A sense of duty seems to be the main thing distinguishing man from beast in these three long, thematically linked stories, the first of the Brazilian novelist’s work to be published in America.
There’s a certain nobility to the “brutes” of this collection, the ones who do the work too dirty or dangerous for others—gutting the pigs, collecting the trash, burning the corpses—but without whose efforts society could not function. Their work tends to dehumanize some of them, such as those who work the slaughterhouse in the opening “Between Dogfights and Hog Slaughter,” where man, meat, and sex converge. Deboning a pig can arouse lust, and human organs can be mistaken for food. (It’s not a story you’d want to read before dinner.) In the second, “The Dirty Work of Others,” the trash-collecting protagonist realizes that “everything transforms into trash; even he himself is trash to the many people, rats and vultures that constantly peck at him.” Again, boundaries blur, as a man senses the spirit of a pedophile who had defiled him within the body of a goat, and it’s there he finds some sort of redemption. A trash collectors strike threatens the city: “Vultures gather: the skies belong to them...rats reproduce abundantly and attack people in broad daylight.” The third story, “carbo animalis,” is the longest and most ambitious, a meditation on the essence of fire that encompasses both a particularly heroic firefighter and an overly busy crematorium. In a cold winter, the corpses provide the fuel for “the heat and energy necessary for the living to go on living.” As if humanity simply fuels the furnace that allows a mechanistic world to perpetuate itself.
A bleak vision that offers glimmers of compassion amid the unremitting despair.