4.5 out of 5: 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. Fonseca approaches his morbid subject with precision and without a trace of sentimentality. Even the story about the death of a beloved dog, Betsy, is told with such macabre details that it’s more likely to result in nausea than tears:
[The dog] exhaled nine identical sighs, her tongue hanging outside her mouth. Then she began to beat her stomach with her legs, as she would occasionally do, only more violently. Immediately afterward, she became immobile. The man ran his hand lightly over Betsy’s body. She stretched and extended her limbs for the last time. She was dead. Now, the man knew, she was dead.Many of these stories feature first-person narrators that describe their brutal actions with a nonchalance that heightens the horror. In Night Drive, a businessman unwinds after a stressful day at the office by hitting pedestrians with his car: “She only realized I was going for her when she heard the sound of the tires hitting the curb. I caught her above the knees, right in the middle of her legs, a bit more toward the left leg—a perfect hit.”
Fonseca crafts each story with extreme care. In The Notebook, Fonseca sprinkles clichés throughout the beginning of the story. Indeed, the very premise of the story—a notebook in which the protagonist records the names of the women he has slept with—is a cliché. Just as the reader is about to dismiss the story as unoriginal, the protagonist admits his fondness for clichés (“I always have a good cliché up my sleeve”), and the dynamic changes. With Fonseca’s writing, no detail is unnecessary, and no turn of phrase is unthinking. The Taker is powerful, deeply unsettling, and uniquely live in a way that only stories about death can be.
The Taker is the third publication of Open Letter Books, the University of Rochester’s new non-profit publishing house for works in translation. For my post raving about this new press, go here.