“We think the devil comes in the back door, that he comes in with your enemies, but the truth is that we ourselves open the door to him the moment we trust someone.”
In The Body Snatcher, from Brazilian author Patrícia Melo, a tale of drug trafficking, police corruption, and blackmail, an unemployed former telemarketing manager who worked “in a boiler room in São Paulo” has retreated to the rural area of Corumbá near the Bolivian border. It’s hard to imagine the pinnacle of your professional career trapped in a boiler room but that’s life for our narrator. After leaving São Paulo, he lived with his cousin, a mechanic, until he started lusting after his cousin’s woman. He moved on yet again, and now, when the novel opens, he rents a room from the son of the chief of the Guató tribe and spends his days loafing around. He has a girlfriend, Sulamita who works for the police initially as an administrative assistant and then, during the course of the novel, she becomes head of a morgue. One day the narrator goes fishing and witnesses a small private aircraft crashing into the Paraguay River. He tries to rescue the pilot, but the young man dies at the scene. Also in the plane is a kilo of cocaine, and for the narrator, it’s just too good an opportunity to pass up….
With a kilo of coke to his name and no job, the narrator places his toe into the local drug trade and this soon escalates into full-blown trafficking. When things go wrong, the narrator finds himself in debt to Bolivian drug-dealer Ramirez. The book does an excellent job of showing how one bad decision leads to freefall.
You rob a cadaver. You hire some loser of an Indian to sell the blow you stole off the corpse. You fuck your cousin’s wife. You do that because you believe you can make a mistake, just one, just one more, and another, just one more little screw-up, and then return and go on with your path, your film, because the course of life continues there, static, waiting for you to screw up and return later.
With a lack of options, the narrator decides to approach the wealthy family of the dead pilot. It’s a macabre interest which would appear to be founded in some sort of guilt–although ultimately, guilt never really comes into play here. It’s puerile interest combined with self-preservation.
When you commit a crime like this the problem isn’t the others. Much less the reality. The evidence. The problem is you yourself. The slip-up you make when you’re asked a question. The imperfect actions. Your inappropriate reaction in a given situation. Not to mention the urge to confess that arises time and time again.
This novel is a slow burn read with the narrative gathering speed and sticking power as the narrator, nicknamed Porco by Ramirez, slides deeper into irreversible actions. The narrator has a linguistic tic of adding the word “over” to many of his thoughts. The linguistic tic, which isn’t guilt but a combination of common sense & justification, is finally explained at around the half way point:
You’re being stupid, over. That’s what my internal radio, which it was no longer possible to turn off, was saying. I would think and my private interlocutor, over, would counter, always trying to show me I was wrong, that goodness, over, like god, was a fantasy, that man was born bad and gets worse with time, and that I should forge ahead with my diabolical plan.
The Body Snatcher conveys the stinging, harsh bitter sense of the desperate side of Brazilian culture by positioning the lives of the extremely wealthy against the life of the dispossessed narrator who thinks a kilo of coke is the answer to his prayers, but instead it just opens the doors to more complications. Grabbing the coke, the narrator’s act of seemingly benign self-interest morphs into evil. As the narrator explains, “we are born with evil ensconced in us like a dormant virus only waiting for the moment to emerge.” While the narrator plays with the idea of guilt and conscience the author makes it clear that neither exist–or can afford to exist–in this tale of the baseness of human behaviour. Instead of guilt or conscience, the fear of being caught dominates the narrator’s actions, and the author allows the narrator to play with a sense of regret at having to behave this way while showing his callousness. What’s so interesting is the permeation throughout society of bad behaviour from the brutal, vicious drug dealer, Ramirez to the man who beats his pregnant wife. Everyone is pitted, in some fashion, in a battle for survival, and there’s the sense that in this culture of corruption, the only way to survive is to leave morality behind and join in.
Review copy. Translated by Clifford Landers