The Club of Angels, by Luis Fernando Verissimo, trans. by Margaret Jull Costa
(New Directions, 135 pp., $21.95)
What greater thrill is there than knowing that your next meal could kill you?
For over two decades the ten members of the Beef Stew Club (so named "in honor of our past lives as ignorant gourmands") have been meeting monthly from March to December, rotating from one home to another, where each member in turn becomes responsible for providing dinner.
In the early days, the appetite displayed by the participants at these suppers was assumed to represent the voracious appetite they had for the world at large. But none of the men (childhood friends, mostly) would ever amount to much, and with the death of Ramos a couple of years earlier a lack of enthusiasm has threatened to dissolve the group.
There's no surprise ending here, or is there? We know at the beginning of The Club of Angels, a literary soufflé of a book that is economically written, seasoned with humor and wit, solemnity and reflection, that all of the members of The Beef Stew Club have died—with the exception of our narrator, Dr. Daniel: "I'm not, in fact, a doctor, but I am rich, which is why they deferentially call me `Doctor.'" The cascade of startling demises begins shortly after Daniel makes the acquaintance of the enigmatic Lucídio, a man of apparent refinement who tells Daniel of the secret society he belongs to that eats fugu fish, which can, if improperly prepared, kill within minutes:
"There is nothing in the world that can compare with the taste of raw fugu, Daniel." And why is that? "The prospect of dying at any moment, in seconds, produces a chemical reaction that heightens the flavor of the fugu."
Daniel is impressed, and more so after Lucídio prepares him "an omelet the like of which I had not tasted in a long time." Despite his name (hint: Lucifer), Lucídio seems to be a godsend. With the inert Beef Stew Club in mind, Daniel thinks: "Yes, a man who would risk his life for the taste of a deadly fish was precisely what we needed to restore our sense of unity and to haul us out of that spiral of bitterness and mutual recrimination into which Ramos' death had plunged us."
Lucídio proves to be an exquisite chef. He manages to breathe life into the group, and yet at the same time… The Club of Angels can be regarded in part as a meditation on death, a jaunty exploration of the acceptance of fate, as possibly "a treatise or perhaps a novel about suicide," or even as a gastronomical caper along the lines of And Then There Were None. There are ominous quotations from King Lear, spoken at the end of each meal, and yet a grin in the exposition (the dialogue between Daniel and Lucídio, for instance) that recalls the wry, at times even corny prose of Jô Soares, the Rio-based author of A Samba for Sherlock and Twelve Fingers.
Luis Fernando Verissimo, born in 1936, is the son of writer Érico Verissimo, whose Brazilian Literature—to pull but one volume from the shelf—remains highly readable even after nearly sixty years. Like father, like son? It appears so. The Club of Angels, in its balance of levity and gravity, is a tasty morsel to be consumed with pleasure. The risk factor? For better or for worse, it's unlikely to kill you.
An excerpt from The Club of Angels:
After the funeral, we went back to my apartment, where we gathered in the study. The full complement of the surviving Beef Stew Club membership: all five of us. At the funeral, Lívia kept saying: "This is madness, Zi, madness. You must stop holding these suppers." The matter to be discussed was, should we stop holding the suppers or not? The next host would be Pedro. In alphabetical order—Since Saulo had chosen to die out of order—Paulo should be the next to die.
"So, do we cancel the supper?" I asked.
"No," said Paulo without a moment's hesitation.
"I think we should take a vote," said Samuel.
"I'm the main interested party," said Paulo. "The supper will go ahead."
Pedro suggested that he, rather than Lucídio, should choose the menu. Paulo disagreed. Lucídio would decide what to make. I suggested that we supervise the making of the meal, especially the last fateful portion. Paulo vetoed that too. Lucídio must have full freedom in which to do his work.
"Be honest," said Paulo, "the deaths aside, have you ever eaten so well in your entire life as at Lucídio's suppers?"
"And there's another thing. If we start interfering in his work, he'll disappear. He'll go away. He'll leave us."
"We're the ones who are disappearing," said Tiago. "One by one. One a month. The Beef Stew Club will come to an end not for lack of a cook, but for lack of members. We're all dying!"
And then Paulo leaned back on the sofa—beneath one of Marcos' paintings which, according to the artist, depicted the struggle of the One Being to free itself from the duality of body and spirit—and said:
"Well, I don't know about you, but I don't really care."
Bondo Wyszpolski also heads up the arts and entertainment section of the Easy Reader, a weekly newspaper based in the South Bay of southern California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org