Translator Benjamin Moser
First published in Portuguese 1998; first published in English 2005.
In the winter heat of Rio de Janeiro, a young homeless boy witnesses an insensible drunk being helped into a car outside a restaurant late at night. From his precious cardboard box, the boy watches as the man is wedged into his car by a woman and the restaurant’s doorman – tantalisingly, he sees a wallet sticking out of the drunk’s pocket. Unobserved in the chaos, he manages to snatch it. After the car drives off, he investigates his spoils but sees that the wallet contains a policeman’s ID. Terrified, the boy takes the cash and drops the wallet back in the gutter. He waits to see who will pick it up.
Later, retired cop Viera wakes up with a dreadful hangover and a severe memory lapse. Realizing his wallet has gone, he’s annoyed about the loss of his police ID card more than anything, as he’s been using it since he retired and can’t get another one. He vaguely remembers that he went out the previous evening with his girlfriend Magali. He assumes that she has dropped him home and gone back to her own flat, so goes there to ask if she has his wallet. She is out, so he leaves his card. After returning to his apartment the phone rings. It is Inspector Espinosa, who has been called out to the scene of a murder – Magali’s. Espinosa’s only lead is Viera’s card.
The first half of this novel is a totally absorbing story of Espinosa’s teasing out of events before and after the crime. He soon discovers the existence of the homeless boy, and manages to make brief contact with him via a “street teacher” Clodorado. The boy is terrified though, as life on the streets is cheap and he has every reason to believe he is in danger.
As in the first novel in which he appears, Espinosa spends much of this novel torn between two women, this time they are Flor, a prostitute who was Magali’s best friend and who takes up with Viera; and Kiki, a young artist who sells her paintings at a road junction and is a witness in the case. Espinosa’s musings over the two women are far less interesting than the case itself, which gradually unravels against a sympathetic and harrowing background of the many poor people struggling to survive in this huge city. About half way through the novel, Espinosa and Viera run out of leads, and for the rest of it, Espinosa is either searching for the same few people, or just missing them (this book was written at a time when communication was by answering machine not mobile phone), or pondering on the appeal of the two very different women characters. Perhaps I found this last aspect a little tiresome as Espinosa spent the previous novel, The Silence of the Rain, similarly torn between two women – neither of whom is mentioned here.
At the end, Espinosa does work out what is happening, but in a curiously detached way, separate from any organised investigation. There are various leads which are not followed up with any vigour, and the explanation, when it comes, is too full of supposition to be very satisfactory. Even so, the novel is an extremely atmospheric depiction of life in Rio de Janeiro which I very much enjoyed reading, despite its slight failings as a convincing crime novel. The perspective of the street people and of those struggling to escape the slums and shanty dwellings to make something of themselves are particularly moving. The translation seems sympathetic, but is in US, not English, English.