Son of the famed writer Erico Verissimo, this much admired novelist, short story writer, and cronista takes another flier into the world of fancy, fable, and allegory. Gula-O Clube dos Anjos (“Gluttony-The Club of Angels”), as this concise work is called in the original, first published in 1998, is intentionally an odd production, historical in its insistently mordant critique of Brazilian experience in the decades during and following the nation’s military dictatorship. (It is reported on page 90 that one member of the club “gave an account of his political commitment from his days as a student, passing through his time as a councillor, the period spent in hiding, the demonstrations, the secret missions on behalf of the Party, prison, and his election as deputy. And he spoke too of his betrayal. Yes, it was true. He had betrayed his colleagues, had turned them in.” Perhaps not Fernando Gabeira; but close enough.) This national criticism is couched in a larger global criticism of humankind’s self-centered appetites and unbridled consumerism as exemplified in the “more, always more” competition among the members of this exclusive eating club.
Verissimo’s conceit is that of an eating club in which each of its members permits himself, more or less, to be poisoned to his death by eating “more” (usually a second, last portion-the “poisoned” bit) of his favorite dish. As the membership dwindles, each of the remaining gourmets awaits loyally the meal that will suit his demanding palate to a T, even as he becomes excitedly aware that his gourmet’s treat will bring him death. The plot illustrates the proverbial expression, taken to the extreme-“Perdoa-se o mal que faz por o bem que sabe.” (One forgives the evil it brings for the goodness of its taste.)
A retrospective account narrated by Daniel, the single survivor of the “club”-“And I only am escaped alone to tell thee” (Job 1) or Melville’s “Call me Ishmael”-Verissimo’s narrative parodies stories of the Last Supper (both that of Jesus and that of the ordinary condemned criminal), the thrust of Fernando Pessoa’s detective story “A Very Original Dinner,” the bountiful applications of Oswald de Andrade’s “Manifesto Antropófago” (of which, fittingly enough, The Club of Angels is itself an example), and the motive of groups, exemplified by the likes of the “Make a Wish” organization, which is in the business of fulfilling the near-fantasies of children ill with serious, often fatal, diseases. The changes Verissimo rings on these-my fancied “sources” for his extended parable-is that most of the club members are in reasonably good health and yet cannot keep themselves from indulging in the food fantasies that will surely kill them. (“I must confess that the possibility of dying definitely increased my pleasure in the food,” admits the narrator on page 64.) Thus we have, once removed, the symbolic devouring of human flesh-not a literal cannibalism, as in Pessoa’s story, but a symbolic cannibalism of one’s own flesh. This is not a case of “see Paris and die,” but one of eat your “gigot d’agneau” and off to eternity.
The book is a feast (pardon the expression) for those who will follow its national course, itself an allegory for Verissimo’s satire-gentler in tone and seemingly more casual in expression than Jonathan Swift’s work in the same vein, but no less immodestly proposed. My one caveat has to do with the publisher’s decision to illustrate the cover of this Brazilian book with a drawing based on one of the Colombian Fernando Botero’s so-called “fat people.” It suggests corpulence, clumsy brutishness, and unremitting inelegance, whereas Verissimo’s joyful text, playing lightly over his mighty theme, is nothing if not witty, subtle and nuanced.
George Monteiro, Brown University
NOTE: This review appeared in World Literature Today 82 (Nov.-Dec. 2008), 67-68.
George Monteiro is Professor Emeritus of English and Portuguese and Brazilian Studies, Brown University, and he continues as Adjunct Professor of Portuguese Studies at the same university. He served as Fulbright lecturer in American Literature Brazil–in Sao Paulo and Bahia–Ecuador and Argentina; and as Visiting Professor in UFMG in Belo Horizonte. In 2007 he served as Helio and Amelia Pedroso / Luso-American Foundation Professor of Portuguese, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Among his recent books are Stephen Crane’s Blue Badge of Courage, Fernando Pessoa and Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Literature, The Presence of Pessoa, The Presence of Camões, and Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop and Critical Essays on Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Among his translations are Iberian Poems by Miguel Torga, A Man Smiles at Death with Half a Face by José Rodrigues Miguéis, Self-Analysis and Thirty Other Poems by Fernando Pessoa, and In Crete, with the Minotaur, and Other Poems by Jorge de Sena. He has also published two collections of poems, The Coffee Exchange and Double Weaver’s Knot.