Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Patricia Melo has gained a strong reputation as a skilled writer of Brazilian noir. Her work is highly regarded, and it’s about time it was included in this feature. Let’s do that today and turn the spotlight on The Body Snatcher.
The story follows the fortunes of the narrator, who is a salesman and former telemarketer from São Paulo. When a tragedy ends his job there, he moves to the town of Corumbá, not far from the Bolivian border. He settles in there, and begins a relationship with Sulamita, who works as an administrative assistant for the local police. One day, he witnesses a small plane crash into a nearby river. He rushes to the scene and finds the pilot, but he’s too late to save the man. While he’s there, he takes a backpack and a watch from the pilot. That’s when he discovers that the backpack is full of cocaine.
Instead of reporting the crime and turning the cocaine and watch in to the police, the narrator decides to sell the cocaine – just this one time – and use the profits to get a bit ahead financially, and even consider buying a piece of land and moving out of Corumbá, as Sulamita wants. So he goes into business with Moacir, who lives nearby and who seems to know the right people. Before long, Moacir has made a ‘business connection’ with some drug dealers.
At first it look as though things will go well. But they’re already starting to fall apart. It turns out that the dead pilot was also involved with these drug dealers. When they come to suspect that this newly ‘discovered’ cocaine was theirs already, they begin to turn nasty. Now the narrator and Moacir have to come up with a great deal of money in order to pay their ‘associates’ back for the cocaine they took.
The narrator comes up with a plan that just may work. The pilot’s body has gone missing, and the police think that he may have survived long enough to go a short distance, but no further. But they haven’t found the body yet. It turns out that the pilot has very wealthy parents, who are desperate to get their son’s body back for burial. So the plan is to extort them for money in exchange for the body of their son.
Of course, this plan requires a body that can pass for that of the pilot. That’s where Sulamita comes in. It’ll be her task to find a likely candidate (she works specifically at the police mortuary). Then, the rest of the plan can be put in motion. It seems to be a foolproof way to get money…at least that’s what the narrator thinks.
This is a noir story, so you can well imagine that things don’t go the way anyone thinks they will. In fact, they spin out of control in more than one way. Interestingly enough, too, there are several places in the story where things could have been stopped before they went too far. The cocaine, the watch, and the location of the crash could have been reported to the police immediately. The pilot’s parents could have been told the truth about their son. There are other points, too, where a different decision would have changed everything. In fact, it seems that each decision only makes things worse.
There are other ways, too, in which we see the noir elements of this novel. Many of the characters are not nice people. The narrator, for instance, makes excuses for himself by saying that at least he’s not a murderer, and he’s not a rapist. But his choices certainly aren’t what most of us would consider ethical. Although he and Sulamita aren’t coldly unconcerned about everyone they hurt, they go ahead with their plan anyway. And they aren’t the only characters who make choices that cause a lot of hurt and pain.
It’s worth noting here that the story is told in first person (past tense). Readers who prefer third person will notice this. Interestingly enough, the narrator is not given a name. The closest Melo comes to naming him is the nickname that the drug dealers give him: Porco (the Portuguese word for pig – the reason for that is a small story in itself). As an aside, it’s also worth mentioning that the dialogue in the story isn’t set off, as it usually is, by quotation marks. Readers who prefer dialogue to be set off will notice this.
The outcome of the novel is consistent with its noir quality. I can say without spoiling the story that this isn’t a case of guilty people being led off to face justice. In fact, there’s an underlying sense throughout that everyone’s corrupt in different ways. It’s just a matter of what sort of corruption it is. Is it worse to be a murderer, or to profit from extorting money from vulnerable, suffering people? Is it worse to sell drugs, or to be a rapist? And since everyone’s out to get what they can from life, one’s a fool not to do the same. Throughout the story, the narrator justifies what he does by pointing out that his sins, if you will, are not as bad as others’ are, whether or not that’s objectively true.
This story takes place in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul, next to the Bolivian border, and Melo places the reader there in many ways. The climate, the culture, and the sorts of people who live in Corumbá are all depicted, and all of them show a side of the country that the tourists don’t usually see. Readers who like vivid depictions of life in different places will appreciate this.
The Body Snatcher is the noir story of an all-too-susceptible salesman who takes advantage of an unexpected opportunity to make easy money in an illegal way. It features several characters who have their own faults, and a distinctly Brazilian setting. But what’s your view? Have you read The Body Snatcher? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 20 June/Tuesday, 21 June – Bad Country – C.B. McKenzie
Monday, 27 June/Tuesday, 28 June – Dead Angler – Victoria Houston
Monday, 4 July/Tuesday, 5 July – The Constable’s Tale – Donald Smith