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An Appreciation: Rubem Fonseca

By Clifford E. Landers

Rubem Fonseca, one of Brazil's most beloved contemporary writers, died in Rio de Janeiro on April 15, 2020. His translator and friend, Clifford Landers, remembers him in this short tribute. 

I will leave to literary critics an appraisal of Rubem Fonseca the author and focus on Rubem Fonseca the man and his impact on my life as a translator. Private yet outgoing to his intimates, a polymath endowed with blazing intelligence, an incisive sense of humor, and an affability not always evident in his public persona, he was not only my favorite Brazilian writer but also a major influence in my professional development.

In Brazil in the early 1980s, my father-in-law gave me a copy of Rubem Fonseca’s short story collection Feliz Ano Novo, saying, “I think you’ll like this.” How right he was! Neither of us suspected at the time that he was setting me on a path that was to focus my translation endeavors to the present day.  

In 1984, I was asked by a New York periodical to translate a short story by Rubem, “O Jogo do Morto,” which I would somewhat melodramatically render as “The Game of Dead Men.” It was my first translation from Portuguese, and I scheduled a trip to Rio de Janeiro in hopes of conferring with the author. Brazilian friends assured me it was a fool’s errand, as the notoriously reclusive Fonseca did not grant interviews. Nevertheless, I wrote requesting a couple of hours of his time; to my surprise, he graciously agreed. That was the beginning of a decades-long literary association and, equally important, a lasting friendship.

My Brazilian wife and I lived in New Jersey at the time, half an hour from New York City. Rubem and his wife Théa were our houseguests on several occasions. Rubem displayed a modesty bordering on self-effacement, and he was perhaps the most intense listener I have ever known. I was gratified when he used a simple plot idea I suggested, transforming by his masterly touch an inchoate notion into a compelling short story. And flattered when he later named a character in his story “Romance Negro” Landers.

Rubem was generous in every sense of the word. His promotion of talented but previously unknown young writers like Ana Miranda and Patrícia Melo is widely recognized; less known is that his thorough grasp of English allowed him to offer constructive suggestions regarding my translations of his originals. It was through Rubem that I came to translate works of some of his literary peers such as João Ubaldo Ribeiro. His influence on an entire generation of Brazilian authors is part of his undisputed legacy.   

In a very real sense, I owe my career as translator to Rubem. But I owe more, a debt that can never be repaid: the privilege of having known so closely one of the truly great figures of world literature.

Clifford E. Landers has translated three novels by Rubem Fonseca: Vast Emotions and Imperfect ThoughtsBufo & Spallanzani, and Crimes of August (Agosto), as well as The Taker and Other Stories and Winning the Game and Other Stories. two collections of shorter fiction.

Published Apr 27, 2020   Copyright 2020 Clifford E. Landers

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