A clutch of stories exploring the perilous and complex inner lives of residents of Rio’s favelas.
This taut debut collection is mostly populated by young men who’ve been quickly hardened by the druggy, violent milieu of Brazil’s slums, where “sorry’s a feeling you get and lose quick,” as one narrator puts it. But most tend to be spectators, not participants, and none are so hardened that their characters lapse into gangland clichés. The drug-dealer-adjacent narrator of “Lil Spin” just wants to avoid being hassled by a cop for smoking a blunt on the beach; in “The Tag,” a veteran graffiti artist is trying to keep painting despite having a son at home and violence in the air; a recovering crack addict in “Padre Miguel Station” laments the drug’s impact on his old neighborhood, down to the pregnant junkie he spots on one grim visit; and the hero of “The Crossing” is a low-level thug ferrying a corpse to a landfill, though Martins wryly allows a sliver of guilt to slip inside him. (“He was so sure he was done for, he even started thinking about God.”) Martins’ prose (via Sanches’ translation) is fast-paced and slangy (“riding dirty’s a cinch, the parley’s slick”) while preserving the flavor of its Portuguese source; the word “perrengue,” slang for “problem,” stands untranslated for a kind of struggle remembered with a certain fondness (“We’ve been through plenty of perrengues together”; “one person’s perrengue can be another’s joy”). That word crystallizes the retrospective mood of these 13 stories, which are more sketches of remembered moments than full-bodied tales. At their best, though, Martins' sketches are remarkably powerful, as in “The Case of the Butterfly,” in which a boy watches a butterfly sink in a pan of frying oil and recognizes a symbol of his impending fate.
A tough-and-tender study of street life.