Rio de Janeiro is one of the three or four most beautiful cities in the world. Blessed by sea, mountains, lakes, and forests, Rio calls itself “Cidade Maravilhosa,” or “Gorgeous City.”
But in some ways, Rio’s idyllic beauty is only skin deep. Its crime rate is one of the highest in the world. In 2006, at least 2,273 people were murdered, for a total of 38 victims per 100,000 persons. Although London is big and densely populated, its murder rate was 2.2 persons per 100,000 residents (I don’t know where the fraction comes from). Between 1978 and 2000, 49,900 people were murdered in Rio. The police only solved three percent of these crimes.
Rio’s poorly paid and ill-equipped police force compounds the felony. In 2007, the police killed at least 1,330 cariocas (the name for individuals born in Rio). By contrast, American police “only” killed 347 individuals that same year.
Why so much crime amidst all this natural glory? The grinding poverty of most of its six million people, the slums of its "favelas" squeezed between its wealthiest neighborhoods set up a vicious contrast between the very rich and the abysmally poor. Rio is” a city with more people than flies.” But other big cities of the world press the poor against the rich without risking so many random murders on every corner.
Rubem Fonseca’s THE TAKER depicts a murderous psychopathology bursting out everywhere from everyday lives. Strangely, his gratuitous killers are not escapees from favelas (shanty towns) exacting vengeance upon the rich. More devastatingly, they are middle class haters of their fellow cariocas out to exact revenge upon them for merely existing.
The business man in “Night Drive” has a luxurious car, his children have cars, and a French.maid serves dinner. Yet his nightly escapes involve going for a drive, spotting a random victim, and killing her with his expert driving. In the title story, “The Taker” and his girl friend give up individual killings, with the exception of Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, for bombing consumers in the supermarket.
“Account of the Incident” is the only story honing in on the poor. Hungry, they desperately strive to butcher a cow killed in an auto accident. Their violence reflects the omnipresence of death everywhere in Fonseca’s world.
Although Fonseca steadfastly refuses to discuss the meaning of his stories, he once said of himself, “Perhaps I am ‘The Taker.’” He also says, “A writer should have the courage to show what most people are afraid to say.” Fonseca’s bitterly grim stories, mostly in the first person, show the skull beneath the skin in Rio’s violent world. Tough to read, they analyze Rio’s gratuitous criminality as a symptom of universal hatred among people of every class..
Who we are, why we hate everyone else taking up space on our earth is Fonseca’s focus. His stories ask questions, point fingers, but have no answers. The viciousness of his people, their blindness, stands in marked contrast to Rio’s loveliness as we try to figure out whatever happened to Eden, why this haven is the crime center of the world.