From what little I understand about his works, Rubem Fonseca is a big deal in the literary world, especially representative of the best South American writers around today. It shows, after reading his new collection of short stories, The Taker and Other Stories. My initial impression is that his writing style is a close amalgam of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Cormac McCarthy, though with a uniqueness that combines among his characters a flippant whimsy with an emptiness of deviousness, desperateness, opportunism and cruelty.
Make no mistake, Fonseca creates his stories around unique individuals and their circumstances, wealthy and impoverished; however, what distinguishes his stories and characters is that he is really writing about his native Brasil, about the desperate circumstances faced by its citizens, the corruption, their reaction to modernization, their daily sacrifices.
As if one really needed to be told, Brasil is passion. Life there is both carefree and cruel. Fonseca heaps a mixture of both in this collection of stories. He interweaves a world full of overworked and psychotic businessmen, the feasting upon rural roadkill, the camaraderie between mugger and victim, the nature of family among poor armed robbers, of murder amid good intentions, and the intense burn yet fleeting demise of love, often with fatal consequences.
Others have characterized Fonseca’s stories as unsettling, with which I agree completely. Add to that the words deeply, disturbing, engrossing, stifling, existential, and human. His stories force one to think not only about Brasilian life and culture, but the state of humanity as well. They may be short stories, but they’re so full of pathos.
In his book Do Travel Writers go to Hell?, intrepid traveler Thomas Kohnstamm does a fascinating job of weighing his own addiction of travel with the highly unreasonable expectations that are associated with being a guidebook travel writer. Also, Kohnstamm admirably demolishes the popular conception that travel writing is some sort of dream job; his consistently neurotic analysis of the futile planning, budgeting and writing for Lonely Planet, or any guidebook publisher for that matter is not only sobering, but warranted for those blinded by their travel-induced naivete.
Kohnstamm begins by disclaiming his addiction to travel and the atypical circumstances in which he decides to pursue it as a career. He subsequently embarks on his adventure to cover northeastern Brasil’s most likely and unlikely tourist destinations (on behalf of Lonely Planet) and the people he meets along the way. It is here that one arrives at a recurring theme throughout the book: it is not necessarily the places one visits but the people met that makes the story worthwhile.
Insufficient stipends and unreasonable deadlines are just two of the variables obstructing Kohnstamm’s progress. Throw in a constant stream of Brasilian cachaca, drugs, late nights/early mornings, the gamut of intestinal illnesses, opportunistic thugs as well as the usual bribery schemes (among all the players), and it is no wonder that the journey itself is truly the thing.
The book, however, is not simply a retelling of Kohnstamm’s escapades. It does raise a lot of questions even for the novice traveler. He ponders the implications of cultural relativism, the apparent lawlessness and corruption, as well as the increasing commercialization and urbanization of Brasil at the expense of its history and identity. Not to mention the fringe benefits of writing positive reviews, especially if those reviews are generated by the favors exhibited on behalf the restaurant or hotel one is writing about.
If there was one thing I regretted about the book, apart from my envy, it is Kohnstamm’s overindulgence at the expense of his craft. Granted, his wild nights performing “research” forces harried and slightly unethical writing; however, the descriptions of his supporting characters would subsequently suffer. Therein lies the dilemma: is this a travel writing book or a book about travel writing? The lines aren’t always clear.
Kohnstamm does well to capture the sweltering zeitgeist of Northeastern Brasil and the plight of the travel writer, thereby leaving the reader with a nuanced yet realistic depiction of the industry, and tells a captivating story while doing so. His advice: if you really love to travel, think twice about making it your occupation.