Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Brazilian noir: In Praise of Lies, by Patricia Melo
Patricia Melo packs a lot into the 187 pages (in the English translation by Clifford Landers) of In Praise of Lies--deadly snakes, venomous toads, a host of classic crime authors, several sexual betrayals, insurance scams, and international smuggling, to name a few plot points. Her novels have often dealt with lower class Brazilian life (including one turned into the hit-man movie, Man of the Year). But In Praise of Lies is up the social scale a bit: José is a writer who specializes in plaigirizing the plots of classic crime novels for the Brazilian pulp market, under a variety of pseudonyms. He makes the acquaintance of Melissa, a serologist specializing in venomous snakes, while researching a murder plot, and Melissa (in classic noir fashion) manipulates him into a plot to murder her husband, Ronald. As is normal in the world of noir, Melissa is not exactly who she seems to be, and we descend into a pastiche of a plot that José might have stolen from any number of crime novels. Melo is having a lot of infectious fun with the main story and with the plagiarized plot summaries that José is proposing to his publisher, but in the midst of the plot to kill Ronald, José suddenly loses his knack with noir and shifts into the self-help world, a prime territory for parody if there ever was one. But Melo never loses sight of the twists and turns of the main plot, and her novel can be with enjoyment read as straight pulp-noir, with new angles right up to the end. Though Melo clearly has literary ambitions, her parody of noir doesn't condescend to the genre, instead extracting from it a kernel of narrative truth that contrasts with the glib truths of José's career as a guru. Melo's hit-man plot in the novel The Killer and the film version Man of the Year is more straightforward in both narrative and social commentary, and though In Praise of Lies shares an edgy existentialism with that other story, Lies is more fun to read (and would also make a great movie, though perhaps the guru plot would be difficult to bring off alongside the crime plot).