In Jô Soares’s Twelve Fingers there’s a gag a minute.
Sure, there are one-liners that work, but Soares is no
Woody Allen or Groucho Marx. Strange as it seems,
one may be put off by the slightly crass humor.
Twelve Fingers: Biography of an Anarchist, by Jô Soares, trans. by Clifford Landers
(Pantheon, 303 pp., $23)
The second novel by Brazilian author Jô
Soares follows the basic formula that paid off in A
Samba for Sherlock, a formula in the tradition of Forest Gump, Zelig, and even Ragtime, that blends real people, real events, with
fictive characters and situations.
We can say this of Jô Soares: He casts a
wide net—across three continents and half a century. His protagonist, twelve-fingered
Dimitri Borja Korojec, is born in 1897 in Banja Luca, Bosnia, his mother a Brazilian
contortionist of mixed blood and his father a Serbian linotypist. The latter has ties to a
somewhat peculiar anarchist group. For example, after birth, his son’s right testicle
is removed and eaten by the father so that the boy will have leftist leanings.
While still a teenager, Dimitri is taken by
his old man to a clandestine meeting of the Union of Death, or the Black Hand, and
favorably impresses Dragutin Dimitrijevic, the founder of this terrorist sect. Their goal
is the unification of the Serbian people, by whatever means necessary, i.e., by murder
and/or intimidation. Dimitrijevic takes the lad under his wing, and places him in the
group’s Assassins’ School.
However, despite the extra digits (two index
fingers on each hand) and his mother’s flexibility, Dimitri has a clumsiness that
will surface at inopportune times, leading to several pratfalls, both intellectual and
physical, that are reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes in Soares’ first novel.
The original Portuguese title of Twelve Fingers is a little different, roughly
translating to The Man Who Killed Getúlio Vargas.
Presumably most North Americans have little idea of the complex role Getúlio Vargas
played in Brazilian politics, and that he was first a dictator and later a
democratically-elected president. Also, they probably do not know that he committed
suicide in 1954, when things were looking bleak for his government. Since all Brazilians
know that Vargas shot himself, the title becomes quizzical, as if someone here were to
write a book about the guy who knocked off Ernest Hemingway.
On the day that Archduke Franz Ferdinand is
gunned down in Sarajevo, an event that precipitates the first World War, Dimitri is
lurking along the parade route, and in fact has a brush with Gavrilo Princip, whose
bullets will change history. Had it not been for his trademark clumsiness, however, the
dubious honor would have fallen to Dimitri. Instead, and this book hops around
considerably, the young man is sent by Dimitrijevic to Paris via the Orient Express. While
on board the legendary train he’ll have a serious flirtation with double-agent and
knockout babe Mata Hari, and at the same time incur the wrath of her dwarf assistant, who
will pursue Dimitri for years to come.
The Mata Hari escapade is intermittently
amusing, and sets the pace (smatterings of both humor and silliness) for the rest of the
book. In Paris, Dimitri arouses the suspicion of the grandson of Inspector Javert
(remember Jean Valjean?), who has been assigned to protect the journalist and pacifist
Jean Jaurés. Inadvertently, Dimitri distracts Javert from Jaurés’ real killer. The
incident will put Dimitri in the hospital (where he’s aided by Marie Curie) and
it’ll put Javert in the doldrums—which leads to an ending you’re already
familiar with if you’ve ever read Les
Misérables or seen the musical.
The episodes that follow are both zany and surreal. In Paris, Dimitri finds work as a
taxi driver, and is later requisitioned to drive six soldiers to the front. Trusting his
faulty instincts, he makes a wrong turn, and the ensemble ends up in the opposite
direction. That night they stay up late arguing about the best Brie in France. Subsequent
vignettes find Dimitri surviving a U-boat attack off the coast of Portugal and striking up
a friendship with budding actor George Raft.
The two get bit parts in the silent version of Ben-Hur,
and nearly cause a Roman-sized debacle of their own. Raft will later pawn off Dimitri on
Chicago mobster Al Capone, who accepts him into his gang. Much later still, after being
thrown into a prison on Ilha Grande, off the coast of Angra dos Reis, not far from Rio,
Dimitri even becomes pals with writer Graciliano Ramos. The latter says he’ll include
Dimitri in the book he’ll write if he ever gets free (the one we know as Memórias do Cárcere/Prison Memoirs), but Dimitri
begs him not to. And so it goes.
Sounds like there’s a gag a minute, doesn’t it? Sure, there are one-liners that work,
but Soares is no Woody Allen or Groucho Marx. Also, strange as it seems, one may be put
off from time to time by the slightly crass, indelicate humor. Early on, in what is a
comic chain of events, the wrong patient gets his kidney removed. Not the sort of thing
you’d slap your knee while reading, in any imaginable context. It reminds this reader of
Jack the Ripper’s unusual ‘signature’ in Soares’ A
Samba for Sherlock (Vintage), in which the killer would cut a flap of skin from his
victim’s inner thigh while leaving a violin string curled up in her pubic hair.
Still, there are snappy exchanges, to wit
"I rolled on the
floor with her, like a madman, possessing her again. What an insatiable woman! It was
seven, eight times a night."
"All of them with
To lend some verisimilitude to this purported biography, the author has added a
smattering of photos and drawings, most of them contemporaneous with the events described,
reminiscent of what we find in the ‘novels’ of W.G. Sebald (The Emigrants, Vertigo), but here decidedly more
It takes Dimitri close to two-thirds of the book to arrive in
Brazil (his goal from the start, actually), and the reader who knows a thing or two about,
for instance, Luís Carlos Prestes or Carlos Lacerda, will get more from these pages than
those who don’t. Nonetheless, throughout Twelve
Fingers Dimitri never forgets—in his words—that "my life is dedicated
to the overthrow of tyranny, whatever the cost." Of course, one botched assassination
attempt after another does undermine his self-confidence: "An intense depression
descends upon Dimitri. Fate insists on putting him in the right place at the wrong
What may undermine the
reader’s confidence are the handful of proofreading errors, none of which mar the
usual superb translation by Clifford Landers, but which may elicit a frown where a smile
is in order. For example, “a immense” (p. 105); “Union or Death”
should be “Union of Death” (p. 113); “review” would be better off as
“revue” (p. 139); there are missing words or letters on pages 139 and 180-181;
“in the Big Sur” should be “in Big Sur” (p. 237); and "at the
corner of Flamengo beach and Rua Silveira Martins" could be more consistent, i.e.,
"at the corner of Praia do Flamengo and Rua Silveira Martins" (p. 287). Picky,
picky, I know, but such things do stop the flow of traffic.
Twelve Fingers: Biography
of an Anarchist doesn’t run out of steam and manages to touch more corners of
twentieth century history than any novel in recent memory. For my palate, however, there
are too many shenanigans, and nothing to engage the passions or inflame the intellect.
Still, Jô Soares has written a clever, comic roller coaster ride of a book, and I can
imagine that there are many readers who’d like to line up and take a front seat.
The following day, as they leave the dining hall, Dimitri
“Don’t worry about it. On Devil’s Island I
“I’ll show you. Come with me.”
Henri takes Dimitri to the bathroom and asks him to watch
“It’s my little safe.”
Dimitri contemplates the menacing cylinder. Henri explains,
After a long pause, Dimitri says to his companion, “On
Henri is amused at the terror the bamboo inspires in
“Is there room?” Dimo asks, amazed.
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