Cheap literary thrills at a price that’s not too polpudo.
I am constantly on the lookout for something decent and not too expensive to read in New World Lusophone.
Brazil lacks the sort of developed publishing and book distribution industry that produces, for example, the likes of Penguin editions or those cheap newsstand thrillers you buy to read on the Acela “bullet train” to Boston — a trip that that always takes a lot longer than the brochure would have you believe.
LP&M, for example, fills a niche for pocket classics something like that pioneer by the Penguin imprint after WWII, but its catalog is limited, and for some strange reason (not that I am complaining, mind you — I am a member of the Bukowski Memorial Society for Classic Latin Studies) Charles Bukowski is considered a classic here in Brazil.
Publifolha now has its own line of affordable classics (Machado de Assis, Jorge Amado, Guimarães Rosa) that you buy at newsstands, recalling the business model pioneered by Charles Dickens and early 20th century “popular library” brands in the U.S.
The only comparable “pulp” genre that really sells like hotcakes, in the meantime, are the local equivalents of the Harlequin Romance and its many imitators. “She gazed into the plumber’s deep green eyes and felt a shiver run through her body. The oven mitt dropped from her hand without her even being aware that it had.”
This is mainly an effect of unchecked cartel behavior in the publishing industry, I would venture to guess. The Editora Abril, for example, controls 100% of print distribution in São Paulo, and not a peep out of the competition regulator, CADE, so far. Talk to local newsstand owners, though. You hear stories that remind you of that episode of The Sopranos in which the boys from the Bing try to extract protection money from a Starbucks. And worse.
I will have to see if there is anything on the CADE docket on the matter, though.
My wife, the short story hunger artist, will very likely be interested in this book. She has a mania for anthologies of genre fiction (her novel in progress involves UFOs and the forbidden dance, the lambada, among other colorful subjects.) And at R$20 for Vol. II, the price is notably reasonable by local standards.
Therefore I translate, draft-quality, the following review from the online Terra Magazine, which lives on the Terra (Brasil) Web portal and often has interesting things to say.
Roberto de Sousa Causo
Translated by C. Brayton
Pulp Fiction, Vol. I. Samir Machado de Machado, ed. Porto Alegre: Editora Fósforo, 2007, 131 pp. Cover art by Gisele Oliveira.
In literary terms, “pulp” refers to fiction printed on cheap paper, specializing in different genres whose common interest is to engaging the attention and play on the emotions of readers who are not afraid of a little adventure or melodrama, of the sensational or the marvelous. In Brazil in recent years, the notion of pulp fiction as a set of literary strategies and qualities has been revived and defended, becoming a sort of term of negotiation on the Brazilian speculative literature scene. Oddly, this is true not only in Brazil but in other countries as well.
What is so odd about that?
This week, we take a look at some examples in an attempt to understand this trend a little better.
Samir Machado de Machado, whom we interviewed here a couple of weeks back, has forced the issue with the publication of Pulp Fiction, Vols. 1 and 2, the first serial anthology of original Brazilian speculative fiction. He defines it, in his preface to Volume I, as “a collective efforts whose intention is … to promote and stimulate a speculative literature whose only agenda is to entertain the reader”, abandoning all “pedantic pretensions to assigning a greater signficance to fiction”. “What we really want”, he writes, “is, as American writer Michael Chabon says, ‘to blow the reader’s mind.’”.
The book contains 17 short stories, 16 by Brazilian authors and one rescued from the “pulp”archives of H.P. Lovecraft — whose presence signals the preponderance of horror stories in this, the first volume in the series. That is a lot to get done in 131 pages, even with the two-column layout that emulates the format of the old pulp magazines. The result is a series of very short sort stories whose brevity makes it difficult to generate the overheated emotional involvement typical of pulp fiction.
“That Man Who Created Fables”, by Samir himself, opens the book with a story written in the first person, but with an objective and authoritative tone, about a couple, the Richmonds, who conduct genetic experiments to produce the mythological beats of legends. The story provides no hard science (or economics) to explain these experiments, but works well on the symbolic and tragic levels, with echoes of The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) by H.G. Wells. It is a bit too short, given the complexity of the plot and the degree of reader involvement it is aiming for.
“Flesh”, by Guilherme Smee, recalls the zombie movies of George Romero and Dan O’Bannon, from which it draws freely, as though the situation it recounts – a man wakes up in a wrecked apartment with a strange hunger – were a sequel to those films.
“Linguistics”, by Rodrigo Rosp, makes the best use of the limited space available. It is a non-supernatural horror story, written in the first person, which focuses closely on the subject it addresses: The mutual fascination of a linguist and a young women with a talent for oral sex. The tongue is the heart of his relationship with Diana (who takes her name from the goddess of the hunt). The prose is able and the ending is effective.
Unfortunately, the old joke about the “cunning linguist” does not translate well into Portuguese. But you get the idea.
Somewhat obliquely titled, “Cosmology”, by Marcelo Juchen, falls into the fantasy genre: It ably describes the constant itching its protagonist suffers in one of his ears. It itches night and day. In time, it emerges that there is something in that ear — something surprising and absurd. The first-person narrative display perfect timing and does not suffer from the limits of space.
From Gustavo Faron, “The Interns” is another first-person fantasy tale. The narrator is a student in a private high school in Porto Alegre. He wants to convince others that terrible things are happening there after school, experiments of some kind. He makes his case in an objective, emotionless tone. The story is Kafkaesque in its evocation of a child left unprotected in the institutional world of adulthood. The ending displays an ambiguity between the normal and the absurd that is typical of the fantastic. Very good story, but hardly an example of pulp fiction.
