The mass media, print and video, stole their best tricks from literature. A few contemporary novelists are now returning the favor. The most celebrated example is Umberto Eco, whose “Name of the Rose” – a hybrid medieval thriller, adventure novel and erudite entertainment – proves that intelligence, learning and esthetic experimentation can be yoked with 19th century feuilleton devices: suspense, digression, violence, outrageous coincidence and spectacular historical panoramas.
In Latin America literature, the writer Manuel Puig exemplifies this stealing from the mass media. Mr. Puig was inspired by cinema – as were Guilhermo Cabrera Infante and, to a lesser degree, Carlos Fuentes. The author of “Kiss of the Spider Woman”, Mr. Puig found in films not only themes and an inexhaustible supply of myths but, more important, a narrative technique. Like screenplays, his books – simultaneously visual and spoken – make rapid jumps to the past and the future. Their cinematic allusions constitute a utopian alternative, a fantasy world where people can escape the degradation of their lives.
During the 1960’s and 70’s many novelists resigned themselves to the fact that movies, television and cheap literature had monopolized grand passions, extraordinary destinies and action. They proudly announced that the only adventure permissible for literary creation was language and locked themselves away to invent new words, experiment with time and pulverize grammar. In some countries (France, for example) the novel virtually became a lesser branch of linguistics or semiotics. Naturally, these fictions ran the risk of tumbling down the formalist hill and ending up at the bottom without readers – except the heroic students of Roland Barthes or Umberto Eco, professors whose lucubrations were much more interesting than the book about which they theorized.
The Nobel Prize awarded to Claude Simon, one of the standard-bearers of the linguistic novel, coincides with the death of this form. The case of Umberto Eco, who escaped from semiotics to write a delightful, macabre melodrama, is not unique. That novelists have finally decided to fight the mass media for the privilege of telling stories, that true literature is again going out on the street to load up on adventures, is all to the good. It’s the only way possible for the vast reading public and real writing to meet. Which, of course, is just what they did in the 19th century, when the great novelists had no compunction about admitting that one of their main obligations was to entertain the reader.
The Brazilian Rubem Fonseca, author of “High Art”, is one of those contemporary writers who have absconded from the library to create high-quality literature with materials and techniques stolen from mass culture. He brilliantly justifies that old proverb, “Set a thief to catch a thief”. Before publishing this book in Brazil in 1983, Mr. Fonseca, a lawyer and writer of film scripts, had brought out several collections of short stories and a detective novel. But “High Art”, which has been translated into several languages, is the first of his works to achieve international recognition.
This attention is well deserved because in addition to being an amusing detective novel with all the devices typical of the genre and being accessible to all readers, it is also elegant and subtle. Its microcosm of murderers, drug traffickers, prostitutes and ominous capitalists contains an ironic kaleidoscope of historical, literary and mythological allusions. These supplementary elements dignify the story and give it another esthetic dimension, which parodies the detective genre.
Those two readings of the novel are not mutually exclusive. The perspicacious reader will quickly discover this ironic system of references, but will not find that this addiction to the main stories reduces his interest in it. Yet another proof that the general tendency of the novel – to tell exciting stories and narrate adventures – dovetails perfectly with the most demanding intellectual experimentation.
The protagonist and narrator of “High Art” is a criminal lawyer from Rio de Janeiro, known to us only by his comic-strip nickname, Mandrake. His character derives from classical detective novels and films: he’s cynical and sexually promiscuous, amoral and likable. As a detective, he’s a complete failure because he never solves any of the mysteries that confront him. The solutions fall into his hands, either thanks to a third party or merely by chance. When he decides to get even with two gunmen who wounded him and sodomized his girlfriend, he fails. Though Mandrake dedicates himself body and soul to learning the art of knife-fighting (about which the novel contains a prodigious quantity of technical and erudite information), the two men he intends to knife escape. Only fate, one or Mr. Fonseca’s main characters, manages to even the scores.
Nevertheless, though his only successes take place in bed, we never perceive Mandrake as a failure because of his skill as a narrator. He tells the story of “High Art”, but he speaks in the first person only about the events he witnesses. Otherwise he is an omniscient, third-person narrator who occasionally lapses into the first person in sarcastic asides, just to remind the reader he’s still there. Mandrake’s justification for these shifts in point of view is that what he does not see with his own eyes he learns later from witnesses or from documents that he is lucky enough to find. He also informs us that he does not always tell the things he learned secondhand with complete objectivity, at times he allows his intuition and fantasy to fill in the blanks and color certain facts.
It may be Mandrake’s sensibility that gives this society of pimps and prostitutes its unusual glitter. The characters have a bizarre habit of uttering Latin epithets when they want to be graphic; they also have a mania for ancient Greek. This Grecophilia is so great that by the end of the novel it supplies the only coherent explanation for the fate of the book’s major villain. The multimillionaire Thales Lima Prado, the product of an incestuous rape and the head of a vast drug empire, dies mysteriously – a knife thrust into his armpit. It appears he planned his suicide in order to emulate Ajax in Greek mythology.
But to summarize “High Art”, which is accurately and efficiently translated from the Portuguese by Ellen Watson, is to impoverish it because its true value lies in its style, not in its action. This is what marks the difference between true literature and pulp literature: in pulp literature the writer’s imagination is totally bound up in the story, while in true literature it is devoted equally to what he tells and how he tells it.
The most picturesque character in the novel is a black dwarf named Zakkai, a k a Iron Nose, who leads a band of thugs. During his rapid ascent from the ratholes of suburban Rio to the offices of the most respectable capitalists, he conceals his identity by working as a circus dwarf. Another fascinating character is Hermes, theoretician, practitioner and high priest of knife-fighting. He dies in disgrace, cut down by a machete wielded by an amateur. Among the female characters, the best is an unnamed prostitute endowed with a horrifying vagina dentata – something Freud consigned to the realm of fantasy.
But the reader of “High Art” never has the impression that Mr. Fonseca is merely playing intellectual games engaging in rhetorical acrobatics. The book does that too, of course. It is a parody of detective fiction, a gleeful caricature of its excesses and unrealities, a carnival in which all its devices are put on display. But it’s carried out with such good will, with such expertise and good humor, that its underlying irony is neutralized. The reader never loses interest or stops believing in what he’s told, although, often, the skill and mischief of the narrator inspire more respect than the yarn he spins.
Perhaps this is the “high art” of the title: telling a story as incredible and excessive as this one with the Machiavellian cunning necessary to make us believe it all and find it quite natural.
Outros textos sobre Rubem Braga e sua obra
Um Camões sem problema
Rubem Fonseca e seu duplo
Uma existência sem bússola
Rubem Fonseca busca o sonho de Wagner
Another Brazilian Bombshell
Novo livro de Rubem Fonseca traz as ‘vastas emoções’ cinematográficas
Rubem Fonseca, precioso. Num pequeno livro (O Cobrador)
O cotidiano na arte
Os anti-heróis de Rubem Fonseca
A escada da glória