June 2011

Christopher Merkel

Unamerican

Goodbye, Angel

On Monday, May 2 of this year, the French Canadian separatist party Bloc Québécois was decisively routed in the most recent Canadian federal election. In fact, as the result of an inverse decimation at the hands of Quebec voters which took the Bloc from 47 seats in the Canadian House of Commons to just four, the party forfeited its status as an official party in the federal government, a status that requires the holding of a minimum of 12 seats to maintain. Inspired, no doubt, in part by the power of social media to shape the course of the so called Arab Spring, those Canadians who were dissatisfied with the minority government of the Canadian Conservative Party took to the internet to unseat that government after the House of Commons passed a motion of no confidence against the Conservative plurality in March. When the votes were in, however, Canada had elected a Conservative majority, with the dark horse New Democrats as its official opposition and to the further frustration of the French Canadian dream of official secession.

But, at the same time as French Canada was deciding to delay the recognition of its sovereignty, the world outside of Canada was welcoming the rise of a new French Canadian star. Having successfully guided his second film, Heartbeats, through the critical morass of the festival circuit, Montreal-based writer/director/actor Xavier Dolan was rewarded in late February with a wide theatrical release for his sardonic, witty and (depressingly) insightful-beyond-his-twenty-two-years representation of a passionately detached hipster love triangle. See it. It’s brilliant. I did, and it was Dolan’s film that got me thinking more about French Canada and about how little I knew about its culture; or, I should say, Dolan’s film and an essay that ran in another online literary magazine for the month between the no confidence vote in the Canadian House of Commons and the election that saw the unseating of the Bloc Québécois as an official party in the Canadian government.

It’s bad enough to have to admit poaching an idea from an article in a rival publication, but it’s worse to have to say that my only leads on French Canadian reading material came from that same piece. Still, that essay’s praise of “the margin” was no less compelling for my own admitted paucity of worldliness or inspiration. That’s why we do this writing on the books, no? (An offensively demonstrative iteration of my ignorance.) And so it was that, with the vain hope that I might somehow be of similar inspiration, I abandoned French Canada in its moment of need and started searching the margin for another overlooked niche.

Luckily, the weekend of my abandon coincided with a visit from a friend who introduced me to Chronically Unfeasible, a film from 2000 about the complacent self-adulation of the Brazilian middle class. It was a fantastic inspiration. Portuguese is much less commonly studied than its Latin siblings… and what do most of us know about Brazil except for that it’s about that time of year for photo spreads from Rio to shame us into never showing up there in a bathing suit. It’s that very stereotype that Chronically Unfeasible attempts to dispel, anyway, and so I went to the bookstore and found a book from Brazil, and one that -- fortuitously for my struggle to comply with the demands of marketability -- had been recently translated into English and published in the United States.

After admittig the poach, it can’t be such a big deal to write on a book that was just recently reviewed here in Bookslut, right? Well that’s what’s happening. And it isn’t just for laziness: the lure of The Good-Bye Angel by Ignácio de Loyola Brandão simply proved too enticing to resist, if only -- and here, finally, my rambling approaches a point -- because Brandão began his writing career as a film reviewer, and that his fiction is replete with all manner of movie trivia seemed almost cosmically to justify my coming to choose his book through film.

Clifford Landers has already given us a worthy introduction to the plot of the book (see last month’s issue), so I’ll allow mine to be brief. The Good-Bye Angel takes place in Arealva, a provincial Brazilian town embroiled in constant intrigue and scandal. Its action begins with two deaths and a storm, the latter of which sets the mood for the frenzy that one of the deaths incites among the townspeople. “Who could have killed, and so ferociously, the most beautiful, luscious, funny, strange, crazy, challenging woman in Arealva?” That Manuela’s murder so overshadows Edevair’s self-immolation, a demonstration that the deceased hoped would call attention to the plight of Arealva’s poor, is a sadly ironic testament to the ethos of the town. “Poor people die all the time, at all hours, in every way.” And Edevair, “the human torch,” is all but forgotten as Arealva dredges its past to find out -- or hide -- what it can about Manuela and descends, as a result, into a series of deceptions and killings.