Horror having to do with food is a frequent theme in this anthology. It shows up in “Hunger by Day, The Dog By Night”, by Sergio Napp, a third-person narrative. A beggar who survives by eating out of garbage dumps takes shelter in an abandoned house, where he risks becoming dinner for an enormous dog that still lives there. Its style is telegraphic, its narrative logic a little weak.
“The Rat Man”, by Rafel Spinelli, also suffers from problems of logic. It is based on the case of a São Paulo woman who stored up garbage in her home, as the result of a mental illness. Carlos is a young man who lost his parents in an accident on the day he married Marta. Taking up residence in the house of his late parents, he starts hoarding trash, which provides the pretext for a series of grotesque situations which would have driven any normal person, as we suppose Marta to be, to get help before things got to the point they get to. Halfway through, there is a play on words that degenerates into an acronym which, perhaps unintentionally, evokes the English word “slime.”
Rafael Kasper, in “Storm at Coney Island”, writes an atmospheric, somewhat enigmatic horror story about a retired military man with an improbable name, Hammam Fields, who leaves his wife at home during a hurricane and goes out to buy beer. It is the wife’s gaze which, glimpsing a strange face in the famous New York amusement park, discovers a sinister light shining on one of the photos of her husband hanging on the wall. Here, too, there is a mixture of the supernatural and the imaginary, making this more of a pre-pulp story in the fantasy genre.
“Womb”, by Roberta Larini, is about a serial killer who collects human uteri. It alternates between two points of view, the killer’s and that of the cop who investigates the crimes. Not well differentiated in terms of their prose styles, the parallel narrators are also mostly indistinguishable in terms of voice and character. Once again, brief as it is, the narrative is cramped, resulting in a not very convincing story, though one closer to the true pulp ideal.
More monstrous food shows up in “Funghi”, by Luciana Thomé — and in “Rice”, by Annie Piagetti Muller, which is by far the most disgusting, and therefore most viscerally effective, of the stories collected here. Don’t eat any rice and beans before you read it. Both fall into the genre of fantasy or magical realism. A comic variation on the theme is “Liver”, by Silvio Pilau.
“Midnight at the End of the World”, by Fernando Mantelli, written in the third person, mixes the science fiction premise of “the last man on Earth” (or woman, in this case) with cosmic horror: Anna alone survives a virus that decimates the population of the planet. She is then visited by Nyarlathotep, one of Lovecraft’s unspeakable monsters, who comes to torment her — in a childish, irritable tone that is not very appropriate to the content of the story.
The dialog in “The Detour”, by Antônio Xerxenesky, is better-written and contributes more to the action and the atmosphere. A man gives a hitchhiking Goth girl a ride. She says she is the Devil, come to harvest his soul. He plays along and insists that it is he who is, in fact, the Lord of Flies. In the meantime, they wander aimlessly in search of a detour that they never find. A very effective story.
Also excellent is “When They Came”, by Rafael Bán Jacobsen. Science fiction with a note of horror, this is the final food-themed story in the anthology — in this case, another take on the theme of man-eating, in which invading aliens see humans as an enormous quantity of food to be processed. What makes this a good story, however, is the voice of the first-person narrator, who addresses his absent lover.
The best of the Brazilian stories is probably “Voids”, a mainstream short story by Alessandro Garcia, with supernatural overtones embedded in paragraphs written in stream of consciousness style, narrated by a physician vacationing at his country house with his family. After a strange and mysterious incident involving a fire in an out-building (where a man has, it seems, ritually sacrificed a young girl), the narrator and his son start to suffer sinister changes in behavior. You could call it a sort of “Gothic” story, and it reminded me of another work by a Southern author, the final novel by Tabajara Ruas, The Fascination (1996).
The anthology ends with H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Hound,” first published in Weird Tales in 1924, which we assume is the only “genuine article” in the book. Lovecraft, however, had yet to discover his preferred New England setting, and, like some of the Brazilian authors in this anthology, tends to identify supernatural horror with “the English moors,” so to speak. The story, in the first person, is about two grave-robbers. They dig up an amulet, which summons an ancient monster that begins pursuing them. Lovecraft’s prose style is dense and involuted, and in this story, besides taking the first steps toward the construction of the Cthulhu mythology, he reveals sources of inspiration in French symbolism and decadence. The influence of the mainstream on pulp.
The reviewer might have had the good manners to identify the translator of the story. I am assuming it was not published in its original “convoluted” English. –Ed.
Despite the tone of a manifesto adopted in the preface, it is the interaction between mainstream and genre fiction that seems to interest Samir and his colleagues most. In the interview published here, he said that one of his goals was to “mess with any expectation/prejudice the reader may have, and here I have in mind a reader not very familiar with science fiction, as to whether it is ‘high’ or ‘low’.” This is an interesting project — Braulio Tavares, for example, has worked in this mode for years and years, scumbling the boundaries between literary and genre fiction — and represents a unique conception of pulp fiction in the context of Brazilian speculative literature. There are other tasks that I hope he will take on in the future.
This is a series that is worth following, for its editorial quality, which I have praised before, but also for the literary questions it raises. As to the quality of the stories published here, most suffer from the limits of space, and in attempt to overcome that limitation, make constant use of first-person narrative and the intense subjectivity that this technique can bring to a story. Like any anthology, there is a core of very good stories, with others that shine more brightly and others that fall short. We will see how the series progresses when we review Volume II.