Rio de Janeiro is famous for Carnival, excessive partying and the availability of easy sex. With World Cup 2014 well underway in the city, this collection of short stories couldn’t have been better timed to challenge these stereotypes.
Spurred by a desire to show people what it is like “to live, work and grow up here”, editor Toni Marques’ introduction to the Comma Press anthology describes Rio as “a city behind a city, a place where anything goes, a landscape so cruel and violent that any Bossa Nova song lyrics written about it would sound like a joke”.
Throughout The Book of Rio, readers encounter people and characters attempting to claw their way through life. The book opens with an embittered stream-of-consciousness piece, ‘Spare Me Copacabana’ (Cesar Cardoso) in which a transvestite reminisces about life, love and self-defence in a party town on the decline. “Copacabana is made of sand,” she tells us: “It sticks to the body, but slips between the fingers.”
All the ushers knew my name. There aren’t any ushers anymore, and soon there won’t be any cinemas. And who knows when you and I will be finished too, Copacabana? How many Copacabanas have known me? (Cesar Cardoso)
In ‘Lucky Was Sandra’ (Luiz Ruffato), the heroine struggles to escape her working-class background despite her talents and intelligence. The lives of rich and poor overlap in ‘Strangers’ (Sérgio Sant’Anna) and collide in ‘I Love You’ (Patrícia Melo). The ruthlessness of the Carnival industry is exposed in ‘Song of Songs’ (Nei Lopes), where a mocking tone persists even as the story’s subject-matter veers into distinctly uncomfortable territory.
In this collection, women accept that their worth is measured only by short-lived attractiveness and youth. Many of these stories are about the choices they make as a consequence. ‘The Woman Who Slept with a Horse’ (João Ximenes Braga) is a successful young career woman, but so desperate for love she puts her faith in superstition. And the superb, ‘Places, in the Middle of Everything’ (Elvira Vigna) describes a woman resigning herself to the fact that romance is out of reach for “those who lack success and have scant youth left”.
There are also many hilarious lines and comedic moments throughout the book – not least in ‘The Biggest Bridge in the World’ (Domingos Pellegrini), where you can almost hear the narrator’s voice relating the story to his mates over a beer. As in João Gilberto Noll’s ‘Something Urgently’, Pellegrini’s tale takes place during Brazil’s military dictatorship, with its anecdotal style and humour heightening the brutality of the setting through counterpoint. ‘Decembers’ (Marcelo Moutinho) is a gentler look at the past, examining the history of Brazil’s Radio Nacional through a boy’s changing attitude towards his grandfather.
This area was really different, teeming with artists. Orlando Silva, Francisco Alves, Marlene, Linda Batista. We named your sister after Emilinha, one of your grandfather’s favourites, Dad said. I don’t know those singers. Nor do any of my friends. I just know they don’t live here. I think my grandfather is the only one left. (Marcelo Moutinho)
All of the stories in the The Book of Rio are exquisitely written and their award-winning authors are among Brazil’s finest writers. While their styles may vary, all of them are masters: experts on timing, who know how to tease their readers, when to hold back and when to give a little more. Some credit must also be given to the translators, many of whom have lived in Brazil, and all of whom are highly accomplished. For those who are interested, Marques’ introduction provides a valuable potted history of Brazil that includes background on the country’s literary culture and puts many of the stories in context.
At the end of the day, when the World Cup is finished and the teams and fans have long since left Rio de Janeiro, these stories will remain compelling. And I will still be dipping into the ‘Book of Rio’ to reread them – over and over again.