Rubem Fonseca

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Rubem Fonseca

Rubem Fonseca (born 1925) was Brazil's most highly regarded author of the late 20th century, with a string of critical and popular successes that combined the conventional mystery/thriller format with a sophisticated, polished prose style and a focus on urban alienation.

Rubem Fonseca became one of Brazil's most widely read authors both because of his immense skill at creating believable characters and situations and because his themes addressed an urban population daily more distant from itself. Unlike many Latin American authors who fail to attract a following abroad, Fonseca was a thoroughly cosmopolitan writer who eschewed the exotic or picturesque—a fact that may explain his widespread popularity in Germany, France, and, increasingly, the English-speaking world.

In addressing the catholic human conditions of loneliness, alienation, and frustration, Fonseca was both a Brazilian writer and a universal writer. Using the outward trappings of the thriller and the detective story to frame his narrative, with hommages to the hard-boiled genre of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, Fonseca was nevertheless deeply rooted in his own culture, accessible to both the casual reader and the professional critic.

Fonseca could easily be mistaken for a sensationalist seeking facile titillation in lurid violence. His themes and characters often dealt with the netherworld of pathology lying just beneath the surface of workaday lives, and his subject matter included such bizarre topics as "sexual coupling" contests, transvestites, death squads, professional hit men, and psychotic killers masquerading as humdrum businessmen whose lives of quiet desperation are punctuated by episodes of random, motiveless murder.

However unsavory, Fonseca's world was a metaphor for society, especially Brazilian society in the dying years of the 20th century. That he spoke to a large segment of the reading public can be seen in the runaway popularity of his three novels published between 1983 and 1988, all of which rose to the top of the best-seller list. He shared with Jorge Amado the rare position of one of the few Brazilian novelists whose eagerly awaited works were published in mass printings in a nation where a normal press run is 3,000 copies.

A Grande Arte (1983; translated as High Art, 1987) is a revenge story that demonstrates Fonseca's skill at revealing character through action. The protagonist is a lawyer who may be willing to skirt the limits of legality for a client but whose loyalty is unshakable. When his lover Berta is raped, he sets out after her assailant, vowing to use the same weapon, a knife, that had been employed in the crime. In the end he is thwarted by the one foe he cannot overcome— himself.

In Bufo & Spallanzani (1986; translated 1990) the narrator is a novelist whose twin obsessions—fornicating and eating—lead to complications when one of his lovers, the wife of a millionaire, is found dead in her car. (Among the novel's delights is Fonseca's playful and highly original mix of sexual and food images.) He becomes the target both of police investigation by a dogged inspector and of the woman's husband, furious upon discovering he has been cuckolded. This thoroughly post-modern work combines sex, violence, concepts of aesthetics, and metafiction in a witty black comedy.

Vastas Emoções e Pensamentos Imperfeitos (1988; Vast Emotions and Imperfect Thoughts) examines the despair of a film director whose lover, Ruth, has committed suicide. Seeking escape, he accepts a West German offer to film Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry in Europe, but not before he unwittingly becomes enmeshed in a mystery involving stolen gems and murder. In typical Fonseca fashion, the two themes come together in an emotionally satisfying manner at the end. Along the way, the reader learns a great deal about diamonds, Babel, and filmmaking.

For all his success as novelist, Fonseca first gained critical and popular recognition as a short story writer. His two best known collections, Feliz Ano Novo (Happy New Year, 1975) and O Cobrador (The Taker, 1979), display a mastery of technique and concision of style that in themselves would guarantee him a place in the front ranks of contemporary Brazilian authors. The title story in Feliz Ano Novo, which tells of a gang of bank robbers who invade a private party on New Year's Eve to rape and kill, was so graphically intense and thematically shocking that the book was suppressed by the military dictatorship; it was not until 1989 that Fonseca won a court case clearing him of offenses against "morality and good customs." The title story in O Cobrador, a journey into the mind of a psychopathic serial killer, is arguably even more stunning. "Ship Catrineta" is a black comedy about an urbane, sophisticated family in Rio de Janeiro who happen to be cannibals. Fonseca's only straightforward humorous tale is the hilarious "Lonelyhearts," in which a former police reporter goes to work as the advice columnist for a women's newspaper. In 1994 he published his sixth novel O Selvegan da Opera (The Savage of the Opera), which tells the story of opera composer Antonio Carlos Gomes (1836-1896).

The most reclusive of contemporary writers, Fonseca was often called the Greta Garbo of Brazil. Though he did not grant interviews, he could frequently be spotted soon after sunrise jogging along the beach in the Leblon section of Rio de Janeiro, where he lived with his wife Théa. Fonseca steadfastly refrained from commenting on the meaning of his writing, preferring to let his work speak for itself. He did, however, remark at one point, "Perhaps I am the Taker."

Despite his sometimes grisly themes and a relentlessly unsentimental treatment of his subject matter, Fonseca was to his intimates a warm, approachable individual with a delightful sense of humor and boundless joy for living.

Rubem Fonseca was born in 1925 in the state of Minas Gerais and lived in Rio de Janeiro from the age of seven. He and his wife, a former translator of English, had three children. He obtained a graduate degree in the United States and was a writer in residence in West Germany in 1988. In the late 1980s he became a computer enthusiast, composing his later works at the keyboard of his IBM-clone.

Further Reading

Fonseca's novels available in English include High Art, translated by Ellen Watson (1986); Bufo & Spallanzani, translated by Clifford Landers (1990); and Vast Emotions and Imperfect Thoughts, translated by Clifford Landers. His short stories have appeared in publications ranging from Latin American Literary Review ("The Ship Catrineta") and Brazil/Brazil ("Lonelyhearts") to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine ("Night Drive"). A brief biography, which also details some of his stories, can be found in World Authors 1985-1990 (1995). □