The Good-Bye Angel features a host of other characters, including the titular one, a serial killer who figures prominently in the popular mythology of Arealva. All of the characters are so interconnected that description in brief is impossible, but, luckily, a description of each character isn’t nearly as important as the fact of their interconnectedness. It was clear to me after reading just a couple of dozen pages that I’d need to keep a record of the characters’ names and relationships if I didn’t want to be constantly flipping back through the book for reminders. The character map I drew has “draft one” written above it in parentheses, but I never made a second attempt. Draft one is a mess. Did the Good-Bye Angel kill Manuela? By the time I’d drawn all my arrows and made all of my annotations it hardly seemed to matter. Everyone was complicit, and in everyone’s hand a smoking gun.

More importantly, everyone was lying. After I’d done my best to correctly revise my descriptions of the relationships between all the players, my pages were so blackened that I might as well have not attempted a diagram at all. Every stated allegiance left room for doubt. Verily: “And you, which side are you on?” “My own!” “And which side is that?” “The side of money.” Elsewhere: “I kill because I feel like it, for the game, for pleasure.” And that mood is infectious. At times, the tone and the pace of Brandão’s realization of Arealva had me wanting to write something incendiary, accusatory and speculative just for the sake of it. The town is a living, full color tabloid, and the townspeople devour it, devour themselves to feed “the soul of an elite that reeks of the suburbs but takes on aristocratic airs by exhibiting its domus aurea.” Who has time for the likes of Edevair? It’s all too easy to ignore the gaps in the record when the flashbulbs are popping.

But those gaps were what intrigued me most about The Good-Bye Angel. As the information he makes available to his characters is limited by both circumstance and intentional mistruths, Brandão keeps himself from ever drawing a complete picture of the goings on that precipitated the murder of Manuela. What we are given by the author we’re also asked to doubt. His sources are unreliable. So, like the characters in the book, we try perhaps to temper our helplessness by getting in on the action: positioning ourselves in front of the camera, picking up a gun, or, say, writing an essay that attempts to marginalize an author in order to have had something to say on literature in the margin.  

Certainly, the discussion of the narcissism that has come to typify the age of modern media isn’t unique to Brandão. His story itself bears noteworthy similarities to The She-Devil in the Mirror by Horacio Castellanos Moya, a book that follows the internal monologue of a self-absorbed socialite through the corrupt inner circles of San Salvador in the aftermath of her best friend’s murder. Brandão did write is book five years before Castellanos Moya wrote his (in Spanish) in 2000, although The She-Devil in the Mirror appeared in translation in the United States two years before The Good-Bye Angel. Is that saying something? Yes and no, I suppose, since it’s another way of acknowledging that we’re working with a spotty record. Just as with the dubious sources in The Good-Bye Angel, we’re all of us at the mercy of what the translators decide to share, whether that be from a commonly studied language or otherwise.

And at the same time, the thematic elements common to both of those books aren’t limited to foreign literature either. Insofar as it was the United States that pioneered the style of late stage capitalism responsible for the physical and socioeconomic development of Arealva (“exemptions for industries, free land for banks, concessions for construction of buildings of more than fifteen stories. With the growth, new industries flocked in with blinding speed. The rich area of town became middle class and then lower middle”), we should be able to find more than enough of the same in English.

So why Brandão? Simply put, because he was there when I went looking. Literally. He was right there on the shelf reserved for books by South American authors, and I couldn’t remember ever having read a novel from Brazil. Plus, as someone says in Chronically Unfeasible, “the future of the world is what Brazil is today,” and that line seemed to promise a surefire way of tying everything neatly together in the end, seamlessly and everything coherent. No gaps. In other words, I felt like it. Fortunately, the town of Arealva was an accommodating accomplice, lending me the credence of its “secret connection between facts.” Had Brandão only turned out to be more of a fringe element I could have pulled this all off without anyone suspecting my motivations. I’m sure that Xavier Dolan enjoys having his name mentioned as much as anyone, even if it’s just being dropped as a red herring. And the state of politics in Quebec? It was believable. What’s more un-American than Canada in French?

The truth is, it was nostalgia. Nostalgia and pique. They killed bin Laden and I was overcome with an inexplicable wistfulness for the harried day that I spent in the São Paulo airport on September 13, 2001, wondering whether my flight to New York was going to depart as scheduled. That was before all of the outside advertisements came down. I haven’t been back to Brazil since. I wonder if it’s still commanding the future. I should have taken the ten grand that the one businessman at the airport offered me for my ticket. He’d probably balk at knowing that someone had relegated his country to the margin. He probably knows a dozen girls like Manuela. I regret not making more of an effort to learn Portuguese, although I did learn a certain secret greeting for the initiated. Entertained? See? You’ve already forgotten Edevair.