Rubem Fonseca’s “The Taker and Other Stories”

Reviewed by Dan Bevacqua

Image of Rubem Fonseca’s “The Taker and Other Stories”

In Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky writes, "Every man has reminiscences which he would not tell to everyone, but only to his friends. He has other matters in his mind which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. But there are other things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself." Brazilian literary icon Rubem Fonseca, in his first collection of short stories to be translated into English, writes characters that tend to disagree with the greatest Russian. The first-person narrators in The Taker And Other Stories share the most sinister aspects of themselves with a cool detachment that makes Patrick Bateman from American Psycho seem like a penitent, thanks in large part to the urgent and deft translation by Mario Ferreira Award winner Clifford E. Landers.

In the title story, a Rio De Janeiro street thug narrates his transition from maniac to mass murderer, mapping his vengeance-fueled descent with such detail that "The Taker" reads like a sociological study of a young terrorist. "Night Drive" articulates the nocturnal boredom of a successful businessman who can only quench his bloodlust by committing vehicular homicide. And in "The Notebook," by far the lightest of Fonseca's inventions, a recently divorced man feeds his appetite for sex by seducing women and then writing about their preferences and physical flaws in a notebook for his own private gratification.

A former police commissioner, Fonseca writes stories in The Taker that read like interrogation room confessionals. All but four of the fifteen are first-person narratives, but even the third-person narration manages to convey a similar sense of testimony. Here the accused flood their accuser, we the readers, with a perverted logic: a trip to the dentist is to be mentioned with the same nonchalance as public defecation, sodomy, and senicide. These accounts are delivered by the author with the kind of Raymond Chandler tone of noir that mars the line between empathy and apathy.

There is also a substantial amount of injustice to contend with here, as the central conflict of the entire collection is the inequality between classes in the Brazilian social system. In "The Taker," the nameless narrator says, "They owe me food, pussy, blankets, shoes, a house, car, watch, teeth, they owe me . . . the electric company, vaccinations, doctor, clothing store, people everywhere. In the morning you can't even walk toward the train station, the crowd moves like some enormous lizard that takes up the entire sidewalk." Rage quickens the pulse of all these stories: it is the adrenaline that propels their narration, as anger remains the first thought and last straw of Fonseca's hopeless protagonists.

Landers' translation captures the desperate rage of the Portuguese underclass, as well as the burden of wealth suffered by its richest citizens—and what The Taker and Other Stories lacks in subtly it more than makes up for with its immediacy. Each sentence is as plain and true as blood. Fonseca's stories, like his characters, aim to attack. With their willingness to expose their capacity for violence and desire, they lay bare the warfare of the mind, where, as Fonseca writes in his story "The Enemy," "Thought is the fastest thing there is."

Dan Bevacqua's short story "Numbers" appears in the Spring Issue of 580 Split. He lives in Iowa City.