HIGH ART by Rubem Fonseca


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From Brazilian writer Fonseca, a thriller (his first to be published in the US) that involves Rio-based criminal lawyer, Mandrake, who spends most of his days shuttling between a slew of mistresses. When a local playboy asks Mandrake to recover a missing videotape, he grudgingly takes time off from lovemaking to sleuth around town. Several prostitutes connected with the missing tape turn up dead, Mandrake himself gets a near lethal knife wound, the playboy is murdered in his bed. The catalyst of this bloody mayhem, Mandrake reveals early on, is a pale mobster-cum-psychokiller named Thales Lima Prado. Mandrake narrates these events and explanations as a rambling reconstruction, pieced together after drunken conversations (with a police buddy, a friendly madam and others) and with the help of Lima Prado's notebooks (the villain, it seems, nursed vague literary ambitions and kept a tell-all journal). The chain of deaths that Lima Prado instigated--some for business, some for pleasure--provides the focus of Mandrake's speculation. And this tortuous tale is rife with digressions: about Lima Prado's discovery of his incestuous roots; about ""Iron Nose"" Zakkai, a canny and loquacious dwarf who's maneuvering for power; about Fuentes, a coldblooded assassin who's actually rather nice. A generous dose of sex and violence aside, the novel's interest lies less in its shaggy-dog suspense story (the race for the videotape) than in its strange logic of rumor and revelation, as served up by the possibly unreliable narrator, There's a certain rich genuineness to this confusion, but ultimately the ambiguity (of facts, motives) is spread so thin that it loses much of its tart flavor. The effect: frenzied goings-on, partially visible in the muddy half-light shed by Mandrake's chronicle.

Pub Date: Aug. 13th, 1986
Publisher: Harper & Row