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Originally published Thursday, December 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

Two sets of tales from Rio's underbelly

Two Brazilian writers expose the dark side of sunny Rio de Janeiro in new short-story collections: "The Taker and Other Stories" by Rubem Fonseca and "Life as it Is: Selected Stories" by Nelson Rodrigues.

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Taker and Other Stories"

by RubemFonseca, translated from the Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers

Open Letter, 166 pp., $15.95

"Life as it Is: Selected Stories"

by Nelson Rodrigues, translated by Alex Ladd

Host Publications, 314 pp., $40 hardback, $20 paperback

Take one look across the curved sweep of Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, or scan the sea of taut, toned bodies sunning on hot white sand in neighboring Ipanema, and you'll think you've found paradise. Brazil's sultriest city, which is just plunging into its southern-hemisphere summer, can feel far removed from the cares of the world.

What visitors get in these stunning beach districts, with their coconut-water vendors, sliced-mango hawkers, bikini purveyors and volleyball junkies, are luscious slivers of life in Rio. But just blocks inland, shantytowns climb up granite hillsides and middle-class urbanites dwell in high-rise condos fortified with guards and razor wire.

It is this Rio, the one teetering between poverty and prosperity, hope and despair, that readers will encounter in two newly translated collections by a couple of Brazil's most famous authors: "The Taker and Other Stories" by Rubem Fonseca and "Life As It Is: Selected Stories" by the late Nelson Rodrigues.

Each author comes at his subject in his own idiosyncratic way and with varying levels of success, but the sex, violence, aspiration and resignation that so define their tight little tales add shades of intrigue to these evocations of one of the world's great metropolises.

Rodrigues composed the short stories in his collection in the heady, populist 1950s, as crônicas, or chronicles, in a daily newspaper column, A Vida Como Ela É, from which this collection gets its name.

His stories are darkly funny, tragic and often soapy in their obsession with love, jealousy, scandal and betrayal. They present visions of middle-class angst in Rio that read like storylines from "Search for Tomorrow." But there is much more blood on the hands of Rodrigues' characters.

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In "Justice Will Be Done," a stern patriarch interrogates the young men in his family to find out who got his adopted daughter pregnant, only to be done in by the sickening truth.

"Ugly as Sin" shoots for bitter comedy, but comes off as just bitter, as naïve Herivelto falls in love with and marries the dreadfully unattractive yet unselfconscious Jacira. Realizing his mistake, he cheats on his wife. Meanwhile she comes to see herself as the "dog" her once-adoring husband now says she is. Let's just say their marriage goes up in flames.

Many of the 58 stories in "Life As It Is" have a slap-dash quality one might expect from works the length of news clippings. Considering that challenge, even a writer with Rodrigues' gift for thrilling brevity can be forgiven for a lack of consistent quality.

More disturbing, and perhaps more memorable, are Fonseca's tales of extreme pathos underpinned by hints of class warfare.

If you can make it through the gruesome tableau of greedy scavengers who cut up the remains of a cow that's been run over on the highway in "Account of the Incident," you'll see the depths of human opportunism.

The moral bankruptcy of a businessman in "Night Drive" who takes his expensive car on evening spins — along streets where lone pedestrians make excellent targets — is profoundly disgusting.

Do-gooders get a raw deal in "Angels of the Marquees." A recently widowed man tries to find new meaning in his life by volunteering with an organization he thinks helps the homeless. Nice try. It's really an organ-harvesting operation.

"Happy New Year" and the title story are festivals of mass murder that would be obscene if they didn't tap into a very real chasm between rich and poor in Rio.

Better to spill blood in these pages, than in those throbbing real-life streets.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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