For the next several weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.
The Taker and Other Stories by Rubem Fonseca, translated from the Portuguese by Clifford Landers. (Brazil, Open Letter)
The Taker and Other Stories by Rubem Fonseca — the one Open Letter title to make the Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist — was one of the first titles that we signed on. (And just to clarify, no one affiliated with Open Letter voted for any OL titles, and won’t when it comes to the shortlist either.)
In the summer of 2007, a few years after receiving a National Endwoment for the Arts Translation Fellowship to work on a Fonseca story project, Clifford Landers e-mailed me the fully translated manuscript for what became The Taker and Other Stories. Ever since reading High Art and Vast Emotions & Imperfect Thoughts I had been interested in finding out more about Fonseca and his work.
It’s a bit tricky to find out more about Fonseca himself. He’s a notorious recluse (although he was very quick to respond to my initial e-mail about publishing his work), and is friends with Thomas Pynchon. (Which, I think, is how the Pynchon quote on the cover of our book came about. I found out about it when David Kipen, Director of Literature at the NEA and Pynchon fanatic, directed me to the Portuguese version on this site. Although I feel like I should bend the truth and tell everyone we got this from The Man Himself. Now the amazing Stewart O’Nan quote we did get . . . )
The work itself is a bit easier. Fonseca’s published eight novels, and is the author of numerous short stories (only some of which are included in this collection). He received the Juan Rulfo Award in 2003 (since renamed), and as mentioned above, a couple of his books were published in English back some years ago. His most famous literary creation is probably Mandrake, a cynical and amoral lawyer who is the basis of an HBO series of the same name.
This book was the first collection of Fonseca’s stories to be published in English. Which is somewhat surprising, since in his native Brazil, Fonseca’s short stories are what really made his reputation. (But as almost every editor in the U.S. and UK will tell you, “short stories don’t sell.” And the battle between sales and art rages on . . .)
The stories themselves are frequently violent. In the title story, a young man is pushed to grander and more destructive acts of violence thanks in part to his new girlfriend. “Night Drive,” the full text of which is available here, starts so peacefully, until the narrator goes out driving to unwind . . .
Fonseca’s depictions of the seedier side of Rio are amazing, but not all of his stories are filled with crimes. One of my personal favorites is “The Enemy,” a story about a middle-aged man thinking about the time he tried to reconnect with his high school friends to reminisce about when Roberto flew and Ulpiniano the Gentle was resurrected only to see how everyone had moved on, and remembered nothing of that mystical time. It’s a heartbreaking story, and one that made me decide that we really had to publish this collection.
“The Eleventh of May” is a funny and haunting story about an insurrection in a somewhat surreal nursing home, and “The Notebook” is a funny, and bit misogynistic, story about a man who keeps a notebook detailing all his “conquests.”
Overall, the stories in this collection are quite varied, and make up a great introduction to the fictional worlds of one of Brazil’s greatest writers.
Rubem Fonseca’s The Taker and Other Stories continues to get some really good coverage, including two recent reviews at The Front Table and The National.
The Front Table is Seminary Co-op’s online newsletter/review magazine. It’s been around in one form or another for almost two decades, and the current variation is really impressive, with great reviews of interesting books and a Editors Speak section that’s really interesting. Oh, and a great review by Stan Izen of The Taker:
I am a good Hyde Park liberal: I argue vigorously on the side of equality for all and I donate monthly to Doctors Without Borders. Still, I really have no idea of the depth of despair suffered by the abandoned lonely, the poorly cared for elderly, and those bereft of hope and opportunity. Reading Rubem Fonseca’s new collection, The Taker and Other Stories, is a short walk through these foreign neighborhoods. Fonseca’s writing is rough; many of his characters are angry and disaffected, and they assuage their rage, not by brooding in their rooms and writing poetry, but by brutally murdering those they see as having everything they don’t. The reading is often upsetting but it is also revelatory, and that is the thrill of reading these stories. [. . .]
I used to read to find myself, now I read to get out of myself. Fonseca’s shocking, funny, thoughtful, fanciful stories electrify the emotions and disturb the reader. Kafka is correct, as usual, when he says: A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul. Fonseca’s writing does exactly that, in spades.
I want to give it a bit more time before getting too excited, but I have hopes that the Arts Section of Abu Dhabi’s The National could be the new New York Sun. I mean hell, they have Ben Lytal writing for them:
The Brazilian author Rubem Fonseca writes with a violence that his peers – writers of postmodern crime fiction – eschew. Think of Haruki Murakami, who has used noir plot devices to give structure and grit to adolescent dream narratives. Or Michael Chabon, who has reimagined Jewish-American history through the lens of detective fiction. Or Fonseca’s co-linguist, Jose Saramago, who in some of his recent novels has been writing like Paul Auster, making the mystery novel a vehicle for philosophical thought experiments.
None of these other authors goes to crime fiction for blood. Though some maintain an interest in evil, the consistent trend in highbrow crime fiction has been away from the dark alley and into the cerebral stratosphere. Fonseca couldn’t differ more. Vital to his stories is the troubling moment when the slashing crimes of his characters become too palpable and, to the engrossed reader, almost participatory.
It’s a very detailed, very enthusiastic review . . . But beyond the nice attention for one of our books, I’m just thrilled that Ben Lytal is back reviewing!
This week’s Time Out New York has a great four star review — out of six, but still, a four-star review — by Anderson Tepper of Rubem Fonseca’s The Taker and Other Stories.
In short, fragmented vignettes that ring with the hard-boiled edge of crime fiction. Fonseca, 83, has charted his own territory, a Third World nightmare of random violence and anomie, festering rage and class resentment. In stories like “The Taker” and “Happy New Year,” assassins pick out their prey among wealthy partygoers before casually and remorselessly cutting them down to size. (Literally, too—this book is rife with scenes of mutilation, in which body parts often end up stuffed into boxes and briefcases.)
The latest Open Letter Newsletter is now available online.
As an update: the Vilnius Poker giveaway is now closed. We received a lot of submissions and will be sending out e-mails to the three winners (and all other entries) this afternoon.
Another book featured in the newsletter is Fonseca’s The Taker and Other Stories, which was recently reviewed on Literary License, where Gwen Dawson had this to say:
The Taker and Other Stories, by Brazilian author Rubem Fonseca, is a collection of short stories examining death in all its forms: murder, suicide, road kill (animal and human), medical emergencies, sickness, and old age. One protagonist laments, “Man is a solitary animal, an unhappy animal, and only death can fix us.” This thought echoes throughout this collection.
It was also reviewed by Nancy Yanes Hoffman:
Although Fonseca steadfastly refuses to discuss the meaning of his stories, he once said of himself, “Perhaps I am ‘The Taker.’ ” He also says, “A writer should have the courage to show what most people are afraid to say.” Fonseca’s bitterly grim stories, mostly in the first person, show the skull beneath the skin in Rio’s violent world. Tough to read, they analyze Rio’s gratuitous criminality as a symptom of universal hatred among people of every class.
This month there are two Open Letter books available through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program: The Pets by Bragi Olafsson and The Taker and Other Stories by Rubem Fonseca. So any and all LibraryThing users should request a copy.
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Spoiler alert: acclaimed writer Stefan Zweig and his wife Lotte kill themselves at the end of Lauren Seksik’s 2010 novel, The Last Days.
It’s hard to avoid spoiling this mystery. Zweig’s suicide actually happened, in Brazil in 1942, and since then. . .