Book Review

Gluttony, Greed, and Gula


The Club of Angels

“…everyday we want to eat; hunger is the recurring desire, the only recurring desire, for sight, sound, sex and power all come to an end, but hunger goes on, and while one might weary of Ravel for ever, one could only ever weary of ravioli for, at most, a day.”

In the first two pages of The Club of Angels Brazilian writer Luis Fernando Verissimo identifies the victims, the murderer and the “weapon of choice.” And, in spite of outrageously flaunting conventional procedure, the author almost manages to pull it off. He even comes close to convincing us that nine grown men would go willingly to their deaths in exchange for one superb “last supper.” As one incidental character–one not selected to die, I might add–expresses it, happiness consists of being able “to plan one’s own end. It would be like looking at the last page of a mystery story before you read it.” That, in effect, is precisely what the author allows us, his readers, to do.

Of the Club’s original ten members, only Daniel, the narrator, remains to tell their tale. But, as he hastens to inform us, he is entirely innocent of the murders: “…well, as innocent as an author can be.” Despite his assurances, he is, without doubt, indirectly responsible for his companions’ deaths, having hired, though not by design, the murderous chef, “a man who never bares his teeth.”

A wickedly satirical, tongue-in-cheek commentary on contemporary values, human relations, consumerism and literature, the book is, purportedly, the story of ten ne’er-do-wells and washouts, who refer to themselves as the “Beef Stew Club.” Since adolescence they have met periodically in order to indulge their passion for fine food and drink. (Given its concern with gastronomy, the novel is vaguely reminiscent of Babette’s Feast or Like Water for Chocolate and others extolling the pleasures of the table.)

In the course of the book, we learn that the sobriquet, Club of Angels, had originated following a teenage caper of dramatic proportions: Joao, who as an adult would become a confidence man so accomplished he had managed to elude both the authorities and the clients he had defrauded, had stolen his father’s car. Accompanied by his friends, he had crash landed in a neighbor’s back yard. The boys fled to their usual hang-out, Alberi’s Restaurant, famous for its beef stew. With the arrival of the police, Alberi vouched for the boys’ innocence and declared: “They’re all ‘angels’ here.” Years later, recalling the incident, those words would stick, and with it, the implication that: “…we would always be innocent whatever we did. It wasn’t an absolution, it was a curse.” It is also a commentary on those coddled sons of well-to-do families who rarely pay for their mistakes and are never expected to amount to much. (In Spanish they are referred to as niños bien or niños popis. I can think of no equivalent in English.)

The group is now in danger of disbanding. Their founder and leader, Ramos, described as having known “a great deal about Shakespeare and sauces,” dies suddenly of AIDS. Something of a prophet, he had warned that to allow women to attend their dinners would doom the club. His prophesy is now in danger of being fulfilled, but death will not prevent Ramos, nor the female contingent–concerned mothers, wives and girlfriends–from hovering backstage and directing the action from the wings.

This is far more than a tale about ten men who meet for dinner. It is a story about gula. In Portuguese the word refers to both gluttony and greediness: “Man is the only animal who always wants more than he needs.” The question here is: What does he want? And how far is he willing to go in order to procure it?

Though generally unknown to English-speaking readers, Verissimo is a celebrated novelist, journalist and cartoonist whose observations on his fellow citizens’ foibles and follies appear regularly in a daily column in Jornal do Brasil and in the national weekly, Veja.

His work has been adapted for theater, cinema, and TV; he is the recipient of several awards, and The Club of Angels, a best seller in Brazil, was nominated for the 2002 Newstadt International Prize for Literature. In spite of his fame back home, this is his first novel to be translated into English.

In ridiculing fashionable society and lives of privilege, he can be cutting and occasionally grotesque, but never savage and always very funny. When, for example, he describes the outcome of a business venture involving three of the “angels,” he writes, “We closed the agency, feeling misunderstood and misjudged, on the day that Saulo’s mini-bar went phut. Without ice, we concluded, we simply couldn’t go on.”

Much like a Brazilian Evelyn Waugh, Verissimo impresses us with his ability to use language effectively–Margaret Jull Costa’s smooth translation does justice to his mordant humor, and total lack of reverence. When a journalist once asked him whether gluttony continues to be a serious sin in this day and age, Verissimo replied, “Gluttony is the only sin that has inevitable physical consequences. It causes overweight and blocks the arteries. Thus, I find it to be the only sin that should be taken seriously.”

Daniel, his alter-ego and mouthpiece, is equally outspoken, capable of taking us by surprise with his refreshingly candid opinions. He is an amateur writer, who is seriously considering adapting his stories about the sexual frustrations of the unfortunate lesbian Siamese twins, Zenaide and Zulmina, into a book for children. As the Angel Club’s sole writer, the narrator believes the only reason he’s been allowed to survive for as long as he has is in order to record their history.

In the course of that history, Verissimo never misses the opportunity to introduce some additional nuance or level of meaning: The Bible, for example, and Satyricon, an ancient tale, best known for its dinner party sequence, are alluded to throughout. Shakespeare also plays a prominent role: Each murder is followed by a quotation from King Lear. Why King Lear? Perhaps, the author is suggesting, Brazilians have no monopoly on greed, nor on the production of grasping, ungrateful little “angels.”

The death of one grasping, ungrateful little “angel” after another provides him with ample opportunity to poke fun at society. While we may raise an eyebrow in disbelief at the book’s conclusion, Verissimo simply saunters past our objections. In other words, he gets away with murder.

What stands him in good stead is his use of detail, straightforward language and total lack of sentimentality. The tone is so confiding, the disclosures so outrageous, the characters so unsympathetic, that as much as the author strains our credulity, we tend to believe he must be telling the truth. How could he make this all up? How can one not believe a narrator who is capable of admitting he is a cad, one who has lived a life of no purpose, and who openly declares the world would be no worse off without him? Indeed, there is something strikingly Latin about the narrator’s bravado, fatalism, and shoulder-shrugging nonchalance, as if taking life and death too seriously would simply require more energy than it is worth. As protagonist after protagonist is knocked off, we, the readers, are unlikely to feel much pain. After all, they are an unappetizing lot–lazy, unethical, overindulged and self destructive–or, in the words of the author: “We were bastards, yes, but great bastards, princely bastards.”

Perhaps because we never fully believe in the characters, we never grow to despise them, and while they are grasping and unprincipled, they are, for the most part, likable scoundrels. (In addition, how could you possibly despise a man who, prior to being poisoned, is capable of confessing: “Be honest, the deaths aside, have you ever eaten so well in your entire life…?”) Given such wit, such charm, such engaging good humor, one can only conclude that the “angels” might make delightful companions–but only for dinner. (And that, of course, would depend on who was doing the cooking.)

Diana Anhalt is a poet and writer in Mexico City. She is the author of A Gathering of Fugitives: American Political Expatriates in Mexico 1948-1965 (Archer Books).