Author, Book review, Books in translation, Brazil, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Raduan Nassar, Setting

‘A Cup of Rage’ by Raduan Nassar

A Cup of Rage by Raduan Nassar

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 45 pages; 2015. Translated from the Portuguese by Stefan Tobler.

Brazilian writer Raduan Nassar’s A Cup of Rage was first published in 1978, but this is a new translation by Stefan Tobler, whom may be familiar to some of you from the independent publisher & Other Stories, and it tells the tale, in just seven chapters, of a bitter, almost violent, argument between two lovers — an older unnamed man and a younger woman — after a night of heated passion at the man’s remote farm house, and is written in such a breathless manner (each chapter is composed of one long sentence, meaning there are just seven sentences in total across the 45 pages that make up this classic novella) that I came to the end in about an hour but then felt I needed to reread it to pick up on all the things I hadn’t processed first time round, and yet it’s not a complicated story to follow, it’s actually quite simple and goes something like this: the man and the woman meet at his house for an evening of erotic sex (you have been warned) but their raunchy rendezvous comes to an abrupt end the next morning when the man erupts into a rage over what appears to be a minor issue unrelated to the woman whom he then verbally attacks when he sees her chatting to his maid (or is she laughing at him?), so the woman retaliates, which is a natural reaction, and then the full extent of the man’s latent rage is rained down upon her, but she gives as good as she gets because she can’t let anything go (and why should she?), and then, when things reach a climax, the man’s rage morphs into sexual teasing, which excites the woman, who then discovers the man’s motives aren’t as obvious as she first thought, and by the time the story ends you realise this is a misogynistic tale about power, domination, cruelty and desire, one that leaves a slightly bitter taste in the mouth, but which demonstrates that even the most experimental of fiction can be just as compelling and intriguing and as deeply unsettling as the most conventional of psychological dramas, and I would recommend reading it if you are looking for something challenging and different, but don’t expect to like it — I kind of hated it but admired the style and respected Nassar’s bravura enough to want to read more by him.

Author, Book review, Brazil, Fiction, James Scudamore, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Heliopolis’ by James Scudamore

Heliopolis

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 288 pages; 2010.

Is there a word for the male equivalent of sassy? If so, it should definitely apply to James Scudamore’s Heliopolis, an easy-to-read black comedy with a hard-hitting edge, that was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2009.

Adopted by a very rich man

The story is set in São Paulo, Brazil, a violent city split into two very distinct classes: the rich, who live in high-rise apartments and commute by helicopter, and the poor, who live in favelas and shanty towns, and provide manual labour and unskilled services for the wealthy.

Into this sharply divided society we meet our narrator, 27-year-old Ludo, who has a rather cosseted, if somewhat vacuous, job at a PR/advertising agency in the heart of the city. But Ludo, who wants for nothing, is lucky to be in his current position.

As a child, he was plucked from a favela with his mother and given a new life by a rich man, Zé Fischer Carnicelli (“a supermarketeer with political aspirations”), and his English wife, Rebecca. Ludo was raised with Zé and Rebecca’s only child, Melissa, while his mother became their cook at the farm — “palm hearts, bananas and a small Brahma beef herd” — a luxury retreat used by Zé on the weekends.

Look what can happen in a generation: my mother lived in a flimsy shack, and I have my own place and car, and I can speak and read and write better than most of the playboys you’ll meet, because I paid attention in school. But this is no normal case study. What happened to me does not happen. And unless you’re extremely good with a football, it definitely does not happen if you are male.

When the book opens we discover that Ludo is having an incestuous affair with his “adopted” sister Melissa, who is a lifestyle journalist (“she only seems to write about the kind of lifestyle that very few — herself among them — can afford”). Melissa lives in an extravagant penthouse suite with her husband, Ernesto, an anthropologist, who is absent for long periods doing research for his doctorate. When Ludo begins receiving anonymous and abusive voice messages on his phone at work, he suspects Ernesto is the culprit.

But then life takes on an even more dangerous twist when Ludo is given a dubious work assignment that takes him back to the favela from which he has turned his back.

Fast-paced narrative

The central core of the novel — and what makes it work as a page turner — is the very real danger that Ludo feels as the story progresses. He may have been rescued by Zé, who “hasn’t been down to street level in the city for over fifteen years”, but he is still very much aware of what life is like in the favelas — desperate, difficult and violent.

Indeed, the book paints a far from flattering portrait of São Paulo, a city of 20 million people, where life is cheap and “nothing gets in the way of commerce”.

The metropolis as a place of menace, where people are seemingly indifferent to danger and death, is evident from the start of the novel, when Ludo has a run in with a boy who is later shot by a security guard.

