L’or de Quipapá is the debut novel from Hubert Tézenas, an author who has spent the first thirty years of his career translating American and Brazilian novels into his native French. The crime novel dives into Brazil of the late 80s, exploring all the crime, corruption, and seedy underbelly of a country in economic repression, having just recovered from a military dictatorship.
Quipapá is home to a sugar cane magnate, whose workers are treated more like slaves. When the workers’ union president turns up dead in the region’s capital, the only witness to the crime is Alberico Cruz, a real-estate agent with a dull, normal life. But then the police arrest him as the primary suspect, and his troubles have only just begun.
Alberico Cruz winds up at the 11th Military Police Battalion precinct in Recife. He’s frisked and photographed and registered and undressed and measured and weighed and finally thrown into a cage with forty-some-odd men already packed inside. Some of them have been waiting for months to be transferred to prison.
The policemen escorting him stop in front of the door to get their key ring out. Cruz looks aghast into the bare rectangular cell. The only light comes from a thick glass block window that’s barely translucent. The ground is invisible under the sitting forest of rough-looking guys who train bemused or despising eyes on him.
The key scrapes in the lock. The MPs open the door and push Cruz inside. They lock it back up tight and set off in their boots that click on the hard cement. A tremor runs through the forest as Cruz falls onto his hands and knees. He’s shivering and looks ridiculous in the light blue undershorts that accentuate his rolls of fat and the cuts and bruises mottling his body. A murmur grows. Cruz lifts his head and does his best to avoid the stares. He can make out a porcelain toilet bowl full of fecal matter in the corner. Dark purple juice drips out. Soon he’ll learn that it hasn’t been able to flush in months. There’s a socket stuck above the protective grate on the ceiling that’s missing its bulb.
He spies movement at the back of the cell below the lone glass block window. His eyes pause on a mattress rolled up next to a wooden crate that’s probably used as a desk—there’s a piece of paper sitting on top of it—and then they climb inch by inch up to the face of the man sitting cross-legged behind the crate. The man is staring at him. He’s shirtless like everyone else. He’s bony with dark brown skin.
This brown man motions coolly to a huge black guy sitting next to him. The black guy unfolds his enormous frame and steps over crouching figures to get to Cruz. A few bursts of laughter spurt out when he picks him up by the neck. Cruz lets himself be dragged submissively over to the corner of the cell where the brown one sits in state. Everyone watches him respectfully. The black guy sets Cruz on his knees before the crate but doesn’t let go of his scruff.
May I ask your name? the brown one asks in a low tone.
Cruz keeps his head down.
The brown one flicks his hand at the black guy. The black guy grabs Cruz’s chin and forces him to look up.
Talk. Why are you here?
I . . . This . . .
More laughter. The brown one shakes his head with an exaggerated frown and glares around the cage. The laughter stops.
He’s all yours, he says to no one in particular. This one’s not worth shit.
Cruz will quickly learn that the brown one’s name is Ratinho. He’s been waiting two years for a verdict on a long list of violent crimes. He has complete dominion over the cell. He’s backed by a pack of thugs at his beck and call. He decides what everyone’s ration is and their place and station in life according to his own set of rules.
The policemen take care of him. He’s entitled to the daily special from the corner lanchonete at lunchtime instead of the detainees’ daily broth. A bed is made up for him on Sundays in the precinct’s infirmary. It had been decommissioned for lack of workers. The provisional bosses from Mata Sete choose a girl in line with Ratinho’s tastes for him to receive there. Ratinho is exempt from the mass delousing that happens once a month in an empty room that they shut all the prisoners into for a mass shower of DDT. Ratinho also has the privilege of going home for the night before a holiday.
