Art and Intrigue

Art and
    Intrigue

Although the book reads well and Rubem Fonseca deserves to be better
known in the United States, Vast Emotions and Imperfect Thoughts is less impressive
than earlier works by the author.
By Bondo Wyszpolski

Vast Emotions and
Imperfect Thoughts, by Rubem Fonseca, trans. by Clifford E. Landers (The Ecco Press,
312 pp., $24)

 

Without question, Rubem Fonseca is one of the more respected Brazilian authors of our
day, but he has been done something of a disservice in this country by not being published
when his books are still fresh. Bufo & Spallanzani, his fine novel from 1985
(also translated by Mr. Landers), did not appear in English until five or six years later,
and Vast Emotions and Imperfect Thoughts, which was written in 1988, has only
recently appeared.

In this novel, there’s still talk of East Germany, West Germany, and a key portion of
the story is set in Berlin with checkpoints and crossing guards. It wasn’t history when
Fonseca wrote his book, but it certainly is now.

The nameless, first-person narrator of Vast Emotions and Imperfect Thoughts is a
filmmaker who’s looking for another project after two years; his last film, The Holy
War, was based on Euclides da Cunha’s Os Sertões, and it’s still trying to
recoup its losses.

However, sometimes our failures lead to our successes. A German producer, Dr. Plessner,
has seen The Holy War and he wants our narrator to come to Germany to direct Isaac
Babel’s "Red Calvary."

And then the first of many subplots begins to kick in: A fat woman named Angélica, who
has won prizes for her Carnaval costumes, seeks out the director and entrusts him with a
box of stones. A couple of days later she’s killed. The filmmaker, found in her address
book, begins to be followed.

Our narrator had a now-deceased wife named Ruth, a dancer whose career he inadvertently
destroyed: the empty wheelchair in the apartment says it all. Despite her absence, Ruth’s
presence will be felt throughout the novel.

In between the mounting suspense as a result of Angélica’s death and his possession of
the precious stones, the filmmaker begins to investigate Isaac Babel’s life. The Jewish
writer was killed during Stalin’s purges. The narrator’s old and dying friend Gurian
proves to be a reservoir of information about Babel, and for the reader the diversion is
interesting as well, partly because of the suspense that Fonseca has left dangling. As he
studies his subject further, the narrator finds a certain correlation between Babel and
the Spanish painter Goya, so he decides he’ll use a Goyaesque light in his Babel film.

Eventually he gets to Berlin, where he will embark upon an odd, bumpy relationship with
his escort and co-worker Veronika. Perhaps we’ve been building up to this all along, but
we can readily grasp the narrator’s astonishment when Dr. Plessner informs him that
Babel’s last work, a novel, was apparently not destroyed as had been previously assumed.
And there’s a fellow named Ivan in East Berlin who’s willing to fork it over for $100,000.
However, someone will have to cross the border to smuggle it out. No surprise here, the
filmmaker volunteers.

This part of Vast Emotions and Imperfect Thoughts loses some of its impact
because anything about the Berlin Wall is today verging on nostalgia. Still, Fonseca
paints a pretty tense escapade for us, with the result that the filmmaker returns and
then, not trusting Veronika or Plessner, decides to bolt.

After his arrival in Brazil, we realize (perhaps to our dismay) that the matter of the
precious stones and the aftermath of his theft in Berlin have both been shelved, and that
we’re about to embark on yet another seemingly unrelated adventure.

Sure enough. There’s capture, detainment, a gun-blazing escape, and yet a further
change of scenery and characters when the filmmaker meets up with Dália in Diamantina.

By the end there’s a sense of loose threads carelessly discarded, and a doubt about the
integrity of the narrator himself, a figure to whom things happen rather than one who sets
the gears in motion. Although the book reads well and Fonseca deserves to be better known
in this country, Vast Emotions and Imperfect Thoughts is ultimately less impressive
than Bufo & Spallanzani and an earlier novel, High Art, which was made
into the film Exposure. That said, I hope we’ll see another book by Rubem Fonseca,
in English, in the very near future.

Vast Emotions and Imperfect
Thoughts, an excerpt: 

As I went through inspection to leave East Germany, my nervousness was greater than
before. I hadn’t been afraid of going to prison, much less having the hundred thousand
dollars confiscated. But to lose Babel’s manuscript! The very idea filled me with horror.

The guards were different, but they performed the same mime taught at the police
academy. I wondered if the hearts of the old ladies with their Metaxa bottles always beat
rapidly when they were pierced every week by those penetrating stares.

In front of me an American, after showing his passport, was taken out of the queue and
led to a door through which he and the two guards disappeared.

Scenario: Ivan had been arrested and had told of the American spy; that is to say, me.

‘Is something the matter with you?’ asked the guard who was examining my passport.

‘Bad food. Goulash. Goulash!’ I said, hitting my belly with my hand. I made a likely
face, in reality from fright, for my hand had hit the sheets of paper.

The guard returned my passport and I went through. Then it was the other guard’s turn.

I finally made it past all the obstacles, climbed to the upper platform at
Friedrichstrasse station, and waited for the train to arrive. When it came, I took a seat
and closed my eyes. Sweat poured down my face.

Upon arriving at Zoo Garten station I almost forgot to get off and catch the U-Bahn. I
left on the run before the doors closed. I was anxious to get to the hotel and find
Veronika. I wanted her to read a passage from Babel’s book to me, immediately.

As I approached the hotel I had a surprise. Plessner and Veronika were in front of the
main door, talking. I drew back instinctively and hid in the entrance to a nearby
stationary store.

I could see from Plessner’s manner that he was giving Veronika instructions. She
listened attentively. She was a different person. Plessner, however, hadn’t changed; he
spoke to Veronika the same way he had spoken to me when telling me what I should do to
meet Ivan on the other side—a man who was always giving instructions. But Veronika
looked different. This wasn’t my Veronika.

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Vast Emotions and
Imperfect Thoughts
312 pp

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