May 2011

Calvin Snyder

fiction

The Good-Bye Angel by Ignácio de Loyola Brandão, translated by Clifford E. Landers

Two deaths and a violent summer storm kick off the wild series of crimes and revelations recounted in Ignácio de Loyola Brandão’s satirical novel The Good-Bye Angel. It’s a book within a book, complete with a fictional author, footnotes and a bibliography. For Brandão, whose novels tend to be unusually structured, such a device is nothing new. Zero, his most celebrated work of fiction, featured diagrams, columns, boxed text and all-caps headlines. By comparison, The Good-Bye Angel at first appears rather conventional. The writing is straightforward, the story easy to follow -- and yet the entire production gradually spirals into a chaotic mess.

On a Saturday night in Arealva, a provincial Brazilian city with a checkered past and a taste for scandal, hundreds of the city’s elite are holed up in a private club, transfixed by the words of the Great Leader of Profitable Knowledge, an evangelist who “purge[s] from their minds any guilt about accumulating wealth, loving money, or lusting after profit.” Meanwhile, Edevair, an old man from the outskirts, immolates himself in the main square. Poor, worn out and tired of mistreatment, he wanted to “make the sacrifice that would cause Brazil to tremble and focus its attention.” But it doesn’t turn out that way. Even the novel -- never mind Brazil -- just briefly notes his fate. No sooner is he engulfed in flames than rain begins falling, extinguishing the fire and leaving behind only a charred stump. The newspapers, lacking a fiery photograph, decide no one will care. Aside from the manner of his death, “the retiree’s tale was all too familiar. It happened every day, with your neighbor, your father-in-law, your mother.” But more to the point, his dramatic suicide is completely overshadowed by the evening’s other death.

The beautiful and mysterious Manuela -- most photographed woman in the city, favorite subject of the tabloids, wife of the corrupt and powerful Antenor -- is found murdered in the same city square. Arealva is shocked. This was the woman who raced around town in a flashy convertible, who once danced in public wearing nothing but a tiny pair of panties and a Cartier watch. Rumor and speculation abound. Who killed her? Was it The Good-Bye Angel, the serial killer “determined to cleanse the earth of filthy people”? Was it her husband, Antenor? The whole city is obsessed with the story -- to such an extent that in subsequent years the following day will be marked on calendars as The Sunday of Manuela.

Proceeding in the style of an investigative journalist, the fictional author chronicles the violent aftermath of Manuela’s death. It’s a messy affair, this chronicle, delving into the city’s past, jumping from character to character, revealing information only to contradict it later, the story unfolding in a series of plot twists worthy of a soap opera. Sex, drugs, murder, blackmail -- you name it, it’s here. Performers include Antenor, Manuela’s cocaine- and prostitute-loving husband; a disgraced gynecologist; a dangerous and powerful billiards hall owner called The Godfather; and Pedro Quimera, an overweight newspaper reporter who stumbles upon what may or may not be stunning revelations concerning all of the aforementioned people.

But the real star of the show, the only constant presence, is Arealva. Everyone else, from Manuela to burned-up Edevair, is ultimately ephemeral, destined to be either forgotten entirely or incorporated into a story about the past that will bear little resemblance to reality. Reinforcing this impression are frequent digressions into Arealva’s mythic history, which survives -- though reluctantly and badly warped -- in the city’s collective memory. “These events,” the fictional author writes in the beginning, “actually took place in Arealva and the city remembers them, even though it refuses to talk about them, just as it avoids speaking of the Hangman, the Terrorists Who Poisoned the Milk, the Bishop Who Went Crazy, or the Lynched Men.”

And then there is this dubious book itself. Accounts conflict. People lie. A character might be passive and witless in one scene, then coldly commit murder in another. And it’s not only the author’s sources who are unreliable. “I acknowledge,” he writes, “that certain (minimal) situations were imagined in order to make the connection between facts that have remained unexplained to the present.” So in the end, after a flood of shocking revelations, it’s hard to know what really happened. And it probably doesn’t matter. The entire production, one suspects, has been a distraction. For as long as the spotlight remains on Arealva’s most glamorous and scandalous denizens, the Edevairs of the city, whose stories are far more relevant, get easily forgotten. But in any case, all of it is already fading hazily into the city mythology.

Disheartening? A bit. But The Good-Bye Angel is written with a levity and humor that almost completely disguise its dark outlook. One could be forgiven for thinking it was just a joke.  

The Good-Bye Angel by Ignácio de Loyola Brandão, translated by Clifford E. Landers
Dalkey Archive Press
ISBN: 1564785947
312 Pages