Relationships of all kinds – intimate, casual, professional – are the subject here, the Rio de Janeiro way, meaning you and whoever or whatever you are dealing with also witness history in the making, the city’s singular curvaceous geography that can and does shape lives, the cross-cultural fun of flirting with traditions that don’t belong to your social class, your education level or your belief system. All fun comes at a price. You’ll be confronted too by the city’s conflicting clichés: the Rio celebrated in song and praised all over Brazil may surround you, but can quickly become a haunting nightmare. Yet your countryside pals still think you’re lucky to be here.
The Book of Rio displays several layers of carioca connections. For those who live under a rigid class system, it can serve as an introduction to a whole new world of tropical interclass associations. For those who don’t care about class, it can be a sometimes funny, sometimes melancholic handbook that guides the reader to what’s like to live, love, work and die in Rio. To every English reader, however, I hope these are just great short stories.
1. ‘Spare Me, Copacabana!’ by Cesar Cardoso
The narrator’s decadent life and the glory days of the neighbourhood are perfectly entwined. While waiting for a love interest to come to his/her flat, the narrator talks to him/herself evoking a classy nightclub that once was the jet-set’s favourite hang-out, when Copacabana, in the 1940s and ’50s was dreaming the tropical riviera dream.
2. ‘Something Urgently’ by João Gilberto Noll
The last mirage of the riviera dream faded in 1964, when the military took over the country. Its most difficult years, from 1968 to 1974, are the probable timeframe of this father-and-son story. The father is a political activist who can’t disclose what’s really going on to his Copacabana-wandering son, for fear of endangering the kid, but there are deeper silences between them. At that time Brazil was – somehow still is – a conservative country, and the then-leftist activists and fighters could be even more hidebound when it came to gender issues, as we see in the father’s response to the son’s sexual revelation.
3. ‘The Biggest Bridge in the World’ by Domingos Pellegrini
Another dictatorship story, about a couple of workers building the Rio-Niteroi Bridge. The narrator, an electrician, embodies the deadly pace of construction that finds a contemporary echo in the building of the stadiums for the 2014 World Cup. The grandiose engineering obsession of the military has no better register in Brazilian literature.
4. ‘Song of Songs’ by Nei Lopes
The inner workings of the official Carnival parade – a competition whose winners and losers are graded up or down in a samba league of sorts – are exposed by an insider writer who dissects the historical evolution of the so-called ‘samba schools’ and the personal and sexual dynamics of its shining stars and managers. If you thought the parades were all about celebration, you’ll think twice after reading this story.
5. ‘Lucky was Sandra’ by Luiz Ruffato
Here Rio is portrayed as a symbol of personal achievement for a countryside girl. Never mind the reality check. Mirroring ‘Song of Songs’, a sexual tale minus the samba, at first glance Sandra couldn’t feel better – but we learn this can be a cruel city indeed.
6. ‘Strangers’ by Sérgio Sant’Anna
Flat-hunting is so tricky that finding a place to rent beside a violent hillside shantytown will not bother you – or will it? Perhaps not, if the process presents an opportunity for the ultimate casual-sex experience. But what happens next? Sant’Anna is a short-story master, one of the writers who revamped Brazilian literature in the 1960s–70s boom.
7. ‘Decembers’ by Marcelo Moutinho
Another Rio de Janeiro golden-era story, this coming-of-age tale shows a grandson whose appreciation of his grandfather is shaped not only by time, from boyhood to adulthood, but most of all by the fact that the old man was an uncertain player in the ranks of Rádio Nacional. Our radio days were mundane and charming at the same time.
8. ‘The Woman Who Slept with a Horse’ by João Ximenes Braga
Here we have the casual Brazilian syncretism at its best. The average Brazilian is born and raised Roman Catholic, perhaps by inertia. Nevertheless he or she may be tempted now and then by Native and Afro-Brazilian religions, just for the sake of asking for an extra helping hand. This is not about switching faiths. It’s about a lonely, late-20s white, middle-class woman who is fed up with the whole dating scene. (Disclaimer: the word ‘horse’ is used in Brazil to designate those mediums who lend a body and a voice to the deceased or to deities and may become possessed by them.)
9. ‘I Love You’ by Patrícia Melo
A young call-girl describes her current assignment in the most affluent neighbourhood of Rio while texting her best friend, who is lining up some fun at a nightclub. She has been hired to play the role of the man’s secret girlfriend as he confronts his partner at their apartment.
10. ‘Places, in the Middle of Everything’ by Elvira Vigna
The city shapes the female narrator’s connection to her former lover, through their assignations at the naughty underground love ‘motels’.
Toni Marques was born in Rio in 1964 and is a former New York correspondent for O Globo. He is currently a story editor for Fantastico and the curator of FLUPP, the first and only international literary festival hosted by shantytown communities in Brazil. He is the author of four books, and has stories published in two collections in French by Éditions Anacaona.
The Book of Rio, edited by Toni Marques and Katie Slade and published by Comma Press, brings together ten short stories that go beyond the postcards and snapshots to reveal the real residents of Rio who live in the grey areas between the grime and the glitz. Read more.