Patricia Melo has been on my radar as a crime fiction writer for quite a few years now, but it’s not always easy to get hold of her books, even though she has been translated into English to what the publishers call ‘rave reviews’. (She has been published by Bloomsbury and Bitter Lemon Press, incidentally.)
Lost World, translated by Clifford E. Landers, is not strictly speaking crime fiction, but more of a noir road trip. Which, as I’m beginning to find out, is a recurring motif in Brazilian novels. I’ve also reviewed Perfect Days by Raphael Montes, and The House in Smyrna by Tatiana Salem Levy, and there too we have the mingling of past and present, a search for someone or something, a running away from or running towards… and ultimately finding one’s self, even if that self is not very nice at all.
Maiquel is a retired contract killer. He’s been on the run and living under the radar for ten years, and managing to chug along relatively comfortably, because, according to him…
In Brazil… there’s no shame in having an arrest warrant out against you. It’s all the same, poor, rich, white, the hotshots, I mean cabinet members, council me, bigwigs, everybody’s got one. Brazilians are like that, real scumbags. It’s part of our culture to steal, to play dirty. It’s like being a hold-up victim: sooner or later everybody is.
He briefly shows up for his Aunt Rosa’s funeral, who leaves him her house and money, and realises that she was his last living relative… except for his daughter. His former girlfriend Erica ran off with his baby daughter more than ten years ago and he becomes determined to find her. With his aunt’s money he can now afford to pay a private detective to try and trace them.
His mission of revenge is not as simple as it sounds. Erica ran away with an evangelical preacher and has by now become quite a prominent figure in the church herself. They have guards, loyal servants, several homes and the ability to disappear suddenly over the border to Bolivia. Maiquel chases after them in an often hilarious but more frequently violent cat-and-mouse game. Along the way, we see him casually ‘dispose’ of people, treat women appallingly, behave erratically, but we also witness him getting beaten up, and rescuing and looking after an ugly dog in quite a touching manner. Melo keeps her main character deliberately ambiguous. Often infuriating and making stupid, rash decisions, he nevertheless sometimes has the air of a lost child, confused by the world around him and making cynical jokes as a coping mechanism.
This starts making sense when we discover more about his earlier life:
The first thing my father taught me was that I was invisible. And the second was that I was worthless. And that nothing mattered. He taught me in his own way, without saying a word, just with his eyes, while everything around us rotted. A can of worms. I learned fast.
He reluctantly allows himself to be helped in his quest not just by his private investigators and their friends and families, but also by a string of lonely women, which makes Maiquel meditate about love in the short, incomplete sentences that the author uses when she tries to convey his inability to articulate things.
And soon she’d disappear. Like all the other women… I’d never see Lucia again. Deep down, it doesn’t matter what you do, no one is left. Everything ends. They end it for you. They put things in the way. Life itself Or nothing. It just doesn’t work. You yourself try to destroy it. Because the hard thing isn’t loving. It’s seiing it through. Moving ahead. Living together, every day.
I should add that Maiquel does not always express himself like that. There are times when he is remarkably fluent, with wry humour, and his train of thought is mirrored in long sentences. Still, I think that Melo is trying to mimic his uneducated, unfiltered but nevertheless interesting take on life. This is a psychological journey for him as well. We watch him emerge from the chrysalis and at times it’s a painful process, which he doesn’t quite know how to describe.
So he is certainly not quite such a fast learner as he claims he was in his childhood, especially when it comes to the lesson that the past is the past and cannot be undone. That he has missed his opportunities and his ‘lost world’ or ‘lost family’ are nothing but an illusion.
I’d just like to point out the difference between the English and Portuguese language covers. The English cover has nothing to do with the story, and seems to be simply cashing in on readers’ impressions of Brazil (the beach, the skyscrapers, the poor children). The Brazilian edition at least shows you the protagonist is a grown-up man with a gun… but paused, waiting, blurry, losing himself at the edges.
In conclusion, this is a gritty and often graphic read, a condemning portrait of present-day Brazil, with a sad throb running all the way through it. Not as good as other books by Melo that I’ve read, so I wouldn’t perhaps recommend starting here. Perhaps try Inferno, heartbreaking because the main protagonist is a little boy.