The Good-bye Angel by Ignácio de Loyola Brandão (Clifford E. Landers, trans.). Dalkey Archive Press. 297pp, $14.95.
“There’s a city unknown to me inside this city, thought Pedro.”
In Ignácio de Loyola Brandão’s world, no one is happy, except in the passing moment when sadists (and there are many of them in his books) exploit others in an all too obvious way, completely devoid of irony. The mixed up way that people disconnect from one another is a running thread in his novel, The Goodbye Angel, and the author presents a highly dysfunctional society where men exploit (and murder) women, where crime bosses exploit workers, and where journalists themselves are part of the game of exploitation and deception. Plus, everyone lives in fear. This fear is not of “the state,” as many novels in the past have explored, but a fear of others: a fear of market forces, a fear of gossip, a fear of violence. If Kafka was interested in the image of a man caught in the cog of a relentless and anonymous bureaucracy, Brandão comes at fear from the opposite side: as a natural extension of our humanity and our tendencies towards violence and exploitation. Fear is not hierarchical in this world: fear is what we all inspire in each other, a great equalizer.
Born in 1936, Ignácio de Loyola Brandão is most famous for his novel, Zero, which was set in Brazil’s totalitarian regime of the 1960s. The book was originally published in Portugal, since it was banned by the Brazilian authorities at the time (and was only published in Brazil in 1981). Known as a writer of the “Seventies Generation” who came of age in the midst of Brazil’s most oppressive and violent governments, Brandão himself has called his mission “to make a literature that documents, just like a camera filming the country in order to show it on the screen of a book.”
The Goodbye Angel opens with death: the murder of a well-known and well-to-do woman of Arveala, Brandão`s imaginary city. Manuela is found face-down in a bush just after a major storm blows over the city, and her death brings both excitement and fear as journalists and the police face the double-edge sword all modern readers can identify with: fame breeds fame for anyone touching the case, but fame also brings certain pressures that anonymity allows us to escape. Manuela, famous as she is, does not have a good reputation: she had “gotten away with everything, led her life as she chose, with an apparent disdain for norms” (a seemingly negative quality in Brandão’s world, particularly for a woman) but her fame still makes her admirable in many of the townsfolks’ eyes. Though suspicion immediately falls to her influential husband, Antenor, there is also talk of the mysterious Goodbye Angel, a purported serial-killer-cum-possibly-mythical-figure who may or may not have killed other town luminaries in previous years. Murder is nothing unusual in the town of Arveala, but in Manuela’s case, “the fright came from one simple question: who and why someone could have killed so ferociously the most beautiful, luscious, funny, strange, crazy, challenging woman in Arealva?”
Brandão then offers a history lesson about Arealva, attempting to contextualize the odd way it came into being (the discovery of a whale carcass played a key role) and tracing a brief history of the town’s “founding fathers.” The novel moves and shifts from one character to another, as if showing us the various individuals that make up this mid-sized city and those who have the power to influence major historical moments in it. We are introduced to working class Eduardo, and then Pedro Quimera, the town’s well-known journalist, “an odd sort, a mouth breather, constantly tired, unprotected,” and later Pedro figures into the narrative in an important way when he is tasked with getting the truth of the town’s character (and the truth of all the secrets related to Manuela’s murder) from “the Godfather,” the town’s crime boss (and Antenor’s relative).
Like a game of relay tag, one character’s interaction with another inevitably leads to a shift in perspective and a new narrative voice taking control of the story, and it is through this technique that Brandão shows us the many views of Antenor and his late wife from the city’s various classes.
Women play an odd role in this tale: they are either corruptible sex objects like Manuela, or they are beaten down and angry members of the lower classes, abused and put upon by the violence of the system. Or they simply don’t exist. Relationships with women are full of deception, stress, and anger. Indeed, all relationships are tinged with deception and pain, and Brandão’s misanthropic attitude can be hard to take, despite the humorous tone.
With this kind of construction, it’s inevitable that gossip will become a major theme connecting all these voices. And, indeed, gossip is the fuel that makes the city run:
People talk about me, about you, about the priest, the pope, the dog. The best product of this city is talk. If I could export it, like juice, soy, beer, the heavy equipment they`re manufacturing, it`d be the biggest GDP in Brazil. They live for one another. It’d be a shame if others didn’t exist. It’s others who give us our identity.”
In the universe of the novel, this idle talk is the ultimate power that one human has over another, and talk is what causes the success and the downfall of every person of consequence. More than this, talk itself gives us identity and whether the talk is true or not, fair or unfair, our identities take shape given the words said by us and, more importantly: about us.
Like gossip, “the market,” is also an important theme that Brandão highlights throughout the novel.
This upside-down world amused Quimera, who dreamed of blacks becoming white, whites becoming black, women becoming men and men becoming women, gays becoming lesbians, Chinese becoming Japanese, automobiles in the kitchen and ovens out on the street, light bulbs growing on vines, traffic jams of washing machines.
That market metaphors and the market’s objects abound in the book seems to be Brandão’s point: Brazilians are all too self-aware of the image other countries have of them as upstarts, playing into the globalization that the rest of the world requires. They are finally coming into their own as a nation by accepting the rigors (and inherent exploitation) of the capitalist system.
There are no heroes in Brandão’s world: from the sweaty journalist to the corrupt businessman to the violent crime boss, everyone is out for him- or herself, and everyone lives with both fear and selfish intentions:
The paunchy policemen ran out the door. Quimera appeared to awaken. He was an intelligent man who suffered from an almost apathetic temperament. Nothing interested him. One night he told Evandro, “Something, someday, will change me. I’m what I don’t want to be and don’t know how to become what I should be.” He was unparalleled when he tried to express himself, without others understanding. A man by himself remains the same his whole life if he refuses to see that moment in which everything opens up and he need only have the courage to cross the line.
When, toward the end, we jump back in time and see the story through the perspective of Manuela, there are echoes of an old story: it’s Eva Peron on her first trip to Buenos Aires. It’s an upstart, clawing his way to the top through manipulation and determination. Indeed, it’s Brazil’s own story.
Gregory McCormick is the Director of English Programming at the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival in Montreal.
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