The women scream. The victim screams. The cars on the flyover continue
to lurch and blare. Just one more frenzied city drama in a thousand, to
be forgotten and absorbed into the oozing traffic, and perhaps mentioned
in passing over lunch. […] When the guard gets out his phone to call
the police, I look at the pink car-park ticket in my hand and realise
there’s nothing more I can do but get to work. I’m late enough as it is.

On the whole, Heliopolis is a fast-paced, often comedic read that delves into thriller territory. It also explores several intriguing themes that provide the book with some intellectual weight — the importance of food within cultures and classes, for instance, and the glaring gap between the rich and the poor.

I found it entertaining and illuminating, and I loved Ludo’s engaging, often smug, occasionally contrite voice. My thanks to KevinfromCanada for the recommendation.

Author, Book review, Brazil, Corsair, crime/thriller, Fiction, Ira Levin, Publisher, Setting, South America

‘The Boys from Brazil’ by Ira Levin

Boys-from-Brazil

Fiction – Kindle edition; Corsair; 288 pages; 2011.

Ira Levin’s  The Boys from Brazil is a classic thriller first published in 1976. Some of you may better know it as a film, starring Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier, which was nominated for three Academy Awards in 1978. I have not seen the film, and I didn’t really know anything of the book’s plot, other than it was about Nazis. I picked it up for 99 pence earlier this year and thought I would save it for a time when I was looking for something fast-paced and easy to read — such as a long-haul flight.

Mysterious murder plot hatched by fugitive Nazis

The story, which opens in September 1974, is based around a mysterious plot hatched by a group of Nazi war criminals now hiding out in South America. The head Nazi is none other than Dr Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death”, who carried out horrible experiments on inmates at Auschwitz during the Second World War. In a secret meeting, held in a Japanese restaurant in Sao Paulo, Brazil, he tells the gathering:

‘It’s the most important operation the Organization has ever undertaken, and “important” is a thousand times too weak a word to describe it. The hope and the destiny of the Aryan race lie in the balance. No exaggeration here, my friends; literal truth: the destiny of the Aryan folk – to hold sway over the Slays and the Semites, the Black and the Yellow – will be fulfilled if the operation succeeds, will not be fulfilled if the operation fails. So “important” isn’t a strong enough word, is it? “Holy”, maybe? Yes, that’s closer. It’s a holy operation you’re taking part in.’

The operation involves murdering civil servants living around the world, on or around their 65th birthdays.

‘Ninety-four men have to die on or near certain dates in the next two and a half years,’ he said, reading. ‘Sixteen of them are in West Germany, fourteen in Sweden, thirteen in England, twelve in the United States, ten in Norway, nine in Austria, eight in Holland and six each in Denmark and Canada. Total, ninety-four. The first is to die on or near October sixteenth; the last, on or near the twenty-third of April, 1977.’

The meeting is secretly taped by a young American journalist, who tips off the Vienna-based “Nazi hunter” Yakov Liebermann. While the pair are on the telephone discussing the matter, the journalist is killed, setting into motion a chain of events which span the globe.

To say much more is impossible without giving away crucial plot spoilers. But what I can say is this: part of the fun in reading this book is trying to figure out why these seemingly unimportant men are to be killed. Are they connected to the Nazi Party in some way? Or have they wronged Mengele in the past? Will Liebermann figure it out before he, too, is murdered by these assassins?

Genre-bending novel

The Boys from Brazil isn’t your average thriller. It has elements of science fiction in it and because it is based on real characters — including Simon Wiesenthal, whom Yakov Liebermann is supposed to represent —  it also feels rooted in “truth”. And the reason for the murder plot, when it is revealed, is chilling to the core.

However, some elements of the story, such as genetic engineering, are slightly outdated now, but I imagine that in the mid-1970s this book must have felt not only fresh and exciting but within the realm of possibility — so many of those Nazi’s were on the run and Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor, had devoted his life to tracking them down and bringing them to justice.

I should also point out that Levin’s prose style is overly simplistic to the point of being dull. That’s not to say he isn’t a cracking storyteller — he is — but to keep the momentum and suspense going in this fast-paced plot, Levin doesn’t worry too much about descriptions or scene setting; he just wants to get to the point. Some people will appreciate this style, others will hate it. I didn’t mind it, although his tendency to hyphenate words — wedding-ringed, wet-darkened shoulders and so on — grated on me after awhile.

All in all, I enjoyed this book — it kept me thoroughly entertained on a flight between Rio de Janeiro and Paris — and you can’t ask much more than that.