After O Cativeiro, it is a pleasure to write about Patrícia Melo's Inferno, published in 2000, a book that could be crudely described as the film The Godfather II set in favela. Inferno succeeds in almost everyway: it is an exciting, touching, sharp and insightful description of a young man's odysseia through the criminal life. And at the same time an image of a whole society captured in an impossible situation.
The author Patrícia Melo is a novelist, dramaturgist and scriptwriter. Her other works include Acqua toffana (1994), O matador (1995), Elogio da mentira (1998) and Valsa Negra (2003). She's won a number of awards, including Prêmio Jabuti for Inferno in 2003. Fine Brazilian film O Homem do Ano, directed by José Henrique Fonseca, is based on the book O Matador. In 1999, Time Magazine included Melo on the list of 50 "Latin-American Leaders for the New Millenium."
King of the Hill
Inferno is a story of a young boy called Reizinho. Reizinho dreams about becoming a king. He grows without a father in the favela called Berimbau. He becomes addicted to drugs at the age of 11, drinks, sniffs glue and runs away from home. He promises to his mother to stop doing drugs if he gets to work for the local drug gang. Her mother has no other options. Eventually Reizinho becomes the leader of not just Berimbau but also the neighbouring hill and one of the most powerful drug trafficers in Rio. And then it all comes down, as it always does.
Inferno is a story the family. Reizinho's father has abandoned his family, fallen into alcoholism and left his wife Alzira to take care of both Reizinho and Reizinho's sister Carolina. Alzira is under constant strain. She is working as a house maid for a middle-class lady called Juliana, and at home, both Reizinha and Caroline give her more than enough trouble: Reizinho with his career choice in drugs and Caroline by getting constantly pregnant with all the wrong men. Reizinho's desperate search for his father is what largely drives the drama for the first part of the story. Often, the only support for Reizinho is Suzana, an older girl who is something of a foster mother to Reizinho when his real mother fails to understand the boy. Family is where the story starts and family is what finally breaks everything apart.
Inferno is a story about every one in the favela. There are drug-dealers, the ones who drive the drama forward. Reizinho's tutor Miltaõ, who slowly descends into madness. Fake, Reizinho's best friend, aspiring rap artist who in the end is pretty much what his name implies. Leitor, "reader", Reizinho's right hand, who claims to read at least 200 pages every day and is a treasure house of colourful theories.¹ Zezinho, powerful ruler of the neighbouring favela, Reizinho's mentor, husband of Suzana, father of Reizinho's great love Marta - and eventually Reizinho's deadliest enemy. And then there are the normal people, a mixed bunch who might not so much push the story forward but provide it with an infinite depth and humanity.
And Inferno is a story about violence. Violence that is a river.
The stream starts with Dona Juliana, abusing Alzira. Juliana is a useless middle-class housewife, spending her time with forbidden romances, losing weight and amusing her friends by telling everyone how stupid Alzira is. The stream flows downwards: Alzira returns home and beats Reizinho up when the boy constantly fails her tight expectations. The stream becomes a river: Reizinho joins drug gangs and makes his way upwards in the hierarchy through violence. His first kill is something of an initiation rite. His most painful kills are few of his closest friends.
Hectic, sharp and humane
Inferno is written in a fluid, hectic, economical style. Story moves fast, sometimes even two fast: despite spanning nearly 400 pages, some strings are left untied. For an example the father, in the beginning so important, disappears into the background when Reizinho thinks he has been saved. Melo writes highly rhythmic language: onomatopoetic words, sounds, names, lists and swearwords structure the beat of the paragraphs.
Melo is always sharp and amusing. Inferno is full of clever viewpoints and opinions but these are never pushed on the reader. Instead, Melo let's the characters of the story speak out their mind. Churchmen, drug dealers, housewives, sport teachers, hookers and barkeepers, all get their turn to speak. There's even an American film director, "specialized in exotic locations", who comes to favela to film a commercial, since it's such a visually fascinating place (and there's some really good, pure white coca available). As I said, Melo is always funny and critical. And actually, something like that has happened, except it was a music video for Michael Jackson.²
But Melo is also able to build deep, touching characters. Even the less important ones are complex, credible and fully drawn. Despite their shortcomings and blood-stained hands, all the characters are humane and evoke empathy in the reader. There are many genuinely moving moments in the book: the few happy days of love between Marta and Reizinho, when they even go to the toilet together. Reizinho taking care of Leitor, after Leitor is bound to wheelchair and unable to move or speak, Reizinho lovingly calling him the most clever vegetable in Rio. Zezinho's limiteless love for his family, even though he is one of the most ruthless drug trafficers of the story.
And that bittersweet encounter between the father and the son somewhere in the first half of the book: The father is a drunkard, a piece of human garbage thrown somewhere in the Praça Argentina, without a clue about Reizinho. Reizinho has ran away from home, is hopelessly addicted to crack and glue, he's even sold, for a tiny amount of crack, her grandmother's precious trophy from the time she crafted fantasias for the legendary samba school Mangueira. Reizinho sits, tired, hopeless, lost, next to his father. He doesn't say a word, he won't reveal his identity until much later, but somehow the two sad failures feel connected, taking comfort in each other.
Finally, Inferno is a book about the life in a state called cabeça de porco, "head of a pig", a situation without an escape. Like Michael Corleone in Godfather II, Reizinho seems to destroy everything he seeks to protect. Towards the end of the story Reizinho is given two options: Kill Zezinho, the beloved father of his girlfriend Marta and the husband of his foster mother Suzana, neither of whom will ever forgive him. Or get killed by Zezinho. Two impossible options. No way out of the situation. That is the tragedy, the inferno, of the favela.
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1) Leitor brings to mind William da Silva Lima, O Professor, "The Teacher", one of the founders of Commando Vermelho. Highly intelligent and idealistic, Silva Lima perceived CV as a tool for Leftist Revolution and considered his role to be something of a Brazilian Robin Hood.
2) In february 1996, Commando Vermelho-leader Márcio dos Santos Nepomuceno, or Marcinho VP, made a deal with the producer of a music video for Michael Jackson's song "They don't care about us" to use the Morro Dona Marta in Botafogo as a set for the video.