Crisis in Brazil, with politicians up to their necks in corruption and a popular modernizing president forced out amid intrigue, violence, and scandal… Rubem Fonseca’s thriller Crimes of August, though first published (as Agosto) in 1990, couldn’t perhaps be more timely.
But the year is 1954 and the president is Getúlio Vargas, the legendary populist leader and the country’s longest-serving non-royal head of state, in the third year of his second period in power, following elections in 1951. It was in his earlier presidencies that Vargas had done most to reshape Brazil: first installed (in a bloodless coup) in 1930, then establishing a new constitution in 1934 and holding on to power (against that constitution’s provisions) from 1937 to 1945, he had announced the formation of a “New State” (“Estado Novo”) that combined features of a Welfare State, nationalizing key industries and promoting social security and workers’ rights, with a style of government and centralization of power reminiscent of Italian fascism. Indeed, under Vargas in the late 1930s Brazil had flirted with the Axis powers of Italy and Nazi Germany, until ultimately, in part thanks to the influence of Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor” policy, entering World War Two on the Allied side, and sending a small expeditionary force to the Italian front in late 1944. So Vargas is a complex and ambiguous figure, claimed by Left and Right alike, who is most associated with Brazil’s transformation from a plantation-based economy to an emergent industrial power.
By 1954, however, Vargas’s reformist energies were running out of steam, to some extent a victim of their own success, and he himself was no longer the intimidating autocrat he had once been. Thus though Vargas is nominally at the center of Fonseca’s novel, in that it revolves around his final weeks and a crisis that ends only with the president’s suicide (a self-inflicted gunshot to this chest, in his pajamas, in his quarters in the presidential palace), from the outset of the narrative the president is effectively absent. Very early on in the book, we see his bodyguard, late at night, approach Vargas’s bedroom door and we are told that on the other side, “sitting on the bed, his shoulders bowed, [. . .] was the person he protected, an insomniac, pensive, fragile old man: Getúlio Vargas, president of the Republic” (2). Hearing nothing through the door, however, the bodyguard assumes that his boss is sleeping, and withdraws. Similarly, as the book continues, Vargas is barely visible and almost entirely mute throughout. It is as though he were already one of the “ghosts” that populate the “stupid succession of random events, [the] inept and incomprehensible confusion of falsity, fictitious inferences, [and] illusions” that (we are later told) constitute history (250).
Into this confusion, then, and in lieu of the president as protagonist, Fonseca inserts a fictional creation of his own: Alberto Mattos, police inspector and detective, whose traits include his love of opera and his constant drinking of milk and chewing of anti-acid tablets. Mattos has many cases on his plate (no wonder he has an ulcer!), embedded in an institutional morass at a police station whose cells are overflowing with both presumed and convicted criminals. But his focus here is on the (fictional) messy murder of an industrialist, which turns out to be intricately connected to the (real) killing of an Air Force officer as part of the (again, real) botched assassination of a journalist who is one of Vargas’s most forthright critics. At one point, for instance, Mattos suspects Vargas’s bodyguard of bumping off the industrialist when in fact (spoiler alert!) he is responsible for the attack on the journalist. But there are more enough murderers to go around. At the end of the book (again, spoiler alert!) Mattos has two assassins on his own trail: one gets to him first, but the other is hot on his heels and also takes the credit (and the payment) for doing the job. More generally, just about everyone is complicit in something in some way: politicians, cops, gangsters, businessmen, military officers (and their many women–wives, lovers, prostitutes, madams) are all tightly bound to each other in a densely intimate network of corruption and connection.
Mattos’s most fictional attribute is surely the fact that he is the prototypical “straight cop” who refuses to take payment or bribes while all around him are on the make. But he can never fully maintain his distance when his ex-girlfriend is now married to one of the prime conspirators (who is having an affair with the industrialist’s now-widow), while his current on-again off-again fling is also involved with the middleman for a Japanese syndicate’s political bribery. Mattos is forever trying to do the right thing, declaring that his sole allegiance is to the truth, but it turns out that he gets even one of his simpler cases wrong, inadvertently causing the death of an innocent old man. In response to complaints from the dead man’s son, who had allowed his father to take the blame for the crime, the detective declares that “Things are never the way they are, that’s life” (252). His last act as a policemen is to set all the prisoners (convicted or not) free from their overcrowded cells, as though to abandon any attempt to determine the distinction between guilt and innocence.
When “things are never the way they are,” it would seem that there are few certainties. Except that “Brazil goes on,” says the president himself, in what is quoted as a speech that may or may not be fictional. The lines between history and fiction are inevitably blurred when history is represented as a jumble of falsity, fiction, and illusion that’s incomprehensible even to the most level-headed of investigators. But some things do stay the same, even as everything (also) shifts and blurs: “Don’t think you can change,” another character is quoted as saying, as he invokes the French maxim: “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (246). So the novel as a whole suggests that Vargas’s “New State” perhaps didn’t fundamentally transform the country; it was unequal and corrupt before, and it remains so still. Moreover, Fonseca’s recourse to this history of political crisis seventy years ago is no doubt designed to indicate that we continue to be somehow stuck with the same issues that confounded both the real Vargas and the fictional Mattos. Hence the novel’s potential contemporary relevance, even though many–such as, here, Mattos’s ex-girlfriend who burns her diary because she would prefer to forget (259)–might not want to make the connections.
But if the ghost of Vargas haunts this book, it also ambiguously and ambivalently haunts the present: he represents the promise of change, even if that promise has consistently been betrayed, and even if it may be the threat of something worse.