His power comes from his close ties to the Red Phalanx: the criminal organization that incorporates most of the crooks in Recife both inside and outside of prison. He’s the sole Phalanx agent in the 11th Battalion precinct and calls all the shots there. He receives 50 percent of seized shipments of weed and coke directly from the military police and resells it to his fellow prisoners and other policemen. He recruits men and trains them and organizes all sorts of crime from his cell. Burglaries. Extortions. Hijackings. Kidnappings. Arrastões—when crooks descend onto beaches and restaurants and wherever else to pickpocket everyone they can. His prime picks are prisoners on track to be released. Many of them will become strong-arms for the Phalanx when they return to the street. Ratinho has spent two years refusing to be transferred. The 11th Battalion chief has always proven sympathetic to his desires. He values his children’s lives.
There’s jeering as Cruz picks himself up. He notices a tiny spot free between the back wall and the toilet. He heads over and stumbles with every step over a foot or a shoulder or a head or an arm. The prisoners along the way pay out winks and little pats that get more and more persistent. They take his hand. They whisper sweet nothings. They squeeze his calves. His legs give way and he collapses next to the toilet. He vomits to widespread laughter and curls up in a ball and hugs his chin to his knees to ease his chattering teeth.
Ratinho instituted a shift system so that everyone can sleep at night. Half the men lie down on the piss-soaked slab while the other half stays standing. They switch every two hours. Cockroaches panic and scurry around their bodies with every shift change.
But Alberico Cruz will not sleep tonight or any coming nights. He’ll be raped countless times under the impatient or mocking eyes of the still-awake prisoners. His mouth will be continuously gagged with a hand or T-shirt. The others’ snores will cover the few screams that escape. And this precinct’s guards obviously suffer from a collective hearing problem.
Mornings find him shivering with fever and unable to utter a word. He doesn’t react when his neighbor swipes his ration of gruel.
Two MPs come and drag him from his cell on the evening of the fourth day. He’s brought to a small interrogation room without windows and sat down in a chair. A plainclothes detective reads the official report: he’s being accused of voluntary manslaughter. Cruz wants to protest his innocence and explain the misunderstanding and tell them about the two killers but the detective doesn’t give him time to prep any arguments. He’s barely opened his mouth when a tremendous slap stuns him into silence. Then he’s interrogated on the victim and he makes the mistake of asking for a lawyer. This request earns him a flurry of punches. He loses consciousness and wakes up much later with his mouth full of blood and his cheek against the toilet that borders his new living space.
A long week goes by. The other prisoners slowly lose interest in his fate. Fresh meat has arrived in the meantime. Cruz is thinner at his second interrogation—his rolls of fat are only a memory. The plainclothes detective smugly informs him that his victim’s identity has been established and that he’s gonna get it this time. Cruz realizes what lies in store for him when he sees a uniformed officer set a chunky machine with a gray-green metal crank handle on the table. The officer unrolls two wires and hands them to the detective. The detective approaches holding the electrodes. He stands before Cruz and motions to the officer. The officer starts turning the crank as fast as possible. Cruz shakes his head and opens his mouth to scream but the detective presses a moist palm over his lips. Cruz squeezes his eyelids shut. The electric arc runs through him from bottom to top then in a flash shoots back down to the tips of his toes. His eyes open against his will. His hair sticks up. His body bucks.
After a century the detective raises his hand lazily and the sweat-drenched MP stops cranking his handle. Cruz slumps into his chair. His eyes are lifeless. He gets a glass of water thrown right in his face.
He makes out the detective’s sneer looming over him.
Alberico Cruz manages to shake his head. After twenty minutes and two shocks he will sign full confessions regarding the assassination of Teotónio de Jesus Policarpo. The president of the Quipapá Rural Workers’ Union. Yes: he tried unsuccessfully to extract an underhanded bribe from him. Yes: they raised their voices. Yes: he shot and wounded him twice and dragged him to the bathtub and finished him off to keep him from talking by slitting his throat with a meat cleaver from the kitchen. Yes: the revolver belonged to the victim and he seized it during a moment of distraction. Then he panicked and threw both weapons used in the crime into the waterway as soon as he left the building. Yes and yes again: he acted alone.
The report with his signature goes directly to the courthouse. Cruz is taken back to his cell.
From L’or de Quipapá. © 2013 by Hubert Tézenas. Translation © 2016 by Allison M. Charette. All rights reserved.