A loser elaborates a lethal plan to become, in his mind, a winner.” As in the earlier collection, the author’s somber view of humanity is lightened by flashes of humor. “Lonelyhearts” is the hilarious tale of a (male) former police reporter reduced to writing for a woman’s periodical under a feminine pseudonym. “The Game of Dead Men,” the first Portuguese-language work that I translated, is a chilling account of death-squad activities in Rio de Janeiro. “Belle,” “Xania,” and “Guardian Angel” feature a hit man, known only as José, a surprisingly complex personality who recurs in several of Fonseca’s works. “Mandrake” (the eponymous character is a lawyer with his own moral code) is a homage to American noir of the thirties and forties; the attentive reader will spot an allusion to The Big Sleep and perhaps to Farewell, My Lovely. More lighthearted is “Be My Valentine,” which takes place on Valentine’s Day and involves a rich banker on the prowl in his Mercedes, a transvestite, and Mandrake, called in to save the day when things turn ugly.

Fonseca’s novel Crimes of August (Agosto) is a recognized masterwork. Both a popular and critical success when published in 1990, it is an expert commingling of fact (the political intrigue leading to the suicide of President Getúlio Vargas in August 1954) and fiction (a bloody, possibly sex-related murder). It is forthcoming from Tagus Press.

Rubem Fonseca’s influence has now impacted two generations of Brazilian writers. Patrícia Melo, the leading female creator of Brazilian crime novels (The Killer and its sequel Lost World, Inferno, and In Praise of Lies—all available in English) found inspiration in Fonseca, and he in turn is a great admirer of her literary production. And a young phenom named Raphael Montes, whose novel Suicides was written when he was 19 and published at 21, readily acknowledges his admiration for Fonseca as well as the sway his work has exerted. (Montes’s story “Statement No. 060.719-67” is scheduled to appear in EQMM’s November 2013 issue.)

There is much more to say about the topic than space permits. I am currently organizing what I believe to be the first anthology of Brazilian crime fiction in English translation, which will include works by 25 authors ranging from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century. Including, needless to say, Rubem Fonseca.

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3 Responses to “Why I Love the Policial: Brazil’s Bonanza of Crime Fiction” (by Clifford E. Landers)

  1. Pingback: “Brazilian Crime Fiction: Vibrant, Original, and Multifaceted” (by Clifford E. Landers) | SOMETHING IS GOING TO HAPPEN

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