World Books Review: “Life As It Is” – A Wealth of Fetishes

Brazilian writer Nelson Rodrigues — a master at evoking the humor and pathos of out-of-control libidos.

Life As It Is: Selected Stories
By Nelson Rodrigues. Translated from the Portuguese by Alex Ladd. Host Publications, 314 pages

Reviewed by Bill Marx

No nonsense British philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously described man’s life as it is as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In this hypnotic collection of brusque short stories –- originally written for a weekly newspaper column during the 1950s — Brazilian writer Nelson Rodrigues poignantly and sometimes hilariously illustrates this glum vision through the fated lives of Rio de Janeiro’s middle class, hapless bourgeois puppets whose strings are pulled by a Freudian laundry list of outré sexual hang-ups, psychological insecurities, and self-destructive obsessions.

“Life As It Is” is a tragicomic Gatling gun, its stories perfectly aimed gunshots at the hypocrisies of a Catholic culture.

Usually only about four to five pages long, with minimal characterization and little physical description, Rodrigues’s tales shape tawdry subject matter — incest, infanticide, homicide, fetishes, death wishes –- with mathematical precision, economically serving up memorably corrosive images, from crushed parrots to dead babies in shoeboxes. The contradiction between the clinical and the seamy accounts for the stories’s snub-nosed power, which is limited by their mechanical, almost monomaniacal, focus on perversity.

But once you start reading the collection it is difficult to stop – curiosity grows about how Rodrigues will adroitly package yet another crippling case of infidelity, another death-dealing fetish, another sadistically displaced mania.

In “The Shoebox,” two days before her wedding to her attentive fiancé a young woman, Olivinha, unaccountably feels goose bumps. Her mother dismisses them as pre-marriage nerves, but the chills prove prophetic when an old woman “tiny, scrawny, overly polite” with “the face of a possum” delivers a shoebox to Olivinha. To her horror it contains “a little baby only days old, naked and dead.” After repeated questioning, Gilberto breaks down and confesses that it is his child. The story ends on a typical note of sustained satiric hysteria:

The wedding never took place. Gilberto, who was madly in love, tried to win her back. But every time she saw him, Olivinha doubled over. The mere sight of her ex-groom was enough to summon up the image of the dead angel in the shoebox. First it was only Gilberto. Later all men became loathsome to her and induced nausea. Finally she saw in every woman a possible killer of angels.

The sudden descent into madness – triggered by sexual energies gratified or denied – is the linchpin for many of the stories. Rodrigues’s characters are afflicted, to the point of terminal bedevilment, with desire.

My favorite melodramatic tales include “White Power,” which features a loving mother who, desperate to stop her baby daughter from crying for hours on end, mixes cocaine into the kid’s milk. That solves the problem until mom becomes an addict herself. “The Divine Comedy” opens with these deliciously gauche sentences detailing the anatomy of a marriage: “After seven years of marriage the only thing keeping the couple together were her husband’s blackheads. Marlene loved to squeeze them. Except for this profound and all-important task, they had nothing in common.” “

The Mystery Woman” features a playboy who falls in love with an envious friend’s alluring description of an astonishing beauty. But the buddy, Peixoto, dies without revealing the name of the fantasy female:

When he saw Peixoto there, on the table, silent forever, he knew he was doomed to love a woman he had never even met. He snapped. He threw himself at the body, he shook it, and screamed, “Tell me her name! I want the name! Tell me!”

This note of doom resounds in story after story, a whiff of gothic dankness that, at its best, infuses the soap opera doings with a tincture of expansive fear.

In his helpful translator’s note, Alex Ladd comments that Rodrigues’s stories have been compared to those of Damon Runyon and Ben Hecht. For me, the Brazilian’s emphasis on the connections between sex and death, his sympathy for the marginalized and hatred of brute authority, suggests Tennessee Williams. But Rodrigues lacks Williams’s lyricism and gift for delicate characterization – his bluntness is in the tradition of de Maupassant.

Also, Rodrigues learned his craft in the newsroom, so he generally focuses on exterior cause and effect (the world as screaming headlines), rather than on interiority. His victims and victimizers are types rather than nuanced individuals that demand your empathy. Thus “Life As It Is” reflects the strengths and weaknesses of an aesthetic of hard-boiled diagnosis, an expose of a society incapable of sustaining sane sexual and/or loving relationships.

Author Nelson Rodrigues at work.

Perhaps the sensationalized seediness of the stories explains why, at least so far, there has been so little critical attention paid to this entertaining volume. In Brazil, Rodrigues is a giant, best known for his ground breaking plays, such as “The Wedding Dress” (anybody in America willing to stage a translation of this or any other Rodrigues play?), though he also cranked out an enormous amount of prose, including writing pulp fiction under the pseudonym of Suzana Flag on his way to becoming an acclaimed sportswriter (!). The stories in the volume have provided the basis for a number of movies and TV programs in Brazil.

Given how much raunchy pleasure these stories contain, why has Rodrigues remained a regional enthusiasm? Ladd argues that the author’s language, which draws heavily on slang, has curtailed his appeal elsewhere. Perhaps the racy richness of the author’s Portuguese is missing, but Ladd’s sensible compromise – a moderately juicy English — catches the undeniable merits of “Life As It Is,” its lively vision of the louche sex lives of the middle class